Discover the Basque Country

Carmen Ganuza

I’ve just had a Txakoli with my Basque culinary and cultural ambassador and good friend Mikel Muñoa at his Hotel Saiaz, in Getaria, Basque Country.  Mikel and his wife Saioa own and manage this gorgeous 15th century guard tower turned modern accommodation, welcoming visitors from around the globe with care and charm.

In 1981, Mikel’s parents Jose Miguel Muñoa and Maria Jesús Sainz bought the ruins of the gothic tower as a family summer house.  They meticulously restored it to its historic self, and the town thanked them by presenting them with this model ship which once hung in the town church building and had endured the fires of the 1st Carlist war in 1837.  The newspaper clipping hanging in the hotel’s entryway depicts the bombardment of Getaria during the same war, one of many treasures from the troves of Mikel’s family.

Over our wine, Mikel unveiled more riches from the lives of his relatives.  The region has certainly seen its share of conflict, and it quickly became clear that many of Mikel’s family members risked and sacrificed not only to survive but to thrive and defy oppressive regimes.

I picked up the story at Mikel’s grandmother, Carmen Ganuza, who, with her husband, lost everything as Franco and his troops moved in taking possession of their family land, confiscating it never to be returned. The family escaped to a calmer part of the Basque Country, across the Spanish-French border, to settle in St. Jean de Luz – Donibane Lohizune, where both Mikel and his father were born.  Later, when German troops invaded that area, they would flee again, this time to Pau.

Carmen went to great creative lengths to thwart the ills of the time, when Franco’s reign prohibited even the Basque language and Hitler’s grip was steadily tightening across France.  She fitted a false bottom in the boot of her car to transport clandestine free press and illegal Basque propaganda, and bars of gold destined to aid the French Resistance were stashed under her bathtub.

She would tell the story of how in the 1960s she smuggled contraband coffee across the border from Irún to Hendaye, the same spot where Franco had met Hitler to negotiate Spain’s role in World War II two decades earlier.  Carmen and her ingenious friends took advantage of the annual procession between the two towns and swapped the sand filling around the flowers on the statue of Mary for coffee beans.  They were relieved that their military escort did not pick up the sweet aroma of freedom.

One day in Pau, a German soldier visited their house on a friendly call.  However, when he stayed in the bathroom 10…15…20 minutes, they were sure that he had found the gold and that they were doomed for the concentration camp.  Thankfully, he just had some stomach trouble!

Before Mikel excused himself to greet arriving guests, he handed me a book by Paddy Woodworth, who, with Jon Warren, had visited Hotel Saiaz a few years ago.  So, I’m off to sit on the hotel’s seaside terrace with The Basque Country, A Cultural History to discover a bit more of Euskal Herria.

If you’re staying in Gipuzkoa, San Sebastián Food offers day tours to Getaria Txakoli Uncovered.  Tour a Txakoli vineyard, taste the famous slightly effervescent white wine, enjoy a light lunch and visit the Aroa farm that supplies quality food for SSF and Michelin star restaurants.

By Jonathan McCallum

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