On the Trail of the Basque . . . in Boise

You’d be forgiven for not pegging Boise as a Basque center, but indeed, this Idahoan city claims the largest concentration of Basque people living outside of their European homeland.

On the Trail of the Basque . . . in Boise

Basque culture abounds in Boise, Idaho.

Photo by Paul Ross

Basque culture, imported from Basque Country in the western Pyrenees on the Spanish-French border, pervades Boise’s urban landscape with its vibrancy and inclusivity. Pintxos (tapas, or appetizers) and cidra (cider) pop up on restaurant menus, Basque-flavored festivals are on the cultural calendar, and at the community-hub Basque Center, you’re likely to see kids and adults alike popping in for traditional dance classes or two-row diatonic accordion lessons (the center is open to the public, so feel free to follow them in to observe the action).

The first Basque came to Boise in the late 1800s in search of work and opportunity, which they found primarily in the hard-to-fill role of shepherding, although many had no experience with sheep. Despite doing a job that entailed being isolated in remote areas for months at a time, that first wave of Basque proved to be resilient, hardworking, loyal, and enterprising. Over the next decades, family members from the Old World followed them, also taking to the hills as shepherds. When they had time off, they stayed in one of the 52 boarding houses that once existed in Boise; these were hubs of socializing, dancing, singing, and falling in love, and ensured the preservation of the Basque language, culture, and food so far from home.

Today, some of those boarding houses have been restored and repurposed as homes and businesses (and you can also tour one as part of the Basque Museum), and descendants of those early pioneers are thriving throughout Boise as shop and restaurant owners, performers, businesspeople, and elected officials (the current mayor of Boise is of Basque descent).

Most of the Basque-centric action takes place on the Basque Block in downtown Boise, one long, walkable street, where cuisine, culture, language, learning, and fun converge. While out on the block, here are the best ways to experience Basque culture à la Boise:

Dig into some Basque-style paella, served outside Boise’s Basque Market on select days.

Dig into some Basque-style paella, served outside Boise’s Basque Market on select days.

Photo by C.S. Nafzger/Shutterstock

Eat and drink your way to the heart of Basque culture

Much of Basque culture is deeply rooted in its cuisine. For appetizers, try Bar Gernika Basque Pub and Eatery, which dishes out staples like solomo sandwiches (marinated pork with pimientos), slightly spicy chorizo, croquetas (made from butter, onion, chicken, flour, and milk), and idiazabal, a smoked sheep’s milk cheese from Basque country. Accompany it with cidra, a Basque-style unfiltered and unsweetened cider.

For dessert, pintxos, or even a proper meal, head to the 20-year-old Basque Market, a combination grocery story, cooking school, and eatery, with a focus on Basque specialties. For a sweet treat, dip your spoon into Basque-style rice pudding that’s thick, dense, creamy, and sticky; or into the caramelized sugar atop the Basque version of flan. Order one of five ciders, txakoli (a Basque white wine), or the market’s signature orange-and-peach-infused frozen white sangria. You can also buy Basque olives, peppers, seasonings, wine, and cider to take home, or enroll in a Basque cooking class. And at noon every Wednesday and Friday, the chef prepares and sells paella on the street; come early, as it sells out.

Get your culture fix at the Basque Museum . . . and beyond

At the Basque Museum, you can wear 3D glasses to view an exhibit of early 20th-century images from the Basque country; see arborglyphs, a unique art form that was carved into Boise trees by shepherds; watch a video in which a 105-year-old Basque woman reminisces about arriving in the United States; and learn more about the horrific story behind the German bombing of a Basque town on market day during the Spanish Civil War, which Pablo Picasso immortalized in his haunting painting Guernica.

At the museum, you can also arrange for a guided tour of a preserved boarding house next door, which contains early 20th-century photos, clothing, and personal objects, along with recorded music, personal accounts, and readings of letters written by former boarding house tenants. Outside the house, check out the Basque-style bowling alley, where bola jokoa (a game similar to lawn bowling) was once played.

If you’re interested in contemporary Basque sports, you can also stop by the Anduiza Building and Fronton, where pelota, a court game, is still played by local Basques, in which participants use a hand, racquet, or wooden basket to propel a ball against a wall. Tip: Don’t miss the recently restored, colorful, and graphic Basque Mural (a collaborative artistic effort, headed by lead muralist Bill Hueg) on the building’s side, depicting imagery like the Santa Maria (one of Columbus’s boats), which was helmed by Basque sailors.

At the end of the Basque Block, the Basque Center offers not just music and dance lessons but a bar and a card room, too, where you may see some folks playing mus, a poker-esque game that’s popular in the Basque region.

Sync up your visit to festivals for even more Basque immersion

Jaialdi (jaialdi means “festival” in the Basque language), which started in 1987, takes place in Boise every five years. It’s an exuberant event where Basque people from all over the world come to eat, dance, play music, sing, and share their heritage and culture. It features woodchoppers and weight lifters from Basque Country (two popular sports competitions there), the best U.S. pelota players, the finest Basque dancers and musicians, and traditional food and drink. Mark your calendars now: The next Jaialdi takes place July 28 through August 2, 2020.

For some Basque festival immersion in the meantime, check out San Inazio, a smaller Boise-based festival in honor of the patron saint of the Basque. It’s celebrated with food, dancing, and music during the last weekend in July (July 26–28, 2019). And the annual Trailing of the Sheep festival in Sun Valley, Idaho (a 2.5-hour drive from Boise), is a celebration of Idaho shepherds and sheep (a tradition that continues, although many of the Sun Valley region’s shepherds today are Peruvian); it includes Basque dance and music performances, too. In 2019, it’s slated for October 9–13.

>> Next: The Little-Known Idaho Road Trip You Need to Drive

Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist, inspirational speaker, reviewer, and blogger who lives to leave. She is the author of three acclaimed books and has written for more than 110 magazines, newspapers, and internet sites.
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