La Makila, Basque Walking Stick

By Simona Palenga

For the first time, this week, I got to see with my own eyes a medlar tree. The fruits are slowly growing and will be ready to be harvested ripe, only in autumn.

In the Basque Country, this tree is not valued as much for its fruits, but rather for its wood, used to create the typical stick of the region, la makila.

Its origin goes back various centuries and its manufacturing process starts right in the forest, while the branch is still attached to the tree.

It is quite fascinating how an artisan carves over the warm months the branch so that the overflowing sap produces a design. The branch will only be cut in winter when the decoration of the stick has naturally appeared.

The fine work is done with heat, to smooth and straighten the wood.
Braided leather is used to cover the handle that is then topped by a metal grip and a horn knob.

The tip that touches the ground is made of steel. The handle hides a point made also of steel, that might comes in handy while walking the mountains and encountering wolves or bears (for example).

The metal parts have traditional Basque motifs and are used for an engraved short dedication.

These sticks are usually offered as a gift to mark an important event, be it the coming of age of a youngster or visit of a president to the region (Reagan was offered one as well as Pope John Paul II).

Saints de Glace

by Simona Palenga

After a few days of grey sky, we almost forgot it is already late spring.

The temperature dropped considerably last weekend and only since Thursday, it is going slowly up, back to the usual for this time of the year.

It is no surprise for the French, we just left behind the ‘Ice Saints’!

Despite being a pretty secular society, they can’t help but trust Saint-Mamertus, Saint-Pancras and Saint-Servatius, 11th, 12th and 13th of May. Respectively, these days are considered as the last ones that might bring nightly frosts and only after these three days it is safe to plant in the garden the most sensible plants: tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and pumpkins.

Saint Mamertus, who lived in the 5th century, is the only one with a real connection to the farming world: he’s the founder of the rogations, processions followed by prayer, that farmers hold on to for good crops (read more here).

I have always looked at this tradition with skepticism, and this year, I decided I trusted the weather forecast better than medieval beliefs.

Winter has been particularly mild, so I planted my tomatoes two weeks back… along with every other single sprout I had worked on since late February.

Well, the curse of the Saints took a modern twist, sending hail for 10 minutes, followed by 36 hours of intense rain. In total, 24 of my tomato plants ended up like Marie Antoinette, decapitated by ice.

If you are in the countryside, you will find French who decided to take a slow pace towards de-confined life, happily bent over, in their veggie patches, planting tomatoes and marigolds.


An engraving of Saint Mamertus from an 1878 book, Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints @wikipedia

Bullflighting in Southwest France, Corrida

When we lived in Barcelona we would often take visitors to the beautiful old bullring, La Monumental, which had been disused since the region of Catalonia banned bullfighting in 2010. A small museum shows the costumes of some of the matadors and the heads of a few prized animals. The gift shop has old posters and figurines. After nearly 100 years in use for the corrida, it is now used as a site for food truck and music events.

During tours of La Boqueria (old covered market in Barcelona), I would mention how years ago you could find bull meat after a fight. It was considered a delicacy, although the meat itself was tough and needed stewing for hours if not days. There are still some restaurants serving bull meat, but it’s a rare occurrence. One might be able to argue that in this case, the death of an animal was not in vain.*

Bullrings are found in only 10% of French territory and mainly in the South of France. In Captieux, about 20 minutes from Bazas, there is a small bullring used in the amateur bullfighting circuit every year for the Rugby y Toros. Some big names have passed through this arena, like El Juli, while others started here on their way to matador stardom.

They still use this ring – and it’s brutal. A lot of missed and failed attempts to quickly down the bull occurred during my short time there. The horses, covered in thick quilted blankets were charged. Here, in the end, the animal is not used for human consumption. A man I spoke with argued the meat is too tough and not worth it. There was a journalist next to me and we both kept looking around at the people cheering, some as young as five years old.

Cultural differences and traditions aside, I’m actually incredibly surprised that the French government still allows this to happen anywhere. There are alternatives where animals are not hurt, which embrace the corrida and are equal part arts and athleticism, like the Basque Country recortadores.

Invisible Bordeaux wrote an article on the local Bordeaux bullrings, if you want to read here. For more information on the anti-bullfight movement in France, read here.

*I only mention this to show what could be the natural progression for an animals life in such circumstances, not to simplify what is an incredibly delicate discussion (all that to say, I am against bull fighting).