“It should be the next street,” I thought as I checked my map driving through downtown Boise, Idaho. I spotted the distinctive red, green and white flag and knew I had arrived.
I had come all the way from Wisconsin to see it (ok, that’s an exaggeration, but as soon as I knew I was going to Idaho I knew I had to go there): The Basque Block!!!!
Cue “you know you’re a Spanish teacher when…”
The Boise Basque Block is a series of restaurants and cultural buildings dedicated to preserving Basque culture in Idaho. The Basque Block is definitely worth an afternoon when visiting Boise. It packs a whole lot of basque-ness in a mere 300 ft street and is a definite must-see in Boise.
Let me take a step back though, because if you aren’t a Spanish teacher nerding out like me, I may have lost you already. You are probably wondering what is Basque? The answer isn’t what, but who.
Basque History 101
If you don’t know much about Euskadi, here is your primer. Euskadi, or Basque Country, also called País Vasco in Spanish or Pays Basque in French, is the homeland of the Basque. It is mostly an autonomous region in northern Spain along the coast, but it also includes a small part of France. The Basque have their own language, which is completely unlike Spanish or French, and dates back thousands of years.
The Basque people had many clashes with the Spanish government under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Under Franco the town of Gernika was tragically bombed by the Nazis and was commemorated in the famous Picasso painting by the same name. Today Gernika and Boise are sister cities.
You may have heard of the Basque separatist/terrorist group, ETA, that sprung up in response to many of the losses of liberty during the dictatorship, including the outlawing of the Basque language. Fortunately, there has been a ceasefire since 2011 and it’s completely safe (and fun and wonderful!) to visit Basque Country, although there are still many people who have very strong separatist views.
So why is there a Basque Block in Idaho?
In the mid 1800s some Basque immigrants, like so many other Europeans, came to the US to look for gold and silver. They quickly gave up their search for gold but found success in another area: sheep. Sheepherding was lonely, boring, and a generally male-dominated line of work. A single shepherd would spend weeks at a time in isolated areas with only the sheep for company. The shepherd would live in a mobile sheep wagon that was not much more than a moveable tent.
It may have been in part because of this isolation that Basque culture is still going strong in Idaho. When the men finished a turn in the wilderness with the sheep they would come back to Boise and live in boarding houses. These boarding houses became the social centers of the city. Around 1910, Grove Street, the street that currently holds the Basque Block, was almost all Basque-owned entities. More immigration during World War II further increased the Basque population.
In 1985 The Basque Museum opened and soon the idea of a renovated block dedicated to Basque culture and a space for celebrations was born.
What to see at the Basque Block
Entering the Basque Block from South Capitol Boulevard, you’ll be greeted with a huge mural celebrating Basque culture in Idaho. Flanking either side of Grove Street are statues of red, green and white ribbons flying from a laiak, an old-fashioned tool for turning the soil.
You’ll find more artistic surprises as you walk the street (remember, I said it packed a whole bunch of Basque-ness into a small area), including painted utility boxes, cement tiles with song lyrics, and giant lauburu, the Basque symbol of unity, painted on the street.
The Basque Center
Greeting you on the other end of Grove Street is the beautiful Basque Center. The center is a club with memberships, but also open to the public, and hosts events like the Mortzilla Dinner (Basque blood sausage anyone?). It also hosts many of the performing dance and music groups like the Oinkari Dancers.
The Basque Museum and Cultural Center
The Basque Cultural Center has been around for more than 100 years and has been a home for the Basque people in Idaho.
The small museum has rotating exhibits about Basque culture in Idaho and elsewhere. Admission is $5 for adults. The gift shop is a fun place to stop in if you want to buy unique souvenirs like Basque jewelry.
Part of the museum is the separate Cyrus Jacobs-Uberuaga House that is the oldest surviving brick building in Boise and one of the Basque boarding houses.
In July, the whole Basque Block puts on a gigantic celebration of all things Basque called Jaialdi. Over 30,000 people come from across the United States and around the world to celebrate Basque culture with dancing, food, sports, and other festivities. Jaialdi is only held every five years, which makes it even more special.
Anduiza Hotel and Fronton
Next to the museum is the former Anduiza Hotel. It’s unique because it contains a fronton, or Basque handball court. It is open to the public and you can go and learn this fast-paced sport that is still popular today. Be careful though, if you play jai alai with long, basket-like gloves, the small ball can fly over 150 miles per hour!
Where to eat: Leku Ona and Bar Gernika
Basque cuisine is known for its seafood and its elaborate pintxos, which are small plates of finger food, often served on bread with a toothpick (pintxo means spike). The drink of choice is kalimotxo, which is a refreshing mix of cola and red wine.
You can get pintxos and kalimotxo at both of the eateries on the Basque Block. Bar Gernika has a simpler menu but some great options for smaller eats like this cheese plate with almonds and caramelized onion dip.
Leku Ona is a full-service restaurant with lots of space for indoor and outdoor dining. They have seafood specialties, including paella, and this is the place to go if you want a true Basque meal. And yes, I did order kalimotxo at both places :).
The Basque Market
If you want to take some of these delicacies home, make sure to stop at The Basque Market. Not only do they have a lunch menu of pintxos, but they have many types of wine, cheese and other goodies from all across the Iberian peninsula.
Whether you are a Basque culture lover or are learning about the Basque for the first time, you’ll be sure to enjoy the Basque Block!