The Basque Country is a land of fascinating paradoxes and enigmas. Home to one of Europe's oldest peoples and most mysterious languages, with a living folklore rich in archaic rituals and dances, it also boasts a dynamic post-modern energy, with the reinvention of Bilbao creating a model for the twenty-first-century city of cultural services and information technologies. Hugging the elbow of the Bay of Biscay on both the French and Spanish sides of the Pyrenees, this small territory abounds in big contrasts, ranging from moist green valleys to semi-desert badlands, from snowy sierras to sandy beaches, from harsh industrial landscapes to bucolic beech woods.
This often idyllic scenery is the stage for fierce political passions. Almost every aspect of the Basque Country generates passionate disagreement, even its precise location. Spanish and French centralism, often authoritarian and sometimes brutal, has met with resistance for two centuries. Most recently and notoriously ETA, a terrorist group with deep popular support, has engaged in a bloody 45-year conflict. But many Basques consider themselves full French or Spanish citizens, and fear political and linguistic exclusion under Basque nationalist rule.