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Festival Joaldunak Basque

Trance like the Joaldunak (bell ringers), appeared over the brow of the mountain, like a fancy-dress clad military unit. As they neared, the dirge-like rumble of copper bells, strapped to their backs, grew louder, sending a wave of excitement down the lane to where the villagers were huddled against the rain to watch them pass their homes.

People gobbled down last mouthfuls of pinxos (snacks), grabbed their glasses of tinto (red wine) and hurriedly headed for the best vantage points.

Suddenly the Joaldunak were beside us, close enough to touch. The ringing of their bells was almost deafening; the bright colours and sheep-like shapes of their identical outfits offering a stark contrast to a grey sky.

I stood in awe to witness an annual festival recognised by UNESCO as an event of ‘intangible cultural heritage’.

This private Basque ceremony takes place in and around the village of Ituren on the penultimate Saturday in every September.

In traditional costumes which represent fertility, the 36-strong Joaldunak unison of men, boys, and one woman, aged 15 to 62; pulsated past small crowds, shaking whips of black horse-tail hair in their right hands.

They were led by one of their elders, Dambolin Nagusi, with a cow horn draped around his neck, ready to sound his troop in to line: “We march for our ancestors, as they did,” said Dambolin. “This festival is something very old, which was suppressed during Franco’s regime when they tried to get rid of Basque traditions,” he said, fervently, before grabbing his conical hat and sounding his deafening horn.

He had led the Joaldunak to Sumbillanea, the home of Sagrario and Ignacio in Ameztia, to bless their home and pay homage to Ignacio’s father, a late, great Joaldunak.

The poignant parade serves as an intimate warm-up to the spectacular three-day January carnivals in Ituren and neighbouring Zubieta where the Zanpantzar (a group of Joaldunak) reignite an ancient ritualistic din by marching through the towns, ringing bells to awaken the Earth, frightening away evil spirits and wild animals, and blessing the fields for a good harvest.

Few tourists have witnessed the event – I was among a handful of the first. I often found myself swallowing a gratitude induced lump in my throat, along with local sheep’s cheese washed down with the popular sloe-flavoured liqueur, Patxarran, which were frequently doing the rounds.