Spring in the Basque Country (1): ¿Madera? No, leña.

We have just moved to the Spanish Basque Country for three months, to learn Castellano.

It is still cold, so in the DIY shop I buy a bow saw and ask, in halting Spanish, where I can purchase wood for the fire. The man behind the counter replies: “¿Madera? No, ¡leña! – Wood? No, firewood!” My first lesson in Spanish

logs“I don’t know,” he continues. Nobody here buys wood. They just cut it down. If you don’t own a forest, you find someone who does.

Finally I discover a timber yard. I am confronted by a gigantic crane, with jaws capable of lifting several complete tree trunks at once, being driven by a man of similar dimensions. “I would like a few branches for my stove,” I explain timidly. No problem. I drive into the hanger and we fill up the back of the car. Kindling, he says, is free.

On a wall of the nearby town of Doneztebe is a poster. Four hulking blokes with their names and ages, four axes, a large pile of leña, a date and a time, and “1500 euros”. The rest of the poster is in Basque, so I have to ask one of our new neighbours to translate. It’s a private bet on who can cut the most wood, with the 1500 euros going to the winner.

woodcutters-croppedAlthough the town only boasts 1500 inhabitants, it has five different shops offering various degrees of equipment for dealing with anything from a twig to a forest. Big Mat is the largest building in town.

The Iraty forest, a stone’s throw from here, is the largest beech forest in Europe covering 173sq km.

Second lesson: although the hills abound with sheep pasture, they take wood seriously here.

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