“Basque sports come from the work that people did on Basque farms, and that work became sport,” he said.
The Basques, Mr. Perurena said, are deeply spiritual and are strongly connected to the land. He pointed to four stones labeled with the Basque words for “water,” “fire,” “earth” and “mother earth,” to illustrate this point. Peru Harri, opened in 2009, is also a working farm with more than 70 cattle that supply the family butcher shop. Mr. Perurena leads the tours and charges a nominal 4-euro entry fee (about $5.40), which usually includes a ride there from Leitza. He bought the farm 30 years ago from a family with nine children who lived there with no running water, electricity or transportation.
“Nothing had changed here in centuries,” he said. “When we started to build here, we found an ax that turned out to be more than 1,000 years old, and nearby there are cave paintings that are supposed to be 25,000 years old.”
Mr. Perurena, 57, guided us into a restored barn to view the museum exhibits, first directing us to one advancing the theory that Basque men, many of whom are known to be thick-chested and brawny like Mr. Perurena, are direct descendants of the Cro-Magnons, who lived as much as 40,000 years ago.
Mr. Perurena is a butcher, a soap opera star on Basque television and, now, a tour guide. But he’s famous in these parts for his stone-lifting feats, and after watching a short film of his superhuman lifting exploits in the museum, it’s easy to see why. We watched footage of him hoisting stones that weigh more than 700 pounds; more footage where he lifted a 589-pound stone with one hand; and yet more in which he rolled a 465-pound stone around his neck 36 times in one minute. He told us that once, to celebrate the airing of the 1,700th episode of “Goenkale,” the soap opera he stars in, he lifted a 212-pound stone 1,700 times in nine hours.
“How did you feel afterward?” I asked.
“Bueno,” he said. “I could have done more.”
While showing us around, Mr. Perurena explained that sports like stone lifting, whale boat racing, wood chopping, sheep fighting and others developed and gained popularity because they involved everyday activities that farmers and fisherman needed to excel in to make a living. Stone lifting evolved into a sport over the last hundred years or so because Basque farms tend to be rocky, and farmers needed to move big boulders to work their land.
Even during the dark days of the Franco dictatorship, when it was dangerous to speak the Basque language, rural Basque sports flourished as an important part of the Basque culture, even though no one could call them “Basque sports.” And mountaineering became popular because Basques felt free to speak their own language only when they were out in rural areas with trusted friends, where there was no risk of being reported to the authorities. (There are a number of famous Basque mountaineers, including Edurne Pasaban, who was the first woman to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks.)
Today, visitors can learn about rural Basque sports at Peru Harri and see them live at town patron saint festivals all around the Basque region. Some of the most well known are the White Virgin Festival in Vitoria in early August, Semana Grande in San Sebastián and Bilbao in mid- to late August and Bayonne in late July. Americans can check out Basque sports at Basque festivals in Chino and Bakersfield, Calif., and in Elko, Nev.
And every five years, Boise hosts a huge Basque festival called Jaialdi, where one night of the celebration is devoted to Basque sports. (The next one is scheduled for July 2015.)
Mr. Perurena told us that he still trains every day but no longer competes because of arthritis and a variety of other ailments.
“After 40 years of lifting heavy stones, you have to pay the bill,” he said.
His older son, Inaxio, now 29, still competes at a high level, but he has never been able to break any of his father’s records.
“Journalists here have been asking him since he was 5 when he’s going to break my records,” Mr. Perurena lamented. “It isn’t fair.”
Our conversation swirled around to the topic of Basque independence, but Mr. Perurena didn’t want to say if he supported an independent Basque state.
“I am Basque,” he said. “And I want to be Basque. Interpret that as you like.”
Mr. Perurena told us that he created the museum to help introduce his sport to the world. But when I asked him if the sport will still be around in another 100 years, Ms. Martija Gónzalez didn’t want to interpret the question.
“I don’t think the sport will be here,” she said. “Young people don’t really do it anymore.”
Mr. Lachiondo had told me the same thing, but when Ms. Martija Gónzalez relayed the question to Mr. Perurena, his response was unequivocal.
“If the Basque people survive and the Basque culture survives, so will this sport,” he said, “especially if more people like you take an interest in it.”
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