Heavy wagers on proud men of granite

Seeking a clue to the spirit of a people who have resisted outside forces for centuries, I went to see the man who lifts stones. The hero of this ancient Basque sport, Inaki Penurera, lives in a village some 20 miles south of San Sebastian.

Within minutes of leaving the golden shore of that splendid city, narrow valleys and dark hills close in. At Leiza, I inquired in a bar for Penurera's butcher's shop. Six craggy heads wearing black berets lifted and turned, and conversation that sounded like a gang of woodcutters with smoker's cough clattered to a halt.

At the shop, as I hesitated in the drizzle, a tornado burst through the door: an immense width of leather bomber jacket, a broad beaming face with flashing blue eyes, ginger beard curled tight with energy, arms plunging. "Hello I don't have much time, but come on, come on." He powered up the cobbled street with his rolling stonelifter's gait, and I scampered behind.

In a dim bar, Penurera explained: "The Basques have always been independent; we're the only Iberians never subdued by the Romans, and although we're surrounded by Latins, we're quite different. We are a proud mountain people, and we've kept our language, our beautiful legends and our racial purity." He pushed my shoulder, thumped his forearm on the table: "Don't misunderstand me, it's just that we have never been penetrated by other peoples." I extracted morsels of notebook from beneath his vast paw. "Our stonelifting, tree-chopping and scything contests are simply a countryman's work made sport: trials of strength and endurance where we try to beat our own records, originally for a bet."

The gambling element is crucial. Bets are laid on the size of the weight that can be lifted, how swiftly logs can be cut or a field scythed, for weeks before a contest, and the barman holds the kitty. Penurera started early. "By the time I was 10, the stone was part of my life." His speciality is lifting a 267kg (42 stone) granite cylinder with one hand, and he established the record of lifting a 320kg rectangle. Mementos of these feats adorn his garden wall, but he only lifts for fun these days.

At the weekend, Penurera's neighbour in Leiza, the young stone-lifter Mikel Saralegi, sought to beat his own record of 322kg. The spectacle took place in San Sebastian's sports hall during an afternoon when local cycling heroes swept round and round the track. Among them was Miguel Indurain, winner of the Tour de France for the last five years, his profile as austere and implacable as the mountains of his homeland.

Three men in patterned jumpers ambled to the microphone, one drew on his cigarette and started singing a lament that sounded like a wind in the trees. The second, then the third, took over, filling the arena with a harsh ancient air. They were bertzolariak, poet-singers who improvise words and music. I asked what they were singing. "They're singing about how wonderful it is to see Indurain and to be here and enjoying the spectacle."

With difficulty, two men wheeled in a 323kg granite block the size of a refrigerator. Saralegi donned a padded waistcoat and knee pads and wound a cloth round his waist, then rubbed his hands and the stone with resin. He grasped the stone by two holes in the side, lifted it on to his thighs, arched back and hoisted it, inch my inch, up his chest and on to his shoulder, when his leg buckled and he dropped his burden on to a gigantic rubber cushion.

Penurera, who had materialised beside me, shook his head with misery and exploded into a clacking, sneezing commentary for a journalist at his elbow. He turned to me, eyes brimming with emotion. "I'll wager any day now he'll lift it." That evening, in an eating and drinking establishment where the odds on next day's football match were chalked up, some Basque friends explain the importance of gambling. Aurora says: "My great-grandfather bet his family farmhouse, the caserio, that's handed down to the firstborn, on a fight between two rams. He lost and so my family came to the city." Conversation turned to food, that other Basque passion. Jose Luis asked: "What is this black paste that you English eat at Christmas and prepare weeks before?" Ah yes, Christmas pudding. "It's wonderful; next time I'll bring you one," I promised.

Jose Luis's mournful, tapering face closed with resignation. "You don't have to make such extravagant promises. I bet you never come back." I knew what was expected. I leaned across my broad tumbler of cider, hit my knuckle on the table. "How much?"

Elizabeth Nash