Herri Kirolak

This festival of sport originates from agricultural work done in the country since ancient times, and are an important tradition in the Basque country.

The Basques say they're the strongest and bravest people in the world and by the end of a week's worth of watching Herri Kirolak (Basque rural sports), you won't even think about arguing! These Games, featuring the most primitive of strength contests, are held at the Arenal in downtown Bilbao and form a part of Bilbao's biggest festival: Aste Nagusia in Basque or Big Week in English. Spend a day with Basque stone lifters, log choppers, hay bale throwers, oxen handlers, and tug-of-war heroes, and you'll find out what testosterone is really all about.

Plan to spend the day in the central downtown Arenal neighbourhood (The rapturous Guggenheim building can wait until tomorrow). Stop by the food vendors and fill up on freshly fried cod and kalimotxo (a combination of red wine and Coca Cola), and then meander among the manly giants while they lift, chop and throw things to impress the crowd with their valour.

herri kirola arenaForget about saving the best for last: head straight for the stone-lifting competition. The men and women who lift stones in Basque country aren't puny, and they can prove it. For sport, they hoist stones weighing anywhere from 100 to 325 kilos ( 220 to 717 pounds). Wearing leather padding, the strongman levers the massive granite stone to his chest. Then he boosts it to his left shoulder, removes his hands, and whirls around before dropping it onto a foam cushion. Of course, it takes awhile for the blood to drain from his pained face, but it's all in the name of sport. Unlike those over hyped strongman competitions you may have seen on television (watch Igor pull an air-plane with his teeth!), herri kirolak are an important and well-established tradition, not to mention proof that the Basques are truly macho men.

Ramon Latasa statueOther lifting displays involve speed and are just as fun to watch. One of these involves a strongman who hoists a "measly" 100 kilo (220 pound) ball to his shoulder and whips it around his neck. Whoever maneuvers the stone around his neck the most times in one minute wins. The record is a staggering 36 revolutions. Another competition measures the number of times a man can hoist a 150 kilo (330 pound) stone to his shoulder in 10 minutes - one inhuman warrior did this 52 times.

When you're done with all the grunting and groaning of raw power, head over to some of the more skill-oriented events. Though less weighty, these stunts are no less vigorous. There are the well-known Basque sports, such as tug-of-war and pelota. Then there are the less-known, more colourful rural sports. The woodcutting competitions include divisions for boys and men. The competitor who cuts up a row of huge tree trunks (while standing on top of them) in the shortest time wins. Stone-dragging is done by both oxen and their human driver, with the object being to cover as much ground as possible within a given time. In hay-bale lifting, competitors toss hay bales over elevated ropes, and in the corn races, each man races with a 100 kilo sack of corn on his shoulder. Other sports include oxcart lifting, grass-cutting, milk-can carrying and ram fights.

If you find yourself in Bilbao during their Big Week, don’t forget that there is lot more to Bilbao than great restaurants and the Guggenheim. You can have the opportunity to watch some ancestral games that symbolise the Basque people's relationship with the land.