Makila or makhila is strictly speaking the traditional Basque walking stick
In reality it is much more than this: it is a century-old badge of honor in villages across the Basque Country, a must have accessory of the master of the Basque house, a walking help in a region with a rugged terrain and, maybe most importantly, a…weapon.
With the occasion of the “European Arts and Crafts Days” held this year at the beginning of April I visited the only makila makers of the Basque Country, whose workshop -“Ainciant Bergara”- situated in the village of Larressore, is distinguished with the label “Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant (EPV)” (“Living Heritage Company”).
In size of the workshop Ainciant- Bergara family has been making makilas for six generation is tiny, a two room place, but what is even more surprising is that their makilas are known in the whole world having been offered to luminaries like Ronald Regan, Duke of Edinburgh, former French president Francois Mitterand, Pope John-Paul II and actress Natalie Portman on her wedding to Benjamin Millepied.
Nicole Bergara, our host, was gracious to share with us many aspects of the makila making process but stressed that the family keeps the ancient process of wood treatment and coloring as a manufacture secret.
At Ainciant- Bergara makilas are made from branches of medlar tree that start to be prepared live. The branches are cut away at in spring, let to dry during the summer and fall and then, at the beginning of the winter, treated at high temperature in a special oven. They are then peeled and carefully cleaned. The sticks follow then a dyeing process and are stored for several years in a dry environment to reach their deep, beautiful, brown color. The last steps are the metal carving – always with the Basque cross – and placing of the handle and the bottom end.
Each makila is made on order – placed several months in advance – and according to the height of the buyer.
A makila has two main particularities: first it hides a short spear under its metallic handle and second it ends with a sharp metal point surrounded by 3 or 4 narrow blades that could just as easily be implanted in a stony ground and in the body of an opponent.
Nowadays the walking and defensive functions of a makila are all but gone and the traditional Basque cane has become a prized and pricey (starting at €200) decoration item.