For years, my father told me a tale about a mysterious walking stick. He had seen one on one of his travels in France with my mother thirty years ago, but young marrieds as they were, alas there were no funds for him to obtain one. These are no ordinary walking sticks though. The Makhila is a special type of walking stick made in the Basque country in southwestern France and northern Spain, and the authentic ones are made in a single workshop in the village of Larressore, France. Run by the family Bergara who have been making Makhilas since the eighteenth century, these renowned sticks have become the symbol of the honorable Basque man. Possibly going as far back as the Middle Ages, these sticks were originally used by sheep herders and travelers to provide protection from wolves and highwaymen. This past summer, my entire family spent a month in the Basque region of France, and there was no conceivable way we would visit this region without getting my father one of the sticks he had talked about for the entirety of my youth.
And so the day came when the seven of us loaded up in the car and drove to Larressore. It took a moment to find, but finally we pulled into a small pelota court on the side of which was a tiny workshop. When we walked in, we were greeted by a Bergara family member, Charles, who was to be our guide through the process.
All around were photos of famous people being presented with one of these Makhilas. There was Charles de Gaulle, Prince Charles, Winston Churchill, and even actress, Natalie Portman. Charles began showing us the sticks that were currently in the making.
He explained to us the long and exact process that must be followed before one can finally receive an authentic stick. First, they hunt for quality branches on Medlar trees, a type of shrub or small tree to be exact. Once they are found, they make exact incisions that will later form designs on the stick. Several weeks of waiting go by before they can come back and harvest the stick. After shaving the bark off, the sticks are then heated in a kiln and straightened out.
Once this process is complete, the sticks are laid across the rafters of the workshop and allowed to naturally dry and cure. The curing process takes a total of fifteen years! After the stick is cured, Charles takes one final look at the stick, and at this point will decide whether to throw it out or not, depending on if the stick cured properly. If the stick passes the test, then he coats it with a secret family stain, the exact ingredients of which have been kept a mystery for generations to all but the Bergara family. After the stick has dried again, Charles fits it with silver, brass, or gold fittings, and an iron spike that the pommel screws on top of.
So, there we were the seven of us, in this tiny shop, and my father lit up like a child. Many decisions had to be made before we could order his very own stick. Charles began by asking my father’s height and weight since each stick is made to the specifications of the future owner. Next, my father wrote down his initials, his artist’s chop, and his motto. Every Makhila is fitted with these elements: the initials, name, date, and motto (which are then translated into Basque).
My father’s motto, “all through time”, was to be engraved on the stick. Charles informed us that it would take another four months before the Makhila was ready. At last, this past November, my father finally received his cherished Makhila, a noble walking companion for a noble man!