Straddling the border of southern France and northern Spain, the land of the Basques has long been home to a people who had no country of their own but have always viewed themselves as a nation. In this marvelous work of cultural history and appreciation, Kurlansky traces Basque history from pre-Roman times, when Basques worked as the mercenaries of Carthage, to the region's recent renaissance in language and arts. Along the way, he explains how the Basques came to be among Europe's first whalers, capitalists, explorers, industrialists and international traders. As he did in Cod, Kurlansky fuses political and economic history with delightful digressions into cultural and culinary traditions (several delicious recipes are included). The book is as politically loaded with opinion as it is culturally informative: Kurlansky expresses sympathy for the cause of Basque independence, arguing that many of Spain's current policies toward its Basque minority are holdovers from the repressive Franco regime. He also tends to accept the claim that the Basques ""are the original Europeans,"" largely on the ground that Euskera, the Basque language, appears to have no linguistic relative and is likely the oldest European language still spoken. For all the ground it covers, this wildly informative work is a marvel of clarity, glittering with unusual facts and marked by penetrating insights into a people always ""making complex choices about the degree of independence that was needed to preserve their way of life, while looking to the rest of the world for commercial opportunities to ensure their prosperity."" 56 illustrations, 6 maps, 10 recipes. Agent, Charlotte Sheedy Agency. 5-city author tour. (Oct.) FYI: Cod received the James Beard Award for Excellence in Food Writing and was a New York Public Library Best Book of 1997.