Thirteen years ago our beautiful Basque Country farmhouse B & B in Ituren was nothing but a tiny mountain barn with a rustic outdoor toilet and a tiny brass tortoise on an outside tap!
Once a haunt of sheep and wild ferrets (and a couple of grotesque toads that centered themselves up maliciously each night on the terrace) – today it is a glorious – if not idiosyncratic – international guesthouse with 5 en-suite bedrooms and flowery, sun-drenched terraces.
If frogs turn into princes then these toads have metamorphosised into waves of delightful walkers from as far afield as Iceland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Japan who do NOT lay wait for me on dark nights when I make (or made) my way out to the loo!).
Mountain barn to beautiful Basque Country farmhouse B & B
Tiburcio, the Estate agent from Elizondo, passed me the spec: a tiny, semi-renovated 30 m2 barn or ‘borda’ (as they are called in the Basque Country) with 9700 m2 land and an orchard of 50 apple trees.
Next to the box on ‘vistas’ was written the word: ‘inmejorables (unbeatable). So they just had to be seen.
In 2001 we took the 10 hair-pin bends up from from Ituren, waving at inquisitive farmers on the way up, and crunched into the drive. The views from the terrace and the tortoise on the tap were all it took!
The history of mountain farms in the Basque Country
Living in the Basque Pyrenees, small ‘bordas’ are to be found everywhere satelliting the outskirts of the villages and mountain farmsteads. In the villages of the Baztan – Bidasoa valleys of the Basque Pyrenees local shepherds practised small-scale transhumance farming moving their herds of sheep to higher pastures during the months of May – November. Made of stone and originally with huge slate slabs as roof tiles, these one and two storey bordas provided basic shelter for the sheep, the hay and the odd Portuguese refugee! Fruit trees and ash trees (whose dried leaves and twigs provide good winter fodder) were often planted around the bordas – mine came with a magnificent driveway of cherry trees (or so I first thought!).
However, on many occasions the shepherds would need to stay in the hills to keep an eye on their flocks or to bring in the hay or the bracken stacks during the summer months and so one of the bordas would inevitably develop into a rudimentary ‘borda-vivienda’ (‘living borda’). In these ‘borda viviendas’ part of the hay loft was partitioned off with wooden divides and given a rough lime plaster coating on the walls (lime kilns are very common in these rural parts).
Here, the shepherd would find refuge by the side of an open fireplace, and would be lulled to sleep on his bracken and sacking mattress by the warmth and fussing of the animals below.
(Belene, my neighbour, fondly remembers siestering on them to this day!).
Another essential feature of the ‘borda vivienda’ is that of the sink .. a large hollowed-out sand stone with a curled lip that poked through the side of the borda wall and acted as a drain. From the outside this jutting out stone is often the only external feature that distinguishes the ‘borda vivienda’ from simple ‘borda’.
Today, as far as building permissions are concerned, the classification of a barn as a ‘borda vivienda’ can make all the difference.
The development of my ‘borda´ into a large 7 bedroom Basque Country farmhouse B & B (with a crazy 8 INDOOR bathrooms!) depended on the fact that it was located within the grounds of an original ´borda vivienda´ which lay in ruins just metres from my door. (Please see photos)
Basque House Names
Far larger than the ‘borda vivendas’ are the numerous, cavernous ‘caserios’ or farmsteads that also dot the hillsides.
Although many of them often started off as ‘borda viviendas’, their balconies and windows and cluster of out-buildings are those of a more permanent abode and many of them are lived in all year round. However, their names belie their history. For example our neighbours large homestead is known locally as Zubialdeako Borda (the ‘borda’ of the house by the bridge) and sure enough, the family town house of the same name ‘Zubialdea’ is to be found by the side of the bridge 4km away on the valley floor.
The Holy Trinity: The Pitfalls of Buying Basque Barns
The beauty of these stone mountain ‘bordas’ and ‘borda viviendas’ with their dry stone walls, verdant fields and mountain streams makes them a very attractive buy for people looking for a back-to-nature life-style change are often bought up by young Basques from the local metropolises of Pamplona, San Sebastian or Bilbao.
For all the beauty of the area – and many liken it to Wales both in landscape and farming culture – work for new-comers is scarce and building permission slow and restrictive. The Holy Trinity of water, access and electricity are not always that easy to come by. Manon-de-Source style, water is a hugely contentious issue amongst the Basque mountain farmers (and source of an on-going rift in my hamlet to this day). Many farmers pool together communally to pump up water to their bordas and farms and the fact that a borda ‘appears’ to have water to the enamored buyer is no guarantee that it will continue to be supplied with water when it changes hands. Water is sacred and in-comers looking to build a holiday home, water diaphanous flower beds and placate their children with swimming pools are not always welcome. (Luckily – and unusually – our house has its own spring.)
Cherry Trees and Axe Women!
Electricity and access are both matters that depend heavily on land rights. Bringing in more electricity pylons is often a simple matter of finances but where to place them can be more complex. Even if your neighbours are happy for you to put the pilons on their land, the real dificulty is to ascertain exactly whose land it is. This I learned when I decided to open out the drive to my house just below the cherry trees, and having been assured many times that the cherry trees were mine I made the logical deduction that the land they were on was mine as well. Well – as I found out afterwards – it wasn’t!
Here the land falls into several different categories: there is privately-owned land and common land and, on both types of land, there is a possibility that another, third party, has rights to usage. Iñaki, my partner, is the village lawyer and has endless cases about land rights and usage which can be anything from the rights to graze your sheep, to collect the bracken (for animal bedding) or pick the apple trees to make apple pie!
Often and understandably, the true rights to the land have been lost – or forgotten – in time and this was exactly my case with the cherry trees. The trees were mine, but the land wasn’t. It belonged to Maika, the Basque female champion ‘aizkolari’ or axe-woman!
The slow expansion of my tiny ´borda´ into the very pretty Basque Country farmhouse B & B has been a steep learning curve and together with Iñaki´s legal background I think we have covered most eventualities. Anybody who would like advice on buying a rural property in the Spanish Basque Country – or who would simply like to spend a few days at our guesthouse walking the many self-guided walks we have documented in the area – feel free to contact us through the website.