Over the past decades I have come to realise just how important a role the Basque farmhouse (etxea) plays in the Basque culture. It is paramount to the family seat, even perhaps a family ‘stable’ and is always the first theme I address on our Total Basque Mountain Culture Walking Weeks. When the final roof tile is put into place, a sprig of bay leaves is tucked into the eaves above the front door and the house is given its name. It is usually by this name that the family is best known and it has taken me years to get to know my neighbours by any other name: they are – quite simply – Isidro de Zubialdea, Amaia de Sumbilleneako Borda, Juanito de Arozenea etc. Had Marion and I not been better known as ‘las inglesas’, we too would simply be Marion and Georgina of Iaulin Borda. Surnames are used little around here.
The Basque house is perhaps better thought of in terms of a family seat, rather than a mere dwelling place of bricks and mortar and for many mountain Basques the mere thought of selling their home, or even a piece of their land, is shameful. In the old laws (fueros) of Navarre, the Basque etxea had the same properties as an embassy or a church; it was out of the reach of the law and, if a family member was wanted for some serious crime, the police had no right to enter the house, having to sit out the long wait until the suspect deigned to appear.
I remember a conversation years ago with my friend Tere who was talking at length about ‘her house’. The more she went on the less I recognised the family chalet she lived in with her husband in Elizondo. When I tried to clarify the matter it appeared that the simple and unqualified term ‘mi casa’ referred unambiguously to the house she was born in; a large crumbling run-down farm on the outskirts of Arizkun – NOT the house that she had lived in for the past 30 years. Even in ruins, the house’s ghost and influence live on.
In the summer my guests arrive in Biarritz (our nearest airport) for their walking holidays and Spanish courses and, once they have overcome the idea of flying to France to learn Spanish, they are then thrown into the confusion of thinking that they have arrived on a German course instead! As we head towards the Spanish/French border and the toothy grimace of the Pyrenees, they encounter a Bavarian-styled landscape of rolling green hills and immense houses with wooden balconies crowded with pink geraniums. The important role of these immense Basque houses is reflected in their size and although these diaphanous 3 or 4 storey buildings appear enormous, it is easy to forget that the family living quarters are usually confined to the first floor only. Whereas in the UK we often have a series of outlying barns, here the house tends to support the whole farming unit within the one structure. The ground floor traditionally housed the stables for the sheep, cows, donkeys and pigs and the top floor was traditionally used for storing the hay, and for drying farm produce such as potatoes, corn, black beans, walnuts, jamon and txistora.
Although today farming has witnessed a huge decline, and those that continue to farm have moved the animals out to newer out-houses, this is not the case everywhere. I remember Sagrario commenting one warm autumn day that it was far too hot in her house. Where we would have simply turned down the thermostat, she matter-of-factly went downstairs to take the cows out! Albeit a rather smelly affair, the design of the Basque farmhouse exemplifies the perfect eco-heating system where the heat from the animals helps warm the living quarters above, and the hay in the hayloft provides the perfect roof lagging.
Basque farmsteads are often quite small units as the terrain of the Pyrenees does not allow for large extensive farming. They would usually produce enough to provide for one extended family but little more; producing their own meat, vegetables, maize, milk and eggs and having their own source of wood. Each household made its own sheep’s cheese and bread and although, today, my neighbours buy in sugar, oil and wine these too would have been easily substituted by honey, animal fat and cider (the traditional Basque beverage) all once produced on their own farm. (Oh, and lets not forget Patxaran, the delicious local sloe and aniseed liqueur!)
Traditionally, the Basque house is inherited by just one of the children, often – but not always – by the oldest boy. Although, in the past, tortuous negotiations would have taken place in the village plaza as the men tried to marry as many of their children as possible into family homes: “if I let your daughter marry my son and give him my house, then I want you to marry your eldest son to my daughter so that she gets yours”. And so on. It is of little surprise that the Spanish word to get married is ‘casarse’.
The rest of the siblings had to make their own way in life and although they were ensured a bed and food in the family home while they were single, many left the area to become soldiers, to find work in the Americas, or (more recently) the Alps or to become nuns or priests. My daughter’s father, Lino, always says that his father’s decision to send him away to a seminary in Pamplona to become a priest had very little to do with his religious inclinations and far more to do with the fact that the vicarage was the last free house in the village!
The fact that traditionally one child inherited the whole has undoubtedly caused much family friction and rivalry over the years and I think it is of interest to mention a comment made by my friend Ana about the psychiatric hospital she works in in Pamplona. ‘There are’ she says ‘a surprisingly high number of eldest sons committed to the wards!’.
However, things are changing and the honour of being named as the sole heir to the family home is now considered a mixed blessing. Not only does the house come with all the farm work and the draining expense of up-keep and repair, but it comes with a long list of social responsibilities towards the family. The couple who inherit the house are not only duty-bound to look after the ageing parents but also to provide a bed and food for any other unmarried siblings. As there is a very high number of single men in the Basque country (so high that some avant-guard mayors have even organised camel trains of females to jolly up their ageing male population), apart from her own family, the poor wife may find herself providing for an army of parents, uncles and brothers in law. Today many of the youngsters opt to move into flats in the village and take up a routine job in a local factory rather then take on the institution of the (beautiful) Basque etxea.
Notes on Basque roofs
Here are a couple of notes on eaves and roofs that I didn’t manage to fit into the blog.
If a child died before it was baptised it was not allowed to be buried in the church and so was usually buried beneath the wide eaves of the house.
As you walk through a Basque village you will see that almost no house shares a wall with another one even if the immense walls are just centimetres apart. Although this would have made economic sense, each ‘etxea’ is seen very much as its own very separate family entity; the land beneath the eaves is often the jealously-guarded property of the owners (which can cause legal problems today when new houses are built up alongside the old ).
About 80 years ago, during the times of Atautxi’s parents, a Basque woman was to stay indoors, in quarentine, for the 40 days that followed the birth of her child. If she ventured out to the vegetable patch or (in the event of Atautxi’s mother) to plant the black beans, she was forced to wear a roof tile on her head – in the way she could justify that she was still under the roof of her house! Amatxi then added that if the mother had taken the baby to the chapel and offered it to the virgin mother before the 40 days were up, she was then allowed to venture outdoors and leave the roof and roof tile behind her!
And to finish off with the a cultural tip to anyone wondering through the countryside of the Basque country
Here is a piece of cultural advice: if you are ever walking in the Basque countryside and come across an elderly person in their front yard, do take the time to ask them the name of their house and compliment them on how pretty it is. It will be well appreciated!