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Did you know? France's favourite village used to be Swedish

The story of the Bas-Rhin village of Hunspach, France's favourite village, and how it was Swedish before it was French.

The Bas-Rhin village of Hunspach was voted France’s Favourite Village 2020 and is best known for its striking black-and-white timber-framed houses. The oldest dates from 1713. The village that existed on the site before then was destroyed in 1633 during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) between German Protestants and French Catholics.

The village with a dual nationality

Hunspach belonged to neither but was Swedish, due to a marriage between a French duke and a Swedish princess. It remained Swedish right up to 1787 when it became French. A period of war and plague followed the Thirty Years’ War, which meant rebuilding did not begin until the 18th century. There were very few inhabitants, living in makeshift housing, but the region attracted immigrants from Switzerland and French Protestant refugees from Picardy. 

When peace came at last, they began to build homes using materials close at hand. The wooden structures were made with oak from the nearby Haguenau forest, filled in with torchis, made from a compact local clay mixed with straw and animal hairs and then sealed with lime. Béatrice Kehrli, president of the local history association who has studied the village she and her ancestors were born in, said: “The advantage of lime is that exposure to daylight makes it whiter as it ages, and so more and more beautiful. All the houses are in the same style and clustered around the main square, and we are extremely fortunate that the village has remained unchanged since.”

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Key characteristics

The houses have several characteristic features: “They are built close together, lined up like soldiers on parade. This was a deliberate policy. Between the houses there are narrow corridors which attract a current of air. Down these corridors a channel was created on the ground which carried away household wastewater and rain, and the draught meant bad smells would not linger.” The main entrance was not at the front overlooking the street, but to the side.

There are several windows, with bowed glass which prevented anyone seeing inside but allowed householders to look out: “At that time, very few people had curtains, so it gave each home a sense of privacy. There are shutters, but they are very rarely used in Hunspach, only when it is very cold.” There are several windows to let in as much light as possible, as the ceilings are low. The houses are big and today families of up to four people live in them, but originally they housed up to 15 people. They were not houses for the rich, as they may appear now, but the homes of peasant farmers who were virtually self-sufficient.

“The three windows at the front are in the main room, where the husband and wife who owned the house slept. You could see the wooden structure on the walls and ceilings from the inside, just as it is on the outside. Often, these are now covered by plasterboard. There were several alcoves with beds for the rest of the family. Ageing parents, unmarried or widowed uncles and aunts, children, and labourers called journaliers, who were paid a daily wage plus board and lodging, lived there.”

The house was one of the buildings in a complex which, together with barns, bread ovens, stables, hen houses and cellars, were built to form a U-shape with the farmyard in the centre. The entrance was originally left open, but many now have gates. If a journalier managed to save enough money, he might be able to build his own house, but these were smaller, with two storeys rather than three. Very few houses had gardens attached, but families owned land just beyond the village where they grew vegetables. The fields were even further out.

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Damages and re-buildings

“This means that there is a green band around Hunspach,” said Mrs Kehrli. “To this day, properties are often sold with a separate garden that you have to walk to from the house.” The majority of homes, though, are still owned by Hunspach families who pass their property down the generations.

Mrs Kehrli said: “It was a miracle that the village was untouched during World War Two. We were near the Maginot line, and the Schoenenbourg fort, one of its major defences built to house 600 men, is close by. It meant the area saw a great deal of action. Two villages, Hatten and Rittershoffen, just five kilometres away, were destroyed and had to be rebuilt, largely in concrete, in the 1950s. My mother said her house in Hunspach shook during the bombardment, but our village was saved. She and my grand-mother told me they lived in fear, sure the Germans were coming.”

Homes were ransacked and damaged. On September 1, 1939, the mayor and the priest called all the villagers together and told them they had six hours to gather up their belongings to flee the Germans. They needed provisions for a three-day journey in their carts pulled by cattle, because they were heading to the Vienne, near Limoges, where the whole village had been offered shelter. They were told to bury or hide anything valuable, let their livestock free and, above all, not to lock the doors, so there would be no damage from a forced entry.

The villagers stayed away for a year. When they came back, their homes were still standing, but they had been ransacked by invading troops. They had to start again from scratch. Now the houses have been restored to their former glory and the village is popular with tourists, especially since it was voted le village préféré des Français by viewers of a France 3 programme of the same name, which runs an annual contest.

Guided tours in English and French are available (contact the tourist office on 03 88 80 59 39 or the mairie 03 88 80 42 16).

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