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Basque houses have timeless appeal – we look at their history

Know your coastal ‘Labourdine’, the ‘Navarre’ style along the Spanish border, and the ‘Souletine’ of the Béarn region

Clockwise from left: A classic Labourdine-style etxe in Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle in Pyrénées-Atlantiques, the Navarre style and a slate-roofed Souletine Pic: C.A.U.E 64

The etche or etxe is local Basque dialect for ‘house’ and it has great cultural and familial importance in the Basque Country, a historic region in the western Pyrenees that spans the border between France and Spain.

What’s in a name?

Etxe is one of the oldest words in the Basque language and has come to define the house where a particular family originated. Its connotations extend to any farming activity taking place around the house and the concept of Basque family or community as a whole.

Family names such as Etchegaray, Etchebar or Etcheverry show how Basque families have long used their homes to identify themselves, whether it was the house over the top (‘Echegaray’), down the hill (‘Etchebar’) or a new build (‘Etcheverry’).

Houses were built along the Atlantic coast from Bayonne to the Spanish border and inland up to central Hasparren. Some date back to the Middle Ages. 

‘Heart of our culture’

They were often passed down intact and undivided through families from generation to generation, another reason for the longevity and importance of the etxe within Basque culture.

“The etxe is at the heart of our culture,” said Robert Elissondo, member of the Ikerzaleak association for the preservation and promotion of Basque culture.

They were built as farms that were capable of accommodating both livestock and agricultural equipment as well as providing rooms for every member of a family.

Key features

While their architecture has evolved over the centuries, they have several key features in common.

First, they are often oriented toward the east to give protection against the wind and heavy rainfall blowing in from the ocean.

Each features an exkatz, a bigger room providing passage between the house and the barn. Animals often rested below so that their body heat warmed the area. The exkatz opens to the house’s yard.

Wood was traditionally the primary building material, sourced from the nearby Irati Forest and the Massif des Arbailles.

Generally, an etche was painted only in red, green and brown, the latter two colours serving as a nod to nature and the soil. Some houses in Saint-Jean-de-Luz and Ciboure were allowed to be painted in blue, however, in reference to the sea.

The majority of houses are painted red and white. Only recently has the popular myth that the red colour derived from ox’s blood been debunked.

Over the years, wood was replaced by stone as the main material for construction, resulting in three distinct architectural styles: the ‘Labourdine’ along the coast, the ‘Navarre’ style along the Spanish border, and the ‘Souletine’ in the Béarn region.

Labourdine style

Labourdine-style etxe are rendered with lime to protect from humidity, and painted with limewash to make them cooler, as the white reflects the sun’s rays.

Roofs are tiled and timber features on the façades are often embellished with paint.

Labourdine-style etxe also feature a lorio, a covered space over the front door to give shelter from bad weather when inhabitants were working outside.

These houses have become hugely popular and are often presented as examples of the quintessential Basque etxe since most are located along the Atlantic coast, an area that developed thanks to tourism.

“Tourists became captivated by the Labourdine style when they migrated to the coast,” said Mr Elissondo, who added that the style was exported to other regions over time by these enamoured tourists.

The village of Sare, in the Pyren­ean foothills, has a house called Ortillopitz which serves as a popular example of the Labourdine style. Built in 1660, it has been restored to the way it was in the 17th century and is open to the public from April to October.

Read more: Basque house hidden by 350 tonnes of renovations

Navarre and Souletine styles

Navarre-style houses, meanwhile, are typically made entirely of stone, with no half-timbering. They are often very big and usually red and white with an arched door.

Souletine styles differ greatly since they were mostly built inland. Roofs are usually slated and the main entrance can face any direction since the house does not have to contend with the wind or heavy rainfall of the Atlantic coast.

They are often T- or L-shaped and can be made up of several buildings surrounding a courtyard.

Other features

Religion is referenced in most etxe through the presence of the lauburu (Basque cross). Chalices and crucifixes are also often represented.

In terms of furniture, high-backed wooden benches called züzülü are traditional. These feature a fold-down section in the middle that can be used as a table. Manka, meanwhile, are typical in the Navarre-styled etxe – kitchen dressers measuring approximately 1.6m tall and with two or three doors.

Inheritance

When it comes to passing these historic homes down, the Basque community is one of the few not to follow patriarchal rules on inheritance. Instead, irrespective of gender, the heir is either the eldest child or the one parents deem most capable.

Whoever inherits the etxe must guarantee that he or she intends to have children so that it continues to be passed down to the next generation – a system dating back more than five centuries.

Retired farmer Jean-François Tambourin said: “This is the house where I was born, where I grew up, built my professional career and where I will die.”

He added that families are usually intergenerational, comprising grandparents, parents and children.

Mr Tambourin, the oldest of four, inherited the etxe from his mother, who was also the eldest sibling. The family has owned and passed down the etxe since 1768.

Mr Elissondo said: “The community embraces the dead and the living. The deceased are part of the etxe.”

The person who inherits must commit to not selling the house to anyone outside of the family. Where this is not possible, the family try to find a landlord with a project to maintain the etxe and perpetuate the history behind it.

Mr Tambourin is pleased that two of his sons took charge of their etxe and takes pleasure from seeing his grandchildren in the house. His other two sons visit as often as they can.

“The future is now in their hands,” he said.

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