Pays Basque in the south-west has a very distinctive architecture, intrinsically linked with its culture and history.
Etxe is the Basque word for house, and the etxe has always been at the heart of the local culture. Until the 17th century, surnames even came from the name of or the geographic situation of the house people lived in, for example Uhartea, which means between two rivers.
Part of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, the Pays Basque is made up of three historic provinces, Labourd, Basse-Navarre and Soule.
Labourd, is the most highly populated and runs from the Pyrénées up the Atlantic coast with the towns Bayonne, Biarritz, Anglet, Hendaye and Saint-Jean-de-Luz.
Its inland village of Sare, in the Pyrénéan foothills, has a house called Ortillopitz which has been restored to the way it was in the 17th century. Owner Jean-Elie Tapia had to remove 350 tonnes of partitions and additions, but underneath found the original features. Built in 1660, it is an authentic traditional Labourdine, Basque house and is open to the public from April to October (Details – ortillopitz.com)
Mr Tapia describes its distinctive features: “It has a roof with two identical pitched slopes. People think Basque roofs are typically asymmetrical but they are only like that if there have been additions.The tiles are usually clay.
“The western side of the house has very few openings and thick stone walls, to protect from bad weather, which comes from the Atlantic. Windows and doors are on the protected, eastern side, which is half- timbered and contains the main entrance.
“Houses were always rendered with lime to protect from humidity, and painted with limewash once a year to disinfect them and to make them cooler, as the white colour reflects the sun’s rays.
“The wooden shutters were originally left bare and it was only after the Revolution owners began to use leftover paint from the ship-building industry to decorate wooden features. The colours used for ships were red, green and blue, which is why those were used and now they are the only ones allowed. People used to say the shutters were red because bull’s blood was used, but that is a myth.”
All houses, town or farm, are similar and substantial due to the area’s particular history: “Before the Revolution, the Basque region was different from many others as the population did not pay taxes to local lords, only an annual sum to the king.
“This meant they were able to keep the majority of their earnings for themselves.
“So, it is a region with very few chateaux, but most of the houses are large, and owners have always taken great care of them.”
The house sheltered the family, their animals and their activities. Only the sheep were kept in separate buildings near to their pasture land.
Entering on the ground floor, the stables were on the left, with the horses, mules, two oxen for ploughing and two cows for milk separated from the rest of the house by a door. There was also the chai which was not for wine but for cider.
“The majority of families made their own cider. It was the first place in France to make cider, before Brittany and Normandy and each sailor was entitled to two litres a day as it contained vitamin C which fought off scurvy when they were away at sea.”
The first floor has a large kitchen and bedrooms: “Again Basque houses are unusual because families were wealthy enough to have separate rooms to sleep in. In other parts of the country there was only one room to live and sleep in.
“There would usually be a bedroom for the grandparents, one for the parents, one for the children and perhaps one for any unmarried brothers or sisters.
“Another unusual aspect was that the child who inherited the house was the one the parents thought was the most suitable, irrespective of age or sex. If it was a daughter she first had to show she could bear children, then she would be chosen to inherit and the marriage came after that.
“Everything changed after the Revolution when the church insisted girls be married before pregnancy and they were no longer seen as equal for inheritance purposes.”
The third floor attic was where the crops were stored, with maize most common. It is another Basque first as they were introduced to the new cereal when it came off the ships bringing it from the Americas.
Houses in other parts of Pays Basque have the same history, but with slightly differing architectural features.
Soule is farthest inland and walls are often made of pebbles and flint covered in lime rendering, with mostly slate roofs.
Buildings are often rectangular with two stories, a middle door, two windows either side and three on the second floor. Barns may be attached as a T or L shape or elongating the house, depending on the terrain.
Red is popular for wooden features but can also be grey blue, green or brown.
Houses in Basse-Navarre, between Soule and Labourd, are often stone, with no half-timbering. They are often very big and typically red and white.