The colourful houses that saved a language from extinction

Adam L. Maloney | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Someone once told me that Hondarribia was the most beautiful fishing village in the world. That was the reason why I first visited. I was arriving on foot from the nearby town of Irun and along the way, I was able to get my first feel of what the Guipúzcua region of the Basque Country is made of; traditional Basque houses, green scenery and air so fresh you can taste it. This was along the Kosta Kalea and Santa Engrazia Kalea, the quaint road that links Irun to Hondarribia.

The road is like a museum for Basque houses, time-honoured homes that are more significant than one might imagine; not only are they distinct symbols of Euskal Herria (the Basque Country) but they are also regarded as the most important bastions of the Basque language, ensuring its survival despite constant conquests, occupations and even laws forbidding the Basques to speak their own mother tongue.

The traditional Basque house is known as an "Etxea" or "Baserri" if it’s on a farm. It was within the walls of these houses where Basques were able to keep their language alive among each other, in secrecy, during the totalitarian dictatorship of Franco. These houses often have a stone base and are typically painted white with wooden framework that tends to be red, green or blue. This style of house is nowhere to be found in the rest of Spain. I first came across it here in Hondarribia of course, but these houses can be seen all over the Basque country, even in t[he Basque region of France](, where due to the language and history shared with the Spanish Basques across the border, cultural trends have been able to emerge and exist between them.

Basque houses have historically played such an important role in Basque identity that many Basque surnames derive from the type of house the family came from. For example, the surname Etxeberri means “new house” whilst Etxeandi means “big house”.

Finally I reached Hondarribia, or as the ‘Spanish Spaniards’ once called it Fuenterrabía, hispanicising the original Basque name. As I walked towards the town, the unique style of these houses appeared yet again, only this time in a colourful row of attached houses. This street is known as San Pedro Kalea, regarded by locals as the most beautiful street in town. I had to stop off here for a beer at Bar Maite, which has a terrace area at the front, perfect for taking in sights of this street. This was the buzz of the village.

Whilst sipping my beer at the table outside, I was in for quite a shock to hear two other British people chatting beside me in this secluded town. “we’re long distance lorry drivers from Middlesbrough” they told me. “And every year, when we have to cross the French-Spanish border, we stop here in Hondarribia. We’ve been all over Europe but there’s no place like this.” They were right.

Hondarribia wouldn’t be what it was without the etxeas - with their style, their colours and their meaning – the houses that saved the Basque language from extinction.

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