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Pays Basque


Basque national flag

Department 64 - Pyrenees Atlantiques

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new! Cathedrale Saint-Gatien at Tours  Cathedrale Saint-Gatien at Tours

Romanesque churches and cathedrals in south-west France updated: Romanesque churches and cathedrals in south-west France

 the perpendicular or English style of cathedral  Manchester cathedral

the fire at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris
the fire at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris
cathedral giants - Amiens and Beauvais

Stone tracery in church and cathedral construction illustrated
stone in church and cathedral construction

stained glass and cathedrals in Normandy illustrated graph

fortified churches, mostly in Les Landes

cathedral labyrinths and mazes in France
using metal in gothic cathedral construction

Germans in France
cathedral destruction during the French revolution, subsidiary page to Germans in France

Click for an introduction to cathedrals and stained glass in France.

on first arriving in France - driving
France is not England
paying at the péage (toll station)

Click for motorways and motorway aires in France.

Transbordeur bridges in France and the world 2: focus on Portugalete, Chicago, Rochefort-Martrou
Gustave Eiffel’s first work: the Eiffel passerelle, Bordeaux
a fifth bridge coming to Bordeaux: pont Chaban-Delmas, a new vertical lift bridge

France’s western isles: Ile de Ré
France’s western iles: Ile d’Oleron

Ile de France, Paris: in the context of Abelard and of French cathedrals
short biography of Pierre (Peter) Abelard

Marianne - a French national symbol, with French definitive stamps

la Belle Epoque
Grand Palais, Paris

Click to go to pages about Art Deco at

Click to go to 'the highest, longest: the viaduct de Millau'

Pic du Midi - observing stars clearly, A64
Carcassonne, A61: world heritage fortified city

Space City, Toulouse

the French umbrella & Aurillac

50 years old: Citroën DS
the Citroën 2CV: a French motoring icon

the forest as seen by Francois Mauriac, and today
Les Landes, places and playtime
roundabout art of Les Landes

Hermès scarves

Hèrmes logo

bastide towns
mardi gras! carnival in Basque country
country life in France: the poultry fair

what a hair cut! m & french pop/rock

Tour de France 2023s

Le Tour de France: cycling tactics illustrated


New translation, the Magna Carta

marker at some basque history

other documents on Pyrenees Atlantiques

marker basque traditions
    Basque force
marker basque architecture
marker the Basque typeface
marker the Basque flag and Basque cross
marker at end notes

some basque history

Pays Basque [literal translation: Basque Country] is only the central heart of a larger territory, where it is said that Basque people appeared over twenty thousand years ago. Paintings and sculptures in caves, the many prehistoric sites, and numerous writings making reference to the Stone Age may indicate that Basques have existed in this region since the paleolithic era. Certainly it appears that the Basque language, termed a language isolate, existed before the appearance of Indo-European languages.

Not being a natural region, Pays Basque can be defined as where people speak Euskara, the Basque language. In France, are three French provinces, representing about a third of the area of Pyrénées-Atlantiques and a tenth of Euskal Herri (Basqueland in the Basque language). These provinces extend from the Atlantic Ocean to Béarn, and are limited to the north by the River Adour along a length of thirty kilometres and in the south by the national border.

Pays Basque, situated at the Western extremity of the Pyrenees chain has received successively invasions of Indo-Europeans: the Celts, then Roman domination and the invasions which preceded the fall of the Roman Empire, to be succeeded by invasions of Wisigoths (Visigoths), Francs and Arabs.

Map of the Pays Basque.During the Middle Ages, in the seventh century, there were two Basque states in succession - the Duchy of Vasconie, which had replaced the Roman province of Novempopulanie, and the Kingdom of Navarre. This kingdom lasted from the eleventh to the thirteenth century. Then Basque unity disintegrated until the sixteenth century when Castille annexed Guipuzcoa, Alava and Viscaye and the most part of Navarre.

The annexing by France of Soule and Labourd [see map] in the fifteenth century after three centuries of English domination, and the annexing of Basse-Navarre [see map] in the sixteenth century, ended the sharing of Pays Basque between France and Spain.

Bsasque croos/symbol

basque traditions

Click on blue-bordered images for a larger version.

Costumes dating from the eighteenth century worn by Basque folk dancers.Dancing and choir singing, wood-chopping and sports, many based on farm tasks - the Basques create a strong cultural tradition with these and other local pursuits, often existing for many centuries.

Basque dancing is called Basque ballet. The shoes frequently worn by the men (as well as the girls) are light laced-on slippers, and their dances often include much twiddling of feet (pas-de-chat-like) and high straight-legged kicks. Other dances include using sticks, rather as in British Morris dancing, or comprise stately, slow walks for both sexes, reminiscent of eighteenth-century solemn masques.

Dances and their costumes differ from province to province in the Pays Basque. One persistent theme is the white shirts and trousers with red cummerbunds worn by the men (who can be teenagers), sometimes with a red Basque beret. The women wear clothes from the countryside of the eighteenth century, with wide long skirts, apron and blouse with sleeveless jerkin. Obviously, there is much variety, but most costumes have these bases.

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Basque dancer doing a high kick.
Dances for men are frequently energetic with competitive elements, like who can kick the highest.

Children Basque dancing at Sourraide
Boys also compete - who can jump most skillfully on and off a bench.

Basque dancing at Hasparren.

Basque dancing at Hasparren

Basque dancing at Souraide

Festival dancers at Souraide.

Basque dancing at Souraide

Basque dancing at Souraide

A pelote fronton

Another Basque fronton

An indoor fronton

Pelote and the fronton
A local sport, played mostly in the Basque Country, in Pyrénées-Atlantiques and north-western Spain, and also further north into coastal regions of Les Landes. The game has been exported to other parts of the world by Basque emigres.

A small, hard, leathered-covered ball, filled with a wound rubber cord, is hit against a high wall, using a sort of basket strapped to the hand, a paddle like a ping-pong bat, or with the bare hand. When played indoors, one side wall is also used. The bare-handed players often have crippled hands as a result of the violent hitting of the fast-moving ball. Outdoors, pelote is played at the fronton, a tall, wide, marked wall, with lines marked on its asphalt playing zone. There are often tiers of seats for spectators.

Frontons: the outdoor pelote courts (left top and middle) are each situated near the Mairie (town hall).

The top photo includes typical ‘brutalised’ trees on the right. In France, trees are hard pruned, which results in plentiful shade during the sunny, hot summer days, but during winter the trees show their knobbly scars. Note that generally the leaves from these trees are not just left to fall in autumn. Instead, they are removed as part of the hard pruning regime. The trees usually subjected to this treatment are plane trees - Platanus species.

Middle: This fronton is flanked on both sides by rows of concrete seats, like deep steps. Notice also the pruned trees in full foliage on the right.

Bottom: an indoor pelote court deep in Pyrenees Atlantiques, being used for a folk display.

Every town and village, large and small, in Basqueland [Pays Basque] and among its close neighbours, aspires to build its fronton, some indoors, many outdoors. Frontons of varying size and grandeur become centres of entertainment and festivity, ranging from communal barbeques and folk dancing to general partying. Frontons are hang-outs for local teenagers, practicing skateboarding or their tennis strokes against the wall, and of course for clashes in the local pelote leagues.

If you visit the Basque Museum, next to the river Adour in Bayonne’s old quarter, you can find a whole section on pelote on the top floor.

Basque Force
Like the Scots with their Highland games, Basques have a strong tradition of local games of strength and speed, the participants being male. At town fairs, as well as dance displays, horse judging competitions, and maybe a running race for the ladies, there is often a Basque Force competition.

Teams from neighbouring towns compete in the tug-of-war, log-chopping, and other delights such as ‘carrying full milk-churns’, lifting and moving a farm cart, hauling a full sack to the top of a pulley mounted high on a frame [this last represents lifting straw bales - the sack weighs 45kg and is hoisted as many times as possible to a height of 4 metres]. These are strength and endurance competitions, with the winner being the person who lasts the longest.

Preparing for tug-of-war - winding wide cummerbands to support the backThe tug-of-war becomes a communal event, with first, men in the audience making up a team against the ‘professionals’, then two women’s teams from the audience, and then the children have a go. Unfortunately for, these events did not start until dusk was falling in a village with negligible floodlighting, so we were not able to make much of a photographic record.

Tug-of-war at Souraide, during a Basque Force display

Bsasque croos/symbol

basque architecture

Click on blue-bordered images for a larger version.

Basque houses near the churchyard at Saint EngraceA post card without a Basque house is not a real postcard of Pays Basque. But, far from the tourist photos, the Basque house, or Etxe [French spelling: Etche], shows the character of a people and a whole region, or rather the three provinces of French Pays Basque - known as the Northern Provinces. With the green of the hills, the white walls and red-painted woodwork of the houses make up the colours that symbolise Euskal Herria.

Basque homes, from a roundabout planted with wild flowersAlways oriented towards the rising sun or to the south, the facade is whitened with lime. The opposing side is always blind (without openings) to protect the building and its interior from the wind and rain coming from the Atlantic. The isolated Basque house is the ideal response to constraints imposed by the site, local climate and rural way of life.

Inscription above a lintel in French and in BasqueDecorated by half-timbering, the main facade is sometimes brightened with inscriptions, in Basque, of the name of the family head, his trade and the building’s construction date above the door lintel, which inform visitors or passers-by. [Left: Inscription above the lintel of a village meeting hall, in French and in Basque.]

The idea of family is very important of the Basques, with the family house being at the heart of the community. The etche is a tangible representation of the family, being built as the family grows, and being part of the wider community of village or hamlet. Only the head of families possessing a house could participate in meetings or assemblies. This resulted in a particular social structure.

In the beginning, the etche had only a ground floor, but over the generations, the house was topped with an additional floor that gave a huge floor area where many descendants could be accommodated. It was not rare for these houses to house three generations at the same time. Indoors, the people lived with their animals, as in most French regions. The entrance was a cart-sized door which led to a big space called eskarats, where the carts and farming tools where stored. This ground floor room led to the bedrooms, stable, kitchen and a living room of about 40 to 50 m² floor area. The bedrooms were put upstairs, once that had been built.

Hydroelectric sub-station in a typical Basque design buildingThe Basque vernacular style is used for many buildings, not just dwelling places. For instance, to the left is a hydroelectric sub-station within a typical Basque design building, on a road up to one of the French-Spanish border crossings in the Western Pyrenees.

Today, Basque houses are attractive because of their strong connection with the Basque identity, and not just amongst the local inhabitants. Without the farming functions, the ground floor offers extra space and comfort. As well as the traditional houses dating from the seventeenth century, architects at the beginning of the twentieth century created large houses based on the Basque design and layout. Today, the neo-Basque style can be seen side by side with true etches.

Basque houses at Saint EngraceThe grouping of dwellings in quarters, villages and towns is a response to essentially economic constraints, the constructions nevertheless conserving their original components.

Although medieval constructions are still numerous, the majority of houses do not date from earlier than the sixteenth century, except for the monastic edifices linked to the Compostelle pilgrims’ routes. Pays Basque was one of the most important communications crossroads of the Middle Ages, used by pilgrims, traders, travellers and soldiers.

The pilgrim hospitals and the toll stations were the origin for most of the agglomerations. The Jacobite roads had a predominant role in the creation of new towns. The architecture of numerous monuments indicate the cultural exchanges between Europe and the Iberian peninsula. The great majority of old houses date from the 17th and 18th centuries. Several events - the wars of religion and the Franco-Spanish wars - have provoked the disappearance of the medieval buildings, often built in wood and founded on crude masonry.

Geographical conditions explain differences in architecture and materials used in the three French provinces:
LABOURD: More than three-quarters of the population are concentrated on the coast. House orientation varies from north-east to south-east. The principle facade in pine often has a porch or Lorio. The first floor extends beyond the ground floor, being supported by wood corbels (or brackets) and is half-timbered. The roof has two slopes at the front, possibly asymmetrical to cover a building extension, with three or four sloping sections to the rear.

The architecture of the houses of the High Town of Bayonne, with cellars and arches, characterise the medieval town plan between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. The plan of the Bayonnaise house reproduced today is essentially that of the Middle Ages, with a five-metre facade, built in two parts, one on the street serving as the living space and behind, the other used as workshops and an outbuilding.

BASSE-NAVARRE: The house is less slender than Labourdine houses. The side walls extend forward, often to support a balcony. Although there are some Labourdine-style corbels in wood, most are in grey or pink stone. Lintels above the entry door have inscriptions and, as in Labourd, the roof is of curved red tiles. The “noble” houses are clearly differentiated by more careful dressing of cut stones. [Note that English buildings from Elizabethan times and before, have similarities to these buildings, half-timbering and the upper stories jutting out over the ground level.]

SOULE: The Souletine house resembles the Bearnaise house, but the ‘break’ in the roof is less pronounced. The steeply sloped roof is slate-covered, while the walls are block or pebble-decorated, and lime-whitened. Of a smaller size, these buildings do not have the embellishment common on houses of Labourd or Basse-Navarre - sculpted door lintels, petal-patterned beams supported by corbels.

Bsasque croos/symbol

Basque typeface. Credit: Thierry Arsaut, http://www.basquexplorer.comthe Basque typeface

The singular type face used by the Basques has its origins in stone carving, while the letters themselves are based on the Roman alphabet. As the early Basques did not have the metal chisels that the Romans used, Basque letters were created by scraping away round the edges of the letters, leaving the letter relatively proud of its surrounds. Because of this, much old Basque lettering has gone, worn away by the weather of centuries. Other consequences were that there are much fewer lower-case letters than upper-case ones, and Basque letters tend to have broad lines.

We at have done some researches to try and determine the reason for the crossbar put on letters, particularly the letter ‘A’. There appears to be two possible reasons. First, there is a common tendency in Basque to merge letters to save space. Thus the letters ‘A’ and ‘T’ could be merged to make the characteristic Basque ‘A’. Another possibility concerns the strong adherence to Christianity in the Pays Basque. The Greek letter tau or ‘T’ was often used as a simplified cross. Perhaps a crosspiece was added to the letter ‘A’ as a religious reminder?

Bsasque croos/symbol

the Basque flag and Basque cross

Basque national flagTo those from the United Kingdom, the Basque national flag is strangely familiar, looking like their national flag. This is not a coincidence, in 1882, a national flag for Pays Basque was devised, based on the Basque cross with crucifix, from a tombstoneBritish Union flag. The Basques changed the blue, red and white for their national colours of white, green and red, while simplifying the design. The green represents Hope, the red Blood, Liberty and the Basque origins, while the white is for Faith.

A traditional religious symbol, seen on gravestones, as well as on many artifacts, both old and new, is the Basque or Lauburu cross with its four comma-shaped heads. For modern people, this cross is disturbing as it is reminiscent of the swastika symbol of the Nazis and Adolph Hitler. However, rather than coming from the same source, this symbol is considered to come from a medieval alchemic symbol used to indicate healers of animals and of souls [priests]. In its right-facing, positive form, it symbolises life and good fortune, while the left-facing form represents death and misfortune. The words Lau buru means four summits, heads or ends in Basque.

Pyrénées-Atlantiques 3 - on the coast and the interior takes a short tour into the Pyrénéees Atlantiques and looks at a small selection of places to visit.

end notes

  1. The highly practical and versatile hat - the beret - is a Basque (or possibly a Bearnaise) invention, originally worn by shepherds, made from woven and then felted sheep’s wool. Although Frenchmen traditionally wear a black beret, in the heart of both French and Spanish Basqueland, a red beret is worn. In Spanish Basque provinces, the red beret is a part of the policeman’s everyday uniform. The beret is called txapela in Basque; the word beret comes originally from late Latin, birrus, meaning a hooded cloak.

    And how versatile is a beret? Tremendously! You can pull a beret down over the ears to warm and protect them, shade your eyes, and roll it up and stuff it in a pocket when it is not wanted. In Les Landes, the beret is used to hold together the feet when jumping over cows in the Courses Landaises.

    Note that although military personnel wear the beret so that it creates a peak at one side of the head and slopes down over the ear on the other side, berets worn by men in Pays Basque and in Les Landes (just to the north of Pyrénées Atlantiques) are most often worn so there is a shading peak overhanging the eyes. The resulting shape looks very similar to a cloth cap, as often worn by country and horsy folk in Anglo-Saxon countries.

    Berets originally were dark blue or red, and now most berets worn by Frenchmen are black. However, berets sold for tourists can be found in a joyful multitude of strong and pastel colours. Note that the ‘original’ Basque beret is made with a leather headband, while nowadays it is often in vinyl. There are also, probably more comfortable, berets without a headband.

  2. The word Jacobite comes from the Jacob’s, who were the kings named James in the Royal House of Stuart. The followers of the various James’ (James V through to VII) were thus known as Jacobites. After much coflict between the Scottish and English Royal families, the main Stuart dynasty was exiled several times, retreating to the continent, usually to France. Jacobite roads were those used by supporters as they travelled between their exiled leaders and supporters in Spain. The Stuarts stayed in French towns, including Avignon and St. Germain, just west of Paris.

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