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THE CASERÍO: the Bizkaian farmsteadBack

For all peoples, the house is a key element to know their lifestyle, their relationship with nature, in short, their identity. Popular architecture, more than any other artistic manifestation, because it is utilitarian, local and adapted to the family way of life, constitutes, together with language, one of the most distinctive signs of nationality. The importance of the caserío or farmstead is such in our culture that its inhabitants take their name from it, taking the place name as their surname. In Bizkaia, a rich and varied popular architectural heritage has been preserved, and this provides us with the opportunity to know the customs of our ancestors throughout the last centuries, that is to say, our own roots.

THE CANTABRIAN CASERÍO

The caserío represents, generally, the existence of families or family groups, owners of a usually small expanse of land, that they plough and cultivate with their own hands, and next to which they must necessarily live. Generally, the caserío is found isolated in the country; the higher up on the mountains they are, the more marked this isolation is. On occasions, when several caseríos are built close to each other, they form small nuclei, always around a church, a hermitage or a school.

The caserío serves simultaneously the functions of dwelling, stable and granary. Its construction is closely linked to the natural environment, using the materials found in the area where it is built.

The primitive caserío has some characteristic features that have survived until our days. In the oldest ones, timber was the main construction element, until the second half of the 18th century, when, with the appearance of the stonework arch, timber loses value to stone.

The construction characteristics that basically define the caserío are common, although each one has its own personality. Slightly slanting roofs, normal axis to the façade looking midday, where the second typical element appears: the portalón (undercover space at the entrance to the house) which owes its origin to the rainy climate of our region.

The caserío with an arched portalón is the most common type, to the point that some consider it the archetype of Bizkaian popular dwellings. However, it is a relatively recent architectural element in our rural landscape and its area of dispersion is limited to some specific districts, while being almost unknown in others. The oldest examples were built at the end of the 16th century. The area where it can be found is, in general, the entire area stretching to the north of the Ibaizabal river.

The primitive portalón consists of a solid beam that serves as a lintel. The part of façade above the portalón is built with light, soft materials. In the middle of the 18th century the keystone arch makes its appearance. Thanks to the arch technique, more storeys could be built and the entire façade could be built with stone. As the pressure of the wall and roof was more rationally distributed, it was possible to open up many more windows and to make them larger, thus overcoming the atmosphere of perpetual semi-darkness that used to reign in the old caseríos. More evolved are the doubled arched caseríos, with which the caserío reached its architectural zenith.

The interior of the caserío consisted of a ground floor, used as a stable and dwelling, and a storey above it that was used as a granary and straw loft. A subsequent evolution brought the differentiation between the ground floor used as a stable, the floor above it was the dwelling, and above it was the granary.

The kitchen, as it existed in its earlier state, had the fireplace in the centre and the smoke used to escape through the gaps between the boards of the room above, usually used as a drying area. Later, with the appearance of the fireplace against the wall, the need emerged to let the smoke out of the house, and thus the first chimneys appeared.

On the ground floor, the portalón served at once as a workshop and a leisure space for the hours of rest. In it, the farmers repair their farming implements and it is the place where children play when it is raining.

This is the predominant type of dwelling in the westernmost part of the Encartaciones district, influenced by the popular construction techniques used in Cantabria in the 18th century.

It is a taller, deeper and narrower house than the ones used in the rest of Bizkaia. Its façade is framed between two thick stone firebreaks called espolones, that support two rows of balconies. It has no porch, and the access of persons and animals is through the same door. It outstands for the solidity of its construction and the quality of the materials used: lots of good quality stone and only the amount of timber necessary for the beams and balconies.

A particular case in this construction model are the 18th century caseríos of Turtzioz. In the basin of the Agueda river we find hybrids of Basque (isolation and perpendicular eaves) and Cantabrian houses (with espolones or pipianos).

ARNAGAS AND HÓRREOS

The arnaga is a small construction that complements the farming and livestock activity of the caserío.

It is a masonry building consisting of two independent stories. The upper storey is used for the storage of straw, and the lower storey for firewood or for keeping small household animals, such as rabbits, hens,…

Arnagas and hórreos should not be confused, although in some ways both have played the same role. In the old days, the hórreos were common elements on farms, especially in the Duranguesado district. Today, only a few of these have survived and most of them are in a terribly poor state.

Although very similar to Asturian hórreos, Bizkaian hórreos have, however, unique appearances and characteristics. The supports have the shape of truncated pyramids and on them rest the round stones that serve as platform for the timber structure.

ITINERARY

To look at one of the most beautiful examplesof Bizkaian rural architecture, we travel to the municipality of Izurza, in the Duranguesado district. Here we can take a stroll while contemplating some fine-looking caseríos corresponding to different architectural periods. We will also take pleasure in observing one of the most beautiful towers in our geography. These defensive towers are also an essential part of our architecture and an important legacy of our ancestors.

To reach Izurza, we must take the road that runs from Durango to Gasteiz through the Urkiola mountain pass. Just outside the town, we find ourselves in the neighbourhood of Aldebarrena. Opposite some industrial premises starts a sealed road, marked with a signpost showing the way to the albergue (lodging house) of the Regional Government of Bizkaia.

The entrance to the neighbourhood of Aldebarrena is dominated by two beautiful caseríos. The one on the left, recently restored, is the oldest of the two (16th-17th century). Above its wide lintelled portalón rises the central part of the façade, with a wooden framework covered with brickwork. The two sides are built in masonry, with stonework corners. The caserio on the right, more modest in size, features a portalón with a simple arch supporting a masonry facade. Only the corners, windows and arch are built in stonework.

Gradually we get deep into the small valley sheltered under the rugged slopes of Mount Mugarra. To the left is the splendid Hormaetxe caserío, a beautiful 18th century building with all the master walls built in masonry. The brickwork on the façade has disappeared, as well as the timber framework. A wide lowered arch, of a certain urban influence, supports the immense central façade.

Soon we make out another lovely caserío, Etxaburu. From here we enjoy fabulous views of the valley, dominated by the Mugarra rock over which vultures frequently glide accompanied by the noisy choughs. A delightful Cantabrian holm oak forest covers the rocky slopes that from the summit stretch down towards the valley near Mañaria. It is sad to see how the exploitation of nearby quarries is destroying day by day this immense beauty that nature took millenniums to create.

At the end of the valley is the Etxaburu tower, that rises solitary and defiant on a rocky outcrop. Its construction is attributed to emperor Antonius Pius, although it was subsequently destroyed by order of Henry IV. Sancho López de Ibarguen rebuilt the tower at the beginning of the 16th century, but a century later it was abandoned. Its present-day appearance corresponds to the renovation work undertaken by the Regional Government of Bizkaia.

To the left of the tower starts a narrow path that descends between moss-covered rocks, through a sort of labyrinth that runs in the shade of laurels. From this area, if we look up, we will see a beautiful ogival window on the tower wall, and above it, on the timber framework that covers the upper part, is a small balcony.

On the lower part is a wet area from which rises a spring that flows in the shadow of a small alder grove with some willows, hazel trees and walnut trees.