History of the farmhouse

Igartubeiti is an old farmhouse in the municipality of Ezkio-Itsaso, in the heart of Gipuzkoa. It stands in the narrow Santa Lucia Valley, which serves as a natural corridor between the districts of Goiherri and Alto Urola. This is a green, rainy area with rugged terrain. Although the altitude is not great the slopes are very steep and there is very little level ground that can easily be used for growing crops.


The Igartubeiti farmhouse stands alone on a spur of the mountain halfway between the Santa Lucia Valley and the village that can be seen in the background in this photo. © Xabi Otero

Igartubeiti is not built on the riverbank but rather, as is often the case with older houses in Gipuzkoa, on a small, level area halfway up the slope, about 80 m above the valley floor. This hillside is a South-facing spur of Mount Kizkitza, so the farmhouse receives direct sunlight from the early morning onwards, while down in the valley the riverside mist does not clear until much later. The house is built directly on the mountain spur, so that its roof acts as a watershed for two deep ravines, and the land falls away abruptly on both sides of the house. The level platform on which it stands is narrow and irregular in shape, and the space available for building is barely 150 m long (on the north/south axis) and 50 m wide. It is therefore quite unsuitable for a group settlement.


The Igartubeti farmhouse stands on a narrow area of level ground halfway up the hillside, flanked by very steep slopes. © Xabi Otero

An old track between the two hamlets that make up the village of Ezkioga runs alongside the walls of Igartubeiti, delimiting the farmstead on one side. The lower hamlet, called Anduaga, is the younger of the two and the one that is currently growing more quickly, while the upper hamlet, which is considered the chief hamlet of the municipality, is now a lonely group of barely a dozen houses huddled around the parish church of San Miguel, which stands on another natural viewing balcony on the hillside.

The name Igartubeiti is a compound word. Local people refer to it simply as “Beiti”, which means “lower down”, in reference to its location, but it was once known as “Igartua”, and even longer ago as “Iartu", a name of Latin origin that denotes that there was once a dead tree (yerto) at its location.

Up to the 1990s, the Igartubeiti farmhouse had been in the hands of the Mendiguren family for many generations. This was a family of middle-income-bracket farmers who worked 12 ha of clayey land located in a rough circle around the house itself, plus a further 3 ha of woodland in Aristegieta. They kept a few head of cattle, and in a good year their stables might have held as many as six cows, two draught oxen, a donkey, a pig being fattened for slaughter and a flock of around 50 sheep, along with a few rabbits and perhaps a score of poultry.


Numerous fruit trees grow around Igartubeiti, especially apple, chestnut and peach trees. © Xabi Otero

Farming at Igartubeiti traditionally involved growing a variety of vegetables, wheat and corn (though the fields were difficult to farm) and fruit trees. Along with the apples and chestnuts found in abundance throughout the valley, Igartubeiti was renowned for producing particularly succulent peaches. Little cereal could be grown, so the family was regularly forced to buy in grain imported from Castile or from overseas at the public marketplace. For centuries the Mendiguren family took farm produce such as fruit and beans to market at the neighbouring towns of Urretxu and Legazpi, but their main stock in trade consisted of wicker rods for basket making, which they grew on the lower, sandier parts of their land and sold in Zumarraga.

Igartubeiti did not stand out as a particularly wealthy farmstead or indeed as a particularly high quality building. The interior and the main facade were built of oak wood, and the remaining walls of poor quality masonry that underwent few if any significant improvements from the 17th century onwards. Its floor plan is square, and the building is topped with a great gable roof. An open porch runs along the entire width of the front of the house, and the interior is arranged in the double-L configuration traditionally used in Gipuzkoa, with the dwelling area and stables on the ground floor and the various storage areas on the upper floor under the roof. A striking feature of the interior is a great cider press, which lay disused and falling into decay for several generations. It was once common to find cider presses in farmhouses – indeed several thousand are thought to have existed on the oldest farmsteads in Gipuzkoa and Bizkaia and the remains of several hundred still survive – but the recent reconstruction work to put this particular press back into working order reveals that it is of a quite uncommon type.

There is really nothing in Igartubeiti that sets it apart as unique except for the highly important fact (in terms of cultural heritage) that much of its structure and its wooden walls have survived largely unaltered. In most such farmhouses they are long gone. Its most appreciable feature is precisely its value as a paradigm: its usefulness as an example of what was once a large number of farmhouses with similar social, economic and physical characteristics. It can thus serve as a scenario for examining and, in some cases, resolving major historical mysteries concerning such farmhouses in general.


Igartubeiti is an outlying farmstead well away from the parish church and the centre of the village of Ezkioga. © Xabi Otero

Like many other farmhouses, Igartubeiti’s passage through history has gone practically unnoticed. Little information on it has come to light, in spite of the exhaustive documentary, archaeological, ethnographic and architectural research carried out as a necessary adjunct to the restoration of the building. It stands out not so much for its intrinsic characteristics – which it shares with many other farmhouses – as for the amount of research conducted on it. That research is not only particularly thorough but also unprecedented in this area, insofar as it has focused specifically (and not just as part of a broader study) on a rural residential building rather than a visually attractive, historically renowned, high-prestige construction such as a church, a stately home or a military or public building. The house is important only to the extent that it can provide undiluted, first-hand information on the homes and villages of farmers and on how they once lived.

In this role as a paradigm, Igartubeiti can serve as a springboard for analysing at least three issues which are significant in interpreting the history of the area and of thousands of Basque farmhouses over a period of more than 1000 years. The first is the pattern of scattered settlements on hillsides in high-rainfall areas, of which Igartubeiti is a fine example. The second is how the farmstead came to emerge as a new type of dwelling for farmers on the Bay of Biscay side of the Basque lands, in particular in the form of a combined dwelling and cider press, the form that predominated in Gipuzkoa, of which Igartubeiti is the only intact survivor. And the third is the more generic question of what domestic life was like in terms of family living, amenities and the use of farm dwellings over the past 500 years, beyond the narrow chronological limits imposed by living memory and the scarceness of written records, which has kept farm workers out of sight in a past with no history.

©Alberto Santana