It would be hard to imagine a rural guesthouse without the presence of a woman. They are the veritable soul of the place, indefatigable worker ants. The feminine touch is immediately noticeable when one approaches any house that offers these services. And the interrelation between women and rural guesthouses, which is generally substantial and beneficial, is always fascinating.
What has the rural guesthouse industry meant to women living in farmhouses?
Mainly, a glimmer of hope in the midst of a crisis that has affected agriculture for so many years. A new opportunity to diversify the activities of the rural community, something that has always been of special interest to women. A complementary activity that increases the income of the farming community and keeps it alive, without endangering its activities and products.
The development of this enterprise, which has no reason to limit itself to providing accommodation, allows women to discover that the tasks they have been doing with devotion and often just for amusement, can also provide a source of income, such as processing and selling products that have, historically, been made by women and in a large number of cases have helped them to get on in life, or the sale of handicrafts and other kinds of services. Provided that women are seen to be willing and are really capable of doing this kind of work, and the location and characteristics of the farmhouse allow this, running a rural guesthouse allows several activities to be carried out at the same time.
On the other hand, and in spite of the fact that until now, no research has been done into this issue, from the point of view of the legal and social status of women, the rural guesthouse industry has represented a major step forward.
Everyone is familiar with the long-standing problem of the lack of legislation providing women who work in farmhouses and are considered, legally, to be just assistants of the owner, with worker status. Very few women are registered owners of a farmhouse and enjoy socially-recognised rights.
As a result of this, women encounter a great number of obstacles when they attempt to gain recognition fortheir work in the farmhouse. Due to the fact that they are engaged in such a large number of activities without being specialised in any specific task, their identity, at least with regard to the recognition of their work, dissolves into thin air.
I know a good many cases in which rural guesthouse activities have helped women to overcome these problems and have allowed then to achieve their just status in the farmhouse.
What is clear, however, is that for the first time, women feel rewarded for the work they do (as in many cases, they are the ones who have to do the work), both in the form of the income they receive (the other tasks involved in running the farmhouse generate meagre profits), and in the gratitude shown by their guests (a major factor which increases their self-esteem and encourages them to carry on, especially in view of the fact that for many years agriculture has been an underrated sector).
Provided that it involves a complementary activity in a farmhouse, running a rural guesthouse may offer clear proof of everything agriculture contributes to society. It produces food and services, preserves the environment and safeguards the culture and characteristics of the agricultural economy.
Those who visit these farmhouses and have the opportunity of seeing for themselves that rural guesthouses do, indeed, meet all these requirements, normally show their gratitude. One only has to talk to the elder inhabitants of rural guesthouses to see how happy and optimistic they become when they receive the favourable comments of guests.
This sense of satisfaction also fosters a desire in women to pursue another major activity, namely, training. And the desire to offer this service in the most suitable and impeccable manner possible, also encourages women to examine other issues such as restoring the cultural and historical heritage of the area, decoration, gardening, landscaping, food, cuisine, languages, human relations, etc. Everything, from good husbandry to psychology. In spite of the expense (time, travelling, money, etc.), these activities are highly beneficial for women.
From the spiritual point of view, and besides the aforementioned effect of cultural enrichment, we should also mention the relationships these women form not only with guests and visitors, but also with other farmers involved in this activity. A sense of solidarity, of mutual assistance and of learning from each other must be created and women need to organise themselves in order to continue making progress.
But what is women’s contribution to the rural guesthouse industry?
To start off w ith, it is clear that the nucleus of any initiative of this type is normally a farmhouse, inhabited by a family whose members contribute as much as they can, and whose aim is to offer the most comprehensive range of services possible. Sometimes, it is the men of the house who assume most of the responsibility, but as this activity is normally in the hands of the women, I will refer to them, based on cases I am familiar with, but without any real scientific data on this subject.
Behind the thousands of details that contribute to a pleasant and most often unforgettable stay, there is usually a woman. The traditional Basque hospitality of making visitors feel just one more member of the family, as if they were in their own home and not in a guesthouse, is well known. Clearly, a rural guesthouse is not a hotel. It is, at least, different. It involves showing and sharing the best we have: beautiful landscapes, gastronomy, history, customs, everything of artistic or archaeological interest, leisure activities, etc. In short, our own culture and identity.
To a greater or lesser degree, one of these issues must be dealt with in all relationships with tourists, andsometimes even expert advice is called for. For this reason, it can be said that everyone engaged in the rural guesthouse industry become ambassadors of the Basque Country – without taking a single step out of the door!
Nevertheless, there are otherjobs to be done such as refurbishing the farmhouse, making it beautiful and looking after the land around it. Unfortunately, due to a lack of training, other interests, or a lack of awareness, such important aspects as the architecture of farmhouses and the farming implements used have suffered severe neglect. Many women, concerned about this issue, do everything they can to preserve and recover these valuable objects. Nevertheless, some rural guesthouses have made great efforts to restore the tools that testify to the identity and history of Basque farmhouses, and to take care of their decoration, gardens and surrounding land, as these aspects also reflect the love of a country and a specific way of life. Everywhere, one can see signs of the inner beauty of women reflected in the way they look after the gardens, balconies and other details of their farmhouses.
Women also try to win over their guests by preparing the most exquisite delicacies for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Faithful to the tradition of Basque farmhouse cooking, they will offer you the best products of the land, thus allowing their guests to appreciate the great wealth of our gastronomic tradition. After reading these lines, one might think that I have looked at Basque farmhouses and rural guesthouses though rose-coloured glasses, and there may, indeed, be some aspects that are less than perfect. I am sure that what I have described does not always coincide with the real situation of some guesthouses. We should not forget that there are cases where large amounts of money and enthusiasm have been invested to offer these activities, only to find disappointment in terms of actual numbers of guests. I hope these lines will help to promote tourism as beautiful houses which are well worth a visit can be found everywhere.
There are also women who, either because it was not their idea to get involved in running a rural guesthouse or because they would have preferred to have organised the farmhouse in a different way, see this activity as yet another burden. Clearly, the relationship between the rural guesthouse and women involves a great many different aspects and although in this presentation I have tried to set out only some of their more salient features, one could write a book about the experiences of those who have visited these farmhouses. This is just the beginning.