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Hooray for Hórreos!

Hórreos...chestnut fortresses protecting grain from battalions of rodents. These old granaries kept the people of northern Spain well fed for centuries. There are now around eighteen thousand remaining, some ruined, some renovated, and they have became symbolic of the area and something of a tourist attraction.

Hórreos of Asturias are elevated by powerful chestnut tree trunks shaped into tapered columns. Various clever features outwit the rodents: a gap from the stone steps to the door where only the mice who can construct drawbridges can be victorious, along with the use of wide round stones atop the chestnut legs where only the mouse with the ability to scuttle upside-down can enter the stronghold.

In the tiny Asturian hamlet where we spent this summer, population 221, there are ten hórreos that I can think of. Most are used mainly to store things underneath, something that would never happened in the days when mice had to be kept away. The doors, with their improvised horseshoe handles, are ajar or swinging open and interiors tend to be empty, possibly because the stone steps to access the upper part are collapsing but mainly because there is no longer any need to use them for grain storage. As to who owns them, this is often unclear or they are cooperatively owned by the ancestors of a few farmers, with three or four family names daubed on the side.

Firewood appears to be the main item being stored now and my neighbour, who spent twenty years of his career in Germany, is clearly the winner here in wood stacking talents. I saw many a wood pile akin to this during my three years in Baden Wurtenburg where there was fierce and [usually] friendly competition between households.

Hórreos in our hamlet are all of one shape and size but throughout the north of Spain there are many varieties. The mother of all hórreos is the 34 metre long 'tourist attraction', the Concello de Carnota constructed in 1768. Two hórreos with industrious monks milling about them appear in an illuminated manuscript from 1280. It is unknown when the first hórreo was constructed.

In recent decades, hórreos have sometimes been creatively used such as this fellow around the corner who hoisted his hórreo onto a shipping container in order to create his very own Shangri-La. I've seen them incorporated into cafes and the small hotel here uses the area under theirs for their breakfasting guests. I had a fantasy that I'd buy a swatch of rustic land and fill it with hórreos, creating a sort of Medieval Butlins but, alas, it was not to be. Others had tried to put the hórreos in their gardens on Airbnb and the Spanish government, finding all this a little too quirky, had slapped on the rule that all tourist property had to have a ceiling height of at least two metres.

Here's another altered hórreo whereby the underneath section has been walled in to create a more effective storage space. Not exactly beautiful. Hórreos are now protected buildings and you have to apply for a license just to restore a hórreo on your land which can be a lengthy business involving a hefty fee. Doesn't exactly inspire confidence that these buildings will all be saved.

This hórreo has seen better days. It's sad that no one makes use of the excellent chestnut wood in a building project before it rots away. Probably, because ownership of this hórreo is known or even if it is obscure, people are reluctant to take any bits. There is still a strong sense of abiding by rules here, no matter what.

Many very old and unused carts are stored under hórreos here. Who owns them? Probably farmers who have long since hung up their pitchforks and ridden off to that great hay field in the sky. So, no one touches them because they no longer have an earthly owner and they will sit there until they gradually fall apart. Both beautiful and sad.

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Matt Miles
Matt Miles
Sep 13, 2022

You're certainly throwing yourself into researching all things Asturian during your long summer away from the heat of Andalucia, Auriel. We look forward to a long and enthusiastic lecture upon your return 😉

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