From cortijos to caseríos: the history of Spain’s traditional buildings

What are the typical architectural structures in Spain? Photo: Prentsa Aldundia | Flickr
What are the typical architectural structures in Spain? Photo: Prentsa Aldundia | Flickr
25 April 2018, Redaction

Original article written by Hoja de Router

Spain is a country of great cultural diversity and richness. Travelling from north to south, from east to west, fields and villages follow one another, deeply altering in appearance as each region passes by. Sometimes it seems that the land and the buildings merge into one landscape. It’s not for nothing that traditional architecture is inspired by the environment in which it is found.

Not only have the climate and the geography conditioned the different typical houses that populate the Spanish countryside, but also the historical origins. The distribution of the land during the feudal era, the Arab influence in the south and Levante or the military heritage of the north mark the aesthetic differences between the traditional architecture of one community and another. Some of the buildings even come from Roman constructions or from Neolithic works.

The alquería in Valencia and Granada

They are large and typical of the Levante area / Wikimedia commons
They are large and typical of the Levante area / Wikimedia commons

An ‘alquería’ is a large country house typical of Levante. It is a fairly complete agricultural construction, with a mill, barn, connected irrigation channels, and to which is usually added some sort of defensive structure, such as walls and a watchtower. In a way, it was the continuation of the Roman villa made by the Arabs in the south and in Levante, who introduced great advances in agriculture in the peninsula. After the Christian reconquest, these houses kept the same name (which comes from the Arabic 'qarya', meaning 'farmhouse') and were used as agricultural estates in the south and east of the country.

The cortijo in Andalusia

It is an isolated construction in the countryside / Photo: Toprural | Flickr
It is an isolated construction in the countryside / Photo: Toprural | Flickr

The cortijo is another of the typical constructions of southern rural Spain. With alquerías already existing in the old Al-Andalus, the cortijo farmhouse came to reinforce this type of isolated construction in the countryside and was dedicated to agriculture and livestock, consecrating its heyday later, around the eighteenth century. The most unique thing about the cortijo is that it is designed to cover the whole area of the landowner’s estate.

The distribution of land during the Arab conquest and the Christian reconquest created a south of Spain with vast areas to be exploited, unlike the north with its many smallholdings. For this reason, this type of architectural complex is large and far from the villages: it was a productive and power centre for the owners or 'lords' of the land who had to control large areas of property.

The carmen in Granada

It has Spanish-Muslim origins and dates back to the 11th century / Wikimedia commons
It has Spanish-Muslim origins and dates back to the 11th century / Wikimedia commons

The concept of the carmen of Granada has a Spanish-Muslim origin, specifically the word 'karm', meaning vine. The 11th century Muslims in Granada used this term to refer to the small estates and rustic dwellings outside the city walls. Although these buildings had vegetable plots, they were used more for recreation than for farming. For that reason, they have beautiful gardens and are located in areas with slopes and views of the city of Granada.

The cigarral in Toledo

They began to be built in the 15th century / Wikimedia commons
They began to be built in the 15th century / Wikimedia commons

Also for recreational purposes, cigarrales began to be built in the mid-15th century in the outskirts of Toledo, specifically on the other side of the Tagus River, when wars between Christians and Muslims ceased in the area. The origin of the word is uncertain, although it is believed to refer to the summer season, when the cicadas (‘cigarras’ in Spanish) sound at night and when these manor houses were occupied. Their character as luxury homes continued into the twentieth century with their use by the bourgeoisie and even today as they are used as hotels.

The barraca in Levante

They are country houses located near the sea / Wikimedia commons
They are country houses located near the sea / Wikimedia commons

The barraca is one of the architectural symbols of the Levantine coast. It is a country house, in many cases close to the sea, with a characteristic thatched roof and plentiful gardens. Its origin is related to the huts of the Iberian culture, since the barracas are built with rudimentary local materials such as mud, cane, reeds, adobe and straw. This traditional dwelling has remained tenacious over the centuries, providing shelter for many generations of fishermen and farmers.

The masía in Catalonia

It comes from Roman villas / Photo: Toni Hermoso Pulido | Flickr
It comes from Roman villas / Photo: Toni Hermoso Pulido | Flickr

In the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula, the Roman villas gave rise to what we know today as masías. These isolated houses in rural areas may be very diverse depending on when and where they were built (in the mountains they are made of unpolished stone, further south with adobe, in the Pyrenees with slate roofs, etc.). But they had structural elements in common, such as a large roof with two slopes on a main south-facing façade, and a first floor dedicated to rural tasks, while the living space was on top.

The montañesa house and the casona

They are typical of the north of Spain and are made of stone / Wikimedia commons
They are typical of the north of Spain and are made of stone / Wikimedia commons

In Cantabria, Asturias and the north of Castile and León, there is a type of traditional architecture called ‘montañesa’ or ‘mountainous’. The mountain villages are home to sturdy houses made of stone, with a characteristic wooden balcony that occupies the entire main façade and is always south-facing. This balcony, protected from the wind by side eaves, was used as a drying area and has been an essential element in mountain cottages since the 16th century.

At the same time, the equivalent of the alquerías or masías in this area were called ‘casonas’. They were the houses of the wealthier classes and were practically the same but with more decorative elements.

The pazo in Galicia

Its appearance comes from the Middle Ages / Photo: Juantiagues | Flickr
Its appearance comes from the Middle Ages / Photo: Juantiagues | Flickr

The pazo is a kind of rural mansion that, just as in the rest of Spain, is a descendant of the Roman villa. However, this characteristic Galician house stems from many different periods: its defensive appearance comes from the Middle Ages (the pazos began to appear around the year 1500), but it is also influenced by the Galician monastic and peasant architecture, the Italian Renaissance and the Portuguese Baroque style.

The caserío in the Basque Country

They began to be built five centuries ago / Photo: Gemawla2 | Flickr
They began to be built five centuries ago / Photo: Gemawla2 | Flickr

The caseríos began to populate the Basque rural landscape some 500 years ago, being one of the most efficient buildings in the whole north. It is a colossal building, up to a thousand square metres, or ten thousand square feet, which gathers in the same structure a stable, a winepress, a barn, a house and a haybarn. This Basque building is inspired by French architecture and southern German carpentry, thanks to the fact that many Basques worked and learned with French and German architects in the construction of the Gothic cathedrals of Castile and Andalusia.

The hórreo in northern Spain

It comes from the Latin term ‘horreum’ (barn) / Photo: Javier Leiva | Flickr
It comes from the Latin term ‘horreum’ (barn) / Photo: Javier Leiva | Flickr

The hórreo is a typical construction of the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula and is not intended to be lived in, but to store the grain away from the ground to preserve it from humidity and rodents. Although the name comes from the Latin term 'horreum' (barn), the building’s origin is much older. When the Romans arrived on the peninsula, the Iberian people were already using this construction, and some authors point out that it could have come from the Neolithic period, when our prehistoric ancestors began to practice agriculture. In any case, if we travel around Asturias, Cantabria or Galicia we can find these unique buildings that have already become one of the many architectural icons of Spain.

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