We’re celebrating our one-year anniversary of having moved to Portugal and landing in the Algarve. Since the year was full of “getting settled” stuff that we’re nearly done with, Ron and I decided to take the summer to get to know the opposite end of our newly adopted country. So we’ve been staying on the edge of spectacular Peneda-Gerês National Park, in the northwest corner of Portugal. There are dozens of little mountain villages pocketed among the towering mountains, lush forests and soaring valleys up here.
In our first few days, we wandered the mountain roads and kept coming across elevated mausoleum-like structures topped with crosses. We figured this is what a deeply Catholic country looks like here in the north. Maybe it’s a tradition in which people want to keep their deceased close to them – like in their backyard? We promised ourselves to look it up later.
On that very day, as it was becoming clear how ubiquitous these structures are, we happened onto the famed mountain village of Soajo, which is a mother lode of them (the picture of me is in Soajo). Upon learning there’s not dead bodies entombed in them, we laughed and gave ourselves a self-deprecating eye roll.
Silly us! These aren't tombs. They're built for storing grain to keep the living alive. Cleverly, these espigueiros are on stilts so mice couldn't get to them and are usually built on high, elevated ground so the wind would blow through the slanted openings to dry corn but also wheat and barley. This ingenious approach of ensuring food security dates back to the 1700s – long before modern storage and transportation systems. It was central to storing and keeping harvests safe and residents fed through harsh winters and periods of scarcity.
A Lot More Going on Than Storage
But we learned that the espigueiros (pronounced: ehs-pee-GAY-roosh) are more than utilitarian structures – they’re architectural gems with profound cultural significance. The skills to design, position, and protect them were passed down through generations and often required collective effort, fostering a strong sense of community among neighbors and family members who worked together to ensure the well-being of the entire community.
Villagers gathered during the harvest season to thresh, clean, and store the grains, helping to share the intergenerational knowledge. There were festivals and rituals centered around these activities adding a layer of cultural richness to simply storing and preserving grain.
What About the Crosses?
In a region of the country historically steeped in deep religious beliefs, the cross planted on the top of the espigueiros adds a recognisable visual, and enhances the structures’ distinctive silhouette whether they’re standing alone or built-in groups such as those in Soajo, where there are 24 clustered. The crosses also have specific meanings and interpretations that vary from one region to another and even from one community to another. For one, it’s said the cross reflects the quest for divine protection and blessing for the stored grains. As one (English-speaking) Portuguese woman raised in the region told me, “It’s a prayer to ask for the protection of “our daily bread”. It can also be a nod to the historical practices or folk beliefs connecting land, nature, and the cycles of life and death – all tidily intertwined with the use of the cross symbol.
On a more practical level, the cross – being a protruding and elevated element, also created an obstacle for birds and animals, making it more difficult for them to access the top of the espigueiro. The crosses' shape and position served to discourage creatures from landing and nesting on the structure, helping to protect the stored crops.
Keeping history alive
Espigueiros are primarily located in the northern regions of Portugal, particularly in the Minho, Trás-os-Montes, and Douro regions. A check on the Internet indicates they’re also found in certain areas of northern Spain, especially in the region of Galicia, where they’re commonly known as "hórreos". A savvy tour guide told us that hórreos in Spain and espigueiros in Portugal are still in spotty use today.
There are active preservation efforts going on for these structures introduced more than 300 years ago. There’s also restoration projects with research and exhibitions highlighting their cultural importance. Museums, festivals, and interpretive centers are educating visitors and tourists, and legal protections are being put into place to safeguard them.
Are you surprised by what I’m describing here? Did you know about espigueiros and had some experience with them? Drop down to the comment sections and let us know.
Becca Williams is originally from America but is now settling into small town living in Lagos, a seaside town on Portugal’s southern coast. Contact her at AlgarveBecca@gmail.com