Speeding through the Galician countryside on various train trips we were fortunate to spot dozens of hórreos.
Hórreos are uniquely shaped stone granaries designed to dry, store and preserve corn and other grains before grinding. The structures are built on top of pillars that prevent rodents and moisture entering and have slots in the walls to allow for ventilation. Traditionally they are rectangular in shape and quite narrow although there are square, round, L-shaped and even an octagonal one. The roofs are tiled with pinnacles or crosses placed at the ends for decoration.
The first mention of a hórreo dates back to the 13th century when hórreos were used to store millet. Maize arrived in Europe, via the New World and by the 17th century it was a valuable food source that changed the European diet. Maize could grow in areas that were too wet for wheat, too dry for rice and could be rotated with wheat crops allowing farmers to grow two crops each year instead of one. Corn produced much more flour than millet, thereby increasing the production of bread and food.
Slowly, over the centuries hórreos were abandoned but in 1973 Spain passed a law to preserve these historical structures and we were fortunate to find them in the three provinces (Ourense, A Coruña, Pontevedra) we have traveled to so far in Galicia. We were able to get up close to the small hórreos we found in various city parks but when we traveled by train, we spotted many larger hórreos on farms in the countryside. Unfortunately the train was usually traveling too fast to get many non-blurry photos.
Tucked in at the end of the Ria de Pontevedra inlet, on the Atlantic coastline, and next to the Lérez River, is the city of Pontevedra. “The good city” is Pontevedra’s motto and that has to be a challenge to live by for the 85,000 residents. The city is known for its pedestrianisation and charming historic centre and in 2016 was recognized as one of the 15 best cycling cities in the world.
Pontevedra is the center of the Spanish Navy in Galicia, the headquarters of the Galicia ‘VII’ Airborne Light Infantry Brigade and just outside of the city is the Naval Military Academy of Spain.
The city also proudly proclaims they were the first Galician city to have electricity in the 19th century.
A Brief History
There is a local legend that says Teucer, hero of the Trojan War, founded this city, which is based on the understanding that Greeks traders were in this area in ancient times. The city is sometimes poetically referred to as “The City of Teucer” and its inhabitants are sometimes called teucrinos. There is a plaza in the old town named to remember Teucer. (Teucro in Galician)
Historians and archaeologists believe it was more likely the Romans around the 1st century that founded the city. The name Pontevedra has traditionally been thought to derive from the Latin ‘pontem veteram’, which means old bridge, referring to the first bridge that the Romans built here. But in ancient Latin, ponto (pontus) meant sea and vedra meant green and due to the greenness of the sea caused by a seaweed, the origins of the city’s name could also mean “by the green sea”.
During the middle ages Pontevedra was an important trade and commerce center and on the southern route of the popular Camino de Santiago.
At the beginning of the 19th century Pontevedra had lost its harbor, so fishing, arts and crafts were what kept the economy going. In 1833 Pontevedra was transformed into a provincial capital fueling urban growth and a railway was built connecting the city to the rest of the country. However, the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) and Francoist dictatorship (1939–1975) would again halt Pontevedra’s promising future. Political repression and economic hardships would force many to emigrate.
During the 1980s and 90s Pontevedra began to rebuild, repopulate and refocus on trade and administration as the Provincial capital. The university, Campus de Pontevedra, opened in the 1990s contributing to the growth of the city. Pontevedra is continuing to transform into a healthy and clean, 21st century, living and working environment.
Basílica de Santa María a Maior
The Basilica of Santa María la Mayor of Pontevedra was the furthest distance from the train so we took a taxi there for our first stop of the day and then walked back across the city exploring as we went.
Pontevedra once had a large population of seafaring residents and the powerful Seafarers Guild provided the finances to build this church. Built on the same site that a smaller church had once sat, the new church was built in the 14th century. The detailed and complex facade and wide entry staircase was added at the beginning of the 16th century.
One unusual detail about this church is that, amongst the figures of the saints that appear in the decoration of the façade, are the busts of Christopher Columbus and Hernán Cortés (conqueror of Mexico)
Today the exterior of the Basilica is in need of cleaning and rejuvenation. Inside however the chestnut and walnut wood altarpiece, pulpit and 14 Stations of the Cross are newer and the colors remain vibrant.
Alameda de Pontevedra
When Pontevedra was appointed as the provincial capital in 1833, there was a need for new official buildings, so the medieval wall was torn down and land that had once belonged to the Santo Domingo Convent was used to create space for the Town Hall, administrative buildings and gardens.
The Alameda was an ideal place for us to take a leisurely stroll. We discovered children’s play areas, a small pond, the circular dovecote painted with colorful scenes, above and a large octagonal kiosk that had around its base, beautiful ceramic tiled pictures of Pontevedra and the surrounding region.
We found a tall monument dedicated to the heroes of the battle against Napoleonic troops during the War of Independence. There were smaller statues placed throughout the gardens and then a medium sized statue of Christopher Columbus. The carrack Santa Maria, one of Christopher Columbus’ ships, originally named La Gallega (“The Galician”), was built in Pontevedra.
Ruínas de San Domingos
The Santo Domingo Convent was founded in 1282 and was used for more than half a millennium. But in 1836 the Spanish government passed a law, generally referred to as The Madoz law, whereby the government seized and sold properties belonging to citizens, businesses and to the catholic church. In Pontevedra the convent was forcibly closed and the land was granted to the city. Part of the Convent’s property was used to create gardens in the Alameda where the Town Hall was built. Additionally one chapel was demolished, a tower was torn down and some of the deteriorating materials were used to pave the streets. The evocative ruins, including the main apse, part of a wall where a rose window is preserved and an entrance to the convent, were saved from demolition in 1895 and are now a protected National Monument. The photo combination below is how the ruins look in 2020 and what they looked like according to the artist’s painting, in 1902.
El Santuario de la Virgen Peregrina
The Sanctuary of the Pilgrim Virgin is the patron saint of both Pontevedra and the Portuguese Way. The Pilgrim Virgin is believed to watch over those walking the Portuguese Way, the pilgrim route from Lisbon to Santiago de Compostela and Pontevedra is an important stop on the Camino de Santiago.
The church was built between 1778 and 1794 and the base of the church is a uniquely shaped, semi-circular, scallop-shell, representing the quintessential symbol of pilgrims.
The names of medieval squares or plazas in Pontevedra are quite interesting. Many of them refer to the type of trade that took place in the square. A few more unusual plaza names we found were: Plaza de la Peregrina – the Pilgrim square and main meeting place for locals; Plaza de la Ferrería – the blacksmith’s square; Praza da Leña – firewood square; Plaza de la Verdura – vegetable market square; Praza da Pedreira – stone quarry square; Plaza del Porto – the Quay square by the docks and Plaza de Teucer – the square that honors the Trojan War hero and mythical founder of Pontevedra.
Museo de Pontevedra
The Museum of Pontevedra opened to the public nearly 100 years ago, in 1929 and they have expanded to fill 6 different historical buildings throughout town. A couple of the sites are currently closed and being renovated. The museum focuses primarily on Galician and Spanish history, archaeology and art. They also maintain valuable archives and have a research center and library. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to this comprehensive museum and gallery. We have seen a number of pieces of art in galleries throughout the country by Spanish artist Jose Navarro and his painting below brought a smile to our faces. His style of painting was called Orientalism.
The variety of architecture, fascinating history, lively plazas and even the brief squalls of chilly rain added to the charm that is Pontevedra. The city’s award winning pedestrianisation and urban planning make this a city a delight to visit.
Boa saúde from these Pontevedreses,
Ted + Julia