Built Environment

From Eating Asturias, the Encyclopedia of Asturian Gastronomy
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Skyline of Oviedo. (photo coutrtesy of Hernán Piñera)
Skyline of Oviedo. (photo courtesy of Hernán Piñera)

The built environment of Asturias, particularly of rural Asturias, exists in a very tight relationship with the Natural Environment. Unlike the very problematic American ideas of Wilderness, Asturians inhabit a very different mental landscape when it comes to the land around them and their place within it.

Every open field surrounded by forest is a subtractive architecture. Every cluster of buildings in a remote farmstead is a constructive architecture. But neither of these, nor the market town that serves them, can escape the landscape they inhabit and become part of. No matter how remote or close a town or farmstead is, it is bound by geography. The psychogeography of Asturias is a complicated mental landscape for those of us more accustomed to the tripartite division of Urban / Suburban / Rural, and the mediating mental distance reinforced by the liminal automobile ride between each zone.

For Asturians, the dichotomy of the natural environment is repeated in the built environment. The city and the village, the cultivated and the wild, the vecinos and the montés.[1]

The City

Spain is a very highly urbanized country. In fact, it contains some of the most densely populated places not just in Europe, but in the world.[2] As a result of constant medieval warfare across the region, it is a result of Christian colonization of Spain that there is such a huge dichotomy between the urban and rural areas of the country.[3] This leads Spain to not only have some of the most densely populated areas in the world, but a mere 30 minute drive from some of them you find areas with the same population density as Siberia.

As Asturias was not, in any meaningful way, a part of that medieval colonization process that is popularly called the reconquista, it does not follow the same pattern as most of Spain.[4] The upshot of this is that Asturias has not just big cities and tiny villages, but lots of mid-sized towns. It also has isolated hamlets and single farmhouses - features virtually impossible to find in much of Spain.[5]

However, Asturian cities are just as compact and walkable as those in other parts of Spain. Some of this of course is owed to the massive urbanization/industrialization push of the 1960's and 70's under dictator Francisco Franco. Across the country a truly shocking number of cheap (and cheaply made) apartment buildings were thrown up in record time to support the plan to provide mass battalions of workers for the foreign factories keeping the economy (and thus the dictatorship) afloat.[6]

The Village

The psychogeographical center of Asturias however, is its villages. While much of Spain thinks fondly of a summer week or two spent at the ancestral village house, Asturians who live in the cities spend seemingly every spare moment at a country property. There is a gentleman who comes to my village nearly every day to work in his garden, tend his small orchard, or just sit in front of his shed and listen to the radio. He appears not long after his shift ends, and spends a couple hours - more on weekends when his wife and dog join him. Never mind that it is a 30 minute drive from his house. It is his garden, his escape. Indeed, a shockingly large number of people in Asturias either own or share with siblings a fin de semana, a house or even just a converted stable in a village. There they spend weekends grilling, drinking, puttering around with projects, generally just being villagers for a couple days a week.

The Villagers

This group of village property owners, the weekenders, are the middle tier in the social pecking order that organizes rural Asturias. At the top are los vecinos, the permanent residents of the village.

In the middle are the weekenders, who maintain constant connection to the village, whether it is the one they grew up in or one they bought property in later.

And the bottom tier is los madrileños, the summer people as we called them where I grew up in southern Appalachia. No, they are not all from Madrid, but they might as well be in the imagination of los vecinos. They are almost universally seen as interlopers and burdens to be put up with. They take a house away from

The following dichotomy is primarily how full time villagers in Asturias see themselves, not as they truly are.

Los Vecinos

Those who cultivate the land and seek out each other's company consider themselves to be sociable and civilized. They comprise the communidad de vecinos; the community of neighbors. They make an effort to visit each other as often as possible - daily in the village bar if there is one, with frequent surprise visits to each others farm houses if there is not.

de Montés

Los Vecinos define themselves by contrasting themselves with others who spend most of their time with the animals in the wildlands and speak monosyllables or merely grunt. The shepherds, the foragers, the hermits and misanthropes (it is imagined) who refuse to spend their afternoons in the village bar.

Structure of the Village

Valle, Evaristo. El Potrillo en el Corral. 1917. Museo Evaristo Valle, Gijón
Valle, Evaristo. El Potrillo en el Corral. 1917. Museo Evaristo Valle, Gijón

There are, generally speaking, two types of traditional villages in Asturias - the farming village and the fishing village. Both share some common features - plazas, public fountains (fuentes) and communal laundry facilities (lavaderos).

Fishing Villages

The general pattern of an Asturian fishing village is of a cove or inlet in a valley, with the docks at the bottom of the hill, with a road leading up the steep hillsides to the relatively flat land above. The houses are arranged in terraces on this hill, ascending from the docks and extending as far up the hill as needed. Occasionally, in the larger villages, the village might extend into the flatland above the cove. The area immediately around the docks is usually a plaza ringed by bars and restaurants, and serves as the main plaza of the town.

The houses tend to be taller and narrower than in farming villages, and more in the style of city houses. Terraced houses of three or even four stories are not uncommon in coastal villages.

Farming Villages

Compared to the fishing village, the farming village of Asturias exhibits more variation in layout. Each village is made up of two or more houses arranged around a central plaza or along a road. This second type is very common in the mountainous south of Asturias, where narrow valleys preclude building open plazas. One or more hórreos or paneras are located in the village, along with various outbuildings for tools and livestock. Roads through these villages can be winding and extremely narrow, given that they were built at a time when a single donkey cart was the measure of width. Most are located not in the valley bottoms, but part way up the mountains; the better to keep an eye on fields and cattle.

In most cases, the village is made up of a collection of caseríos - farmsteads. Each one follows a general pattern, with a small kitchen garden and a patio workspace immediately adjacent to the house, and fields arranged farther out.

  1. Fernandez, Renate Lellep. A Simple Matter of Salt: An Ethnography of Nutritional Deficiency in Spain. 1st ed., University of California Press, 2018. pp 109. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft2d5nb1b2/.
  2. Rae, Alasdair. “Think Your Country Is Crowded? These Maps Reveal the Truth About Population Density Across Europe.” The Conversation, theconversation.com/think-your-country-is-crowded-these-maps-reveal-the-truth-about-population-density-across-europe-90345.
  3. Oto‐Peralías, Daniel. Frontiers, Warfare and Economic Geography: The Case of Spain. SSRN Scholarly Paper, ID 2930860, Social Science Research Network, 4 May 2020. papers.ssrn.com, https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2930860.
  4. The rough divide is the river Tagus, with the area North of the Tagus following a more spread out pattern of cities and villages, and that South of the river into essentially fortified city-states with no-mans land between them. - Oto‐Peralías 2020
  5. An interesting side effect of this is that people who visit Oviedo or Gijón from elsewhere in Spain remark on how quiet and empty it seems. Both cities however, have approximately the same population density as Los Angeles California. - Oto‐Peralías 2020
  6. Javier Díaz Giménez paraphrased in Jones, Jessica. “Why Flats Dominate Spain’s Housing Market.” BBC Worklife, 28 Feb. 2022, www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200506-why-do-flats-dominate-spains-housing-market.