Pazos are ancestral 'palaces' in the countryside of Galicia, the most north-western region of Spain. They are easily identified by the heraldry on display and by their size - they are considerably larger than any other country dwellings in the area. These buildings are a very important part of Galicia's cultural heritage, along with its monastries and many churches and chapels.
Pazos are often mistakenly thought of as the rural residences of the Galician aristocracy, but in fact it was hidalgos - untitled minor nobles - who normally lived here.
For centuries, the land was divided up into realengos, given by the Crown to bishops, abbots and hidalgos as rewards for their services to the kingdom, and by the 17th and 18th centuries the hidalgos had used this to their economic advantage.
They built their manor houses on these acquired lands, the grandeur of the designs reflecting the families’ material wealth. The pazo was more than just a luxury home, it was also the centre of agricultural production of a feudal lordship, the hub of social and economic activity in the area.
This ‘political’ system had its heyday in the 17th century in the south of Galicia and in the 18th in the northern parts and the most impressive pazos date from this period, with a style and beauty all of their own.
Many of these residences were constructed on the sites of medieval towers and fortresses. Their architecture was also influenced by the monasteries at the time, seen in the volutes around some of their doorways and in the vaulted niches of the family chapels.
No pazo was complete without its chapel, usually attached to the main building or situated in the small square between the house and the pazo’s boundaries. These small religious buildings played an integral part in feudal life and were the venue for weddings, baptisms and holy communions.
Each residence worth its salt also usually had its hórreo, a raised structure for storing cereals, a pigeon loft, fountains and courtyards, interior staircases – pure baroque masterpieces – and external ones climbing to the sun galleries and the entrances to each floor.
These stone or wrought iron sun galleries not only served as pulpits from which the lords gave news, both good and bad, to the tenants, they were also used in autumn for hanging corn cobs and drying chestnuts and apples. The galleries in some of the pazos are true works of art, some of them boasting intricate wood crafting and granite balustrades.
No less important than their interiors were the residences’ gardens, filled with cypresses, an old favourite, and box plants, roses and rhododendrons. Near to the mansions were oak, chestnut and walnut plantations, providing a large store of firewood.
The oldest pazos, their imposing entrance gates and boundary walls still standing, were made out of solid granite. They may not be the most spectacular of their kind, but they have certainly shown more resilience to the passage of time.
How luxuriously the mansion’s interior was decorated depended on each family’s wealth. In most cases, the entrance courtyard was lavishly adorned, the coat of arms on display, a reminder of the family’s lineage and a showcase of some stonemason’s skill, along with a collection of weaponry.
Off this entrance were the stairs going up to the main floor, at one end of which were the servants’ quarters, beyond a small study. This led into the dining room, and from there into the drawing-room, an opulent room used only on special occasions.
Here you usually found the manor’s fireplace, the real indication of the family’s wealth – the larger the fireplace the richer the household. The fireplaces were generally built out of granite topped by eye-catching pinnacles.
A time came when the levels of production and rent received from the land were no longer enough to keep the lords in the kind of luxury they had become accustomed to. Pazos were no longer built and some of the existing families moved to the towns and cities, maybe leaving the running of their lands in the hands of others.
When, later, the system of entailed estates was dismantled the pazos fell into a steep decline, never to recover.
Across Galicia today, many of these ancient palatial houses have been restored and are now used as country hotels. A fine example is the Pazo da Touza in Pontevedra province, one of the area’s grandest constructions dating from the 16th century, and restored in baroque style two centuries later.
Of particular interest in this mansion is the tower with its battlements guarding over the estate, the garden with its palm trees and orchard and the great coat of arms carved out of wood standing in what is now the hotel reception.
Throughout history, many individuals who have excelled in their fields – literature, politics, weaponry – were connected in some way with these country estates. The Pazo de Quiroga-Palacios was one of the homes of the 19th century Spanish writer Emilia Pardo Bazán, author of Los Pazos de Ulloa, and was the setting for one of her best known novels.