FROM RUINS TO REBIRTH
The first time I ever saw an abandoned village was in Spain and I was gob smacked. I was struck by its eerie beauty, its aura of secrets. My partner had taken me to see La Revilla, one of the abandoned villages near his childhood home in the province of Soria and my first impression was the stunning colours. It was probably late spring, early summer, because the fields were still vivid green with young cereal crops and the sky a dazzling bright blue. Contrasted with the blue and green was the deep terracotta red of the soil and crumbling adobe bricks of the village. La Revilla sits on a low hill and the hefty stone church stands over all else like a wounded Templar Knight refusing to leave his bastion. Unfortunately there is little left to guard. What’s left of the village pokes through overgrown brambles and lies in stony rubble, though a few houses still stand glumly on the main street, eroding slowly, the last to be abandoned.
Time had stood still, yet there were echoes of lives lived and so many stories to be told in its crumbling architecture. It was a photographer’s paradise. I also had so many questions; What happened? Why did an entire village just up and leave their houses, their communities, their livelihoods?
Turns out there are roughly 3000 abandoned villages and hamlets around Spain, almost half of which can be found in Galicia, a region in the north-western part of the country. Most became abandoned in the 50s, 60s and 70s as work became scarce for young people or for those looking for the better opportunities found in the cities. Many dams were built during these decades, often inundating areas that meant land or even entire villages were lost. Sometimes when water levels are low, you can still see the spire of a church or the ruins of a house poking up from the depths of their watery grave.
One hundred people lived in La Revilla in 1900 but a hundred years later it was down to seven. By 1967 there had already been a steady stream of young people moving to the cities to find work or study, but that year a fire devastated the village forcing many more to leave their homes after having lost everything. Those who decided to stay have been burying their neighbours ever since one by one till all that remains are the dusty curtains and black and white photographs on the cabinets waiting for someone to come back to claim them.
I’ve visited many abandoned villages around the country since the first ones in Soria and they all have their own distinct character that mirrors the local geology. In the north of Spain, villages typically are made of granite and slate, protecting them from the wet cool weather, while further south, especially in the regions of Castille and Leon and Castille La Mancha, they are made of adobe brick – a mixture of the thick clayey earth, sand and straw, wonderfully insulating against the harsh summers and bitter winters. Their churches and stately homes are often made of sandstone.
Occasionally, we chance upon a farmer or shepherd who may be using some of the barns or houses as places to store their equipment or house their animals at night. They are happy to reminisce about their childhood in the 50s and 60s growing up in the village before being forced to finally pack up their belongings and head on over to a nearby, more fortunate village or town.
All their recollections are rose-tinted accounts of better days - their mothers baking bread and cakes or sweeping doorways, their fathers tilling the land, collecting resin from the pines in the woods or leading the donkey laden with oak from the forest, young boys herding the goats, the girls carrying water from the fountain in heavy ceramic jugs.
There was coal making in the winter when the carboneros would come to burn the oak the men had collected. The fire would burn for several days and once the last ember had died out, the coal was sold. The lavadero (washing fountain) was a meeting place for the women once a week as they knelt on their cushions, washing the clothes and sheets in freezing water while catching up with the local gossip. There were patron saint fiestas, summer festivals, market days and, of course, church. Where once the villagers congregated for mass, vines and rotting timbers now filled the nave.
However, on a brighter note, many of these abandoned villages have recently been experiencing a renaissance. The last ten years have seen an increasing interest in buying up whole villages for less than it costs to buy a city flat. Governments are hoping to entice people back to the country by offering tax breaks and promises of a growth of nearby services such as hospitals, schools, roads and shopping centres as well as partly funding the restauration of traditional houses. Much of this interest has come from overseas buyers and investors, yet many young families in Spain are also now looking to pool resources to create eco-villages. The lack of electricity, running water, gas or internet and phone lines is not a deterrent. Many are turning to alternative lifestyles where there is less reliance on such conveniences, some with their own generator-powered electricity, solar panels, windmill or…..nothing.
There is a lot of renewed interest in the off-grid lifestyle – the desire to get back to nature and the basics, to learn self-sufficiency in an unstable world and to raise families away from the internet-obsessed culture that pervades every aspect of our modern society. Those who have not yet taken the plunge but dream of doing so, are content for now to follow the lives of young families who document their off-grid joys and struggles in blogs and YouTube channels, of which there are many. Books and courses that teach how to identify edible food in the wild, weave from nettles and other plants, grow your own food and make things using the raw material from the earth are more popular now than ever. The self-sufficiency crowd is not to be confused with the apocalyptists…those convinced the end of the world is nigh and will not be caught unprepared!
Another reason for buying up abandoned villages is for property and/or tourist investment. It is complicated to develop new residential housing in rural and protected areas in Spain so rebuilding houses in these villages helps them to avoid the usual licenses and permissions required. Turning the buildings into tourist accommodation such as B&Bs, hostels or retreats that offer health, team building or summer school camps provides the incentive to expect eventual returns on the investments.
In 2014, the hamlet of A Barca in Ourense, Galicia was offered free to anyone willing to redevelop the land and the 12 houses with the aim of attracting tourism to the area and using local labour to encourage young people to stay in the nearby villages. As of yet, there is little information about whether the offer has been taken up, though there has been a lot of interest. Why wouldn’t there be? Set amongst forests of oak and chestnut, surrounded by streams and thermal waters, mountains, walking trails, the river Minho and only a 30-minute car ride to the city of Vigo, it is ideal. The hamlet would take a lot of work - currently it is so overgrown it can’t be seen from the air. What’s left of the granite stone houses is covered in moss and creeping vines, blackberry brambles, nettles, and the few doors remaining hang from their hinges and wooden roof beams are slowly returning their nutrients to the earth.
So how does one go about buying an abandoned village? Most estates are still privately owned which can complicate things especially if the owner has died and has relatives who are difficult to trace. These people need to be tracked down before a settlement can be agreed on because if there is doubt over the ownership of a property, it can’t be sold. Public buildings such as council halls and churches must remain in the public domain and access to the village must also be considered, especially when it passes through private land. Even once you have come to an agreement with all the owners, the expenses don’t end there. You may only be looking at between 50,000 and 500,000 euros for the entire village, but then there are the costs of refurbishment which requires a conveyancer, materials, plumbing and other utility connections, not to mention a hell of a lot of hard work. And then there’s the bureaucracy. Despite the government’s incentives and desire to see these rural villages repopulated, there is still a ridiculous amount of red tape to navigate.
The best way to buy your very own hamlet is to look for a realtor specialised in abandoned villages. Aldeas Abandonadas Real Estate is a good place to start as they specialise in the development of rural environments and communities and check out the Pueblos Vivos (Living Villages) website - they aim to help the development of repopulation in Aragon but offer policy and evaluation advice as well as answer questions on an array of related topics.
After my initial introduction to the magic of abandoned Spain 25 years ago, I was very keen on the idea of investing in one of them myself but the idea of spending money on a derelict piece of real estate hadn’t quite taken off yet. When I mentioned it to people they were puzzled and wanted to know why I would want to do such a thing. A few years later it was becoming more common, but by then I was focused on my new child and my dream became as abandoned as the village I would have loved to resurrect. As much as the villages exude an old-world charm in their dereliction, it would be wonderful to see rural Spain come alive again through the initiatives of creative and well-intentioned investors. Spain is a stunning country with so much to offer, much of it hidden to most tourists and I hope one day people from all around the world will be able to enjoy its charms.