Hundreds of Spanish villages lie abandoned, but now some are up for sale and there are hopes they can be revived from the ruins.
Airdate: 
Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - 21:28
Channel: 
SBS

Hundreds of rural villages around Galicia in Spain are frozen in time; long abandoned by their residents and now decaying and crumbling.

As the younger generation has moved away to find work, the older generation and their way of life has gradually died out.

Amos Roberts takes a look at the phenomenon that's left this picture postcard landscape with so few inhabitants.

But there are hopes that the current financial crisis could actually help revive the ruins.

Whole villages are now up for sale, and locals hope that foreign buyers might boost the depressed economy.

Also, at a time when many Spaniards feel that capitalism has failed them, the rural idyll of self-sufficiency has never seemed so attractive.

Will this be enough to breathe new life into Spain's Ghost Villages?

WATCH - Click to see Amos' story.

INTERACTIVE MAP - Use our interactive photo map to find out more about the ghost villages in Amos' story.


Interactive Map

Use our interactive photo map to find out more about the abandoned villages in Amos' story.
The map is best viewed full screen.


Photos: Marianne Borowiec


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Transcript

The London real estate market was in a frenzy earlier this month when an apartment sold for a record breaking $255 million. It's a very different story in recession-hit Spain though, where entire hamlets are being sold for less than the price of a London garage. With many buildings dating back to the 15th century, these rural charmers are very much what estate agents might call a renovator's delight. Amos Roberts went to Galicia to investigate.

REPORTER: Amos Roberts

Galicia is one of the wildest and most beautiful regions in Spain. It has a stunning coastline, mountains, pristine rivers, and a proud Celtic heritage that predates Christianity. But there are curiously few inhabitants to enjoy it all. These are the ghost villages of Galicia - abandoned during hard times in the last century.

JAVIER GONZALEZ (Translation): When I pass through these villages I feel nostalgic, to think that they are abandoned, that they could have another life. As you can see, no one lives here except the occasional cat. They should be full of people and full of life.

But now there are hopes the current economic crisis might actually help revive these ruins.

MARK ADKINSON, REAL ESTATE AGENT: I think you'll find this property has a great deal of potential. The houses need some attention, although one is completely liveable now, in an old-fashioned way.

Like any good real estate agent, Mark Adkinson knows how to accentuate the positive.

MARK ADKINSON: It's absolutely beautiful. I prefer not to tell you anymore until you see it.

This ex-pat Englishman has been living in Galicia and spruiking its charms for almost 40 years.

MARK ADKINSON: This is the village of Openso - One of the many abandoned villages in Galicia. We've got seven houses here. Let's go see the first house, the main house.

Across Spain, there are almost 3,000 abandoned villages.

MARK ADKINSON: We'll go straight through to here.

And more than half of them are here in Galicia.

MARK ADKINSON: So this is the kitchen area with the old fireplace.

Word has spread that some are for sale and now potential buyers, like Yorkshireman Stuart Mitchell, are taking a look.

MARK ADKINSON: Almost all the furniture and things here are made out of chestnut or oak. Sometimes coming into these places, opening up the cupboards and everything, it makes me feels as if I'm prying on past lives. It's nice; but it's a little; sad sometimes.

The family who lived here moved to Switzerland 40 years ago. They're old now but for a long time they came back every year to keep it in order.

STUART MITCHELL: When you look at things like this, a couple of hundred years, it's just amazing.

MARK ADKINSON: There's another house here that just fell down.

REPORTER: What do you reckon, Stuart?

STUART MITCHELL: It's a lot to take in - Never bargained on this.

REPORTER: Would you be in the markets for a Spanish village?

STUART MITCHELL: Possibly. Yeah. Yeah. It could be tempting.

It's not just real estate agents getting excited about the prospect of a sale. With an ageing population, and almost 25% unemployment, local governments are desperate for any boost to their economy. So they're more than happy to show around a prospective buyer - or foreign journalist - if it means bringing an abandoned village back to life.

JAVIER GONZALEZ (Translation): We're in San Cosmedio. It's an abandoned village, dating from medieval times. Come with me and I'll show you its nooks and crannies.

Javier Gonzalez is the cultural officer for the Panton Village Council.

JAVIER GONZALEZ (Translation): Here you have a traditional structure. This stone is a support of the building. Natural resources are used to make it stronger as the building has no foundations. You have to realise that as these villages and their people are disappearing part of the history of Galicia and of Panton is also disappearing, because we have to keep in mind that each elderly inhabitant is a virtual encyclopedia with a vast knowledge which is lost when a village disappears.

In Courel, the most remote and sparsely inhabited part of Galicia, there's a village that has already come back to life in a modest way. Pedro and his partner Pilar moved here from a large town six years ago. When they arrived, the village of Horreos had already been abandoned for 30 years. Their daughter, Tegra, was born here.

PEDRO (Translation): I've always liked the mountains, and when we visited Courel we thought this area was an absolute paradise.

A paradise it may be, but a difficult place to live for townsfolk. This is their living room now, and this is what it used to look like. Their home - bought for only $9,000 - was a ruin, which they painstakingly rebuilt. And they're still building. You have to be resourceful here. Winters are harsh, there's no electricity and no neighbours.

PEDRO (Translation): That's a big one. Wow, you're good at choosing stones. You choose them really well.

It's not particularly safe, especially for a child. The old houses, built from local slate, are collapsing around them.

PILAR (Translation): It's sad to see because you see all the effort that people put into building these houses, without machines, raising these heavy beams by hand, gathering wood...All that work going to waste.

There are many abandoned villages in Spain but there are many more in the process of being abandoned. The church bell in the village of O Couto tolls to mark another death. In the past five years, there have been 38 deaths, and only five births. Angeles Lopez Aguera is trying to breathe new life into O Couto.

ANGELES LOPEZ AGUERA (Translation): What conditions would it take for you to decide to come and live in a house like this?

YOUNG MAN (Translation): I think the main thing is work.

Angeles is part of a project at the University of Santiago de Compostela, trying to make this village self-sufficient and sustainable.

ANGELES LOPEZ AGUERA (Translation): Hello? How are things?

WOMAN (Translation): Good morning. How are you?

ANGELES LOPEZ AGUERA (Translation): Very well.

They want to find out why people are leaving, and what they can do to encourage them to stay.

ANGELES LOPEZ AGUERA (Translation): Who do you live with?

WOMAN (Translation): Alone.

ANGELES LOPEZ AGUERA (Translation): Really? And your children?

WOMAN (Translation): They're in A Coruña.

ANGELES LOPEZ AGUERA (Translation): They work in A Coruña? Why did they leave?

WOMAN (Translation): They left to study, and there aren't any jobs.

ANGELES LOPEZ AGUERA (Translation): But would you like to stay here?

WOMAN (Translation): Oh yes.

ANGELES LOPEZ AGUERA (Translation): We'll bring your children.

WOMAN (Translation): That would be fantastic

ANGELES LOPEZ AGUERA (Translation): Of course

That might actually be possible thanks to the dire state of the Spanish economy.

ANGELES LOPEZ AGUERA (Translation): Do you think it's easier to come back now? Would more people be interested in coming back now?

YOUNG MAN (Translation): I think the idea of villages is gaining a bit of momentum in these difficult times of economic crisis. I think that for everyone who has a plot of land where they can grow things and have animals for food, it's very easy.

Angeles also dreams of repopulating an abandoned village on Galicia's Costa da Morte - the Coast of Death.

ANGELES LOPEZ AGUERA (Translation): Is this one abandoned?

JOSE COLLAZO (Translation): Yes, this was a kind of workshop, or something like that.

She would love to resuscitate the village of Candelago, but it's not completely abandoned.

JOSE COLLAZO (Translation): I still remember the smell of the smokehouse, the smoke. With the smoke!

After spending many years abroad in Switzerland, Jose Collazo returned to Candelago. He's now the last man left in the village.

ANGELES LOPEZ AGUERA (Translation): And why have you decided to stay here?

JOSE COLLAZO (Translation): I came back to be back on the land where I was born. "œWhere you are born is where you find peace." You always have that longing to come back because I lived so far away.

ANGELES LOPEZ AGUERA (Translation): How do you feel, knowing that you are the last and that when you go, there won't be any more people?

JOSE COLLAZO (Translation): It's the biggest sadness you can imagine, it's sad that it's abandoned in this way.

ANGELES LOPEZ AGUERA (Translation): Do you think the villages can be rebuilt?

JOSE COLLAZO (Translation): I think so, I have seen harder things work out.

ANGELES LOPEZ AGUERA (Translation): So, what do you think, how can these houses be filled? What would have to be done?

JOSE COLLAZO (Translation): If they were renovated, if there was some life... for tourism.

ANGELES LOPEZ AGUERA (Translation): For tourism?

JOSE COLLAZO (Translation): Yes, for tourism or for families that could come for a while. Having some neighbours would be a real joy for me.

ANGELES LOPEZ AGUERA (Translation): Look how his face lights up at the idea of having neighbours!

Angeles shares his sense of hope. To her, villages like Candelago aren't sad or romantic - they're a chance for a fresh start. Now that Spain's housing bubble has burst, she believes it's time to start rebuilding these ruins.

ANGELES LOPEZ AGUERA: Now we have things that other people has not. And that the people cannot have in the city. We have this. We have land. We have sea. We have a lot of opportunities to make our way of life.

REPORTER: This village is almost like your laboratory.

ANGELES LOPEZ AGUERA: Of course!

Reporter/Camera
AMOS ROBERTS

Producer
ALLAN HOGAN

Fixers
FATIMA OVEJERO
PEPA RAMOS
MANUEL VALCARCEL CABO

Translations/Subtitling
SIMON COHEN
CHRISTINA LEPRE

Editors
NICK O'BRIEN
MICAH MCGOWN

27th May 2014