the euro zone

Ghost towns

I recently walked a several hundred-kilometre Camino de Santiago, from Zamora in Castilla y León to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. It was obvious when I crossed over into Galicia, and not just because of the cows and the greenery: I passed through dozens of neglected villages, their grey stone buildings crumbling amidst overgrown weeds. In one particularly eerie spot, close to A Gudiña, I walked past an entire row of empty houses, whose former occupants would once have enjoyed spectacular views of the Galician countryside. But judging by the decrepit ruins now standing, they left for the city a long time ago.

Rural depopulation wasn’t one of the attention-grabbing issues in the recent electoral campaigns, but it has become a serious problem in Spain. Reuters reported this week that the county has around 1,500 abandoned hamlets like the one I walked through, most of them in Galicia and Asturias. As a Barcelona-based estate agent told the newswire, you can now actually buy such settlements for around €100,000, which wouldn’t even get you a flat in most areas of the UK.

Sadder still, many of Spain’s smallest settlements are heading the same way. According to a report published last year by the Spanish Federation of Towns and Provinces, half of the county’s municipalities are close to being entirely abandoned: of these settlements, 4,995 have a population of less than 1,000 and 1,200 have less than 100 inhabitants. These once idyllic villages and hamlets are the victims of a mass exodus: between 2008 and 2018, 250,000 people moved from the Spanish countryside, to more populated areas in cities or on the coast.

Their departure has resulted in declining living standards for those that are left behind, something that I saw at first-hand during my Camino. Many of the smallest villages I passed through didn’t even have a grocery store, the locals instead relying on twice-weekly visits by a van selling bread and other essentials. No wonder that several thousand inhabitants of “empty Spain” gathered in Madrid at the end of March, to protest at living conditions in depopulated rural areas.

The acting Spanish government recognises that something has to be done to combat rural depopulation in Spain. It aims to turn abandoned areas into “spaces of opportunity”, taking advantage of natural resources to lure people and businesses back to the countryside. Such an initiative would also (hopefully) remind an increasingly city-orientated population of the pleasures of living close to nature, with a beautiful view to wake up to every morning. How wonderful it would be to snap up that ghostly Galician hamlet I walked through and bring life and activity to it once again. I haven’t got a hundred grand, though. Anyone want to go halves?