Ghost village sale shows off Spain's demise

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Nestled into the green highlands of northern Spain, the small village of Valdelavilla seems like an idyllic place, except for one small detail: it doesn't have any inhabitants.

Like many dots on the map in the sparse region of Soria, it was completely abandoned in 1968, as the population of 60 subsistence farmers fled for city jobs.

The entire village – that is, 15 crumbling stone cottages – was dumped into the hands of a public-private consortium, which turned it into a hotel complex that offers restored rural charm for €60 euros per night.

Now the ghost village, a theme-park version of its former self, is up for sale. Its owner, Soria Tierras Altas, is seeking a complete take-over by the provincial government to pay its debts and ensure a steady cash flow to keep the 16th-century town in shape for the 21st century.

The complex, whose slogan is "a whole town for yourself", has operated at a loss since it opened in 1998, said the commercial director, Manuel Perez Sevilla. An entire village for sale is a symbol of the woes besetting Spain's tourist industry, which contributes 11 per cent of the country's wealth. The global recession has left hotel beds empty, from remote mountain hideaways to luxury resorts on the Costas, as tourists, especially from Britain and Germany, seek cheaper destinations closer to home.

Ambitious plans for new golf resorts, winery hotels or retirement oases sit idle, waiting for better times. The only thing that seems to have remained unchanged by the dampened holiday mood are the property scams, such as the time-share fraud police uncovered yesterday in the Canary Islands. Twenty-five people were arrested for allegedly duping 2,000 German holiday-makers out of a total of €10m.

Even against this bleak backdrop, the balance-sheet struggles of Valdelavilla are especially poignant; the town's rebirth as a hotel was its only hope of survival. There are few other options in the Soria highlands, one of the least densely populated areas of Europe, with one inhabitant per square kilometre. The desolate region, just south of the fertile wine growing Rioja region, is more attractive to sheep than to humans: it is the starting point of a traditional livestock migration route through Spain.

Today as many as 10 towns in the region decay in solitude, undiscovered by the tourist industry. "In some of them you can still see the shoes of the people who once lived there or tin cans of food from 40 years ago," Mr Perez Sevilla said.

The attempt to rebuild the town began in the mid-1990s, when the townsfolk ceded their decrepit property for free to a consortium of local government-controlled savings banks and private investors. In exchange, they were granted the right to use the schoolhouse, once refurbished, for Easter Week reunions. Proceso Lasanta, a former villager, said he hoped it would survive. "The merit of the complex doesn't belong to this generation but to my father's and grandfather's, who built the town stone by stone with their hands."