Mystery sheikh pays millions for abandoned mountain village

A mysterious sheikh connected to the Royal Family of the United Arab Emirates liked a rundown Catalan mountain village so much he paid €3.6m (£2.5m) for it.

The ancient mining hamlet of Peguera near the town of Berga, some 60 miles north of Barcelona, although beautiful, is a far cry from luxury Spanish sun-spots usually favoured by Middle Eastern millionaires.

Tucked in the Pyrenean foothills, chilly Peguera has no yacht marina and, since it occupies an area of designated natural interest, the buyer is unlikely to be allowed to build marble palaces amid the crumbling stone cottages. The village covers 1,800 hectares and contains 47 houses, all now abandoned and many in ruins.

Peguera formed part of the estates of the aristocratic Counts of Olano, one of the richest and most powerful families in Catalonia, who founded a mining company based on the coal of the region. Communications were so primitive that in winter miners travelled to work on skis. The Olanos lost interest when the coal that once supported the local community petered out in the 1930s. Villagers eked out a livelihood by logging and cultivating potatoes until Peguera's last inhabitant left in the 1960s.

The abandoned spot caught the new owner's eye when he visited a nearby hawk-breeding farm run by a German engineer, Harald Kuster, to buy hunting falcons earlier this year. The sheikh expressed an interest in buying a farm in the region, and finally settled on a whole village.

"It was a difficult transaction to complete because Peguera belonged to 27 family members, and we had to secure the agreement of each one individually," Luis del Agua, the lawyer who conducted the sale, told The Independent yesterday. Mr del Agua said he was not authorised to disclose the new owner's identity, but said had met the sheikh once and then dealt with the man's representative.

Locals hope the sheikh will repopulate the area, but are wary of his future plans. "The sale could be good or bad depending on what he does with it," says Josep Guixe, mayor of the nearest village of Figols. "Maybe he'll encourage people to build weekend homes. It's a very beautiful spot. But any development must be done well."

Mayor Guixe remained uneasy. "It's not a good thing to sell off chunks of our country like this. We don't want speculative operations here. It's a commercial deal, and there'll be a problem if others start coming in to buy up empty Spanish villages."

Mr del Agua thinks there is little chance of that happening. "It's a one-off. The sheikh won't be able to do what he likes. Half the site lies in an area of natural interest where he can't fell a tree or pick a flower. There are very strict limitations on construction. He can graze cows and hunt wild boar, but little else. And he knows this."

So why should a sheikh want such a place? "He's not interested in speculation," Mr del Agua says. "If he wanted to speculate he'd have bought a hotel on the costa or a mansion in Barcelona, not a mountain village. He bought it because he liked it - and had the money."

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