A tale of two towns illustrates Spaniards’ struggle to survive

Olmeda de la Cuesta.
Andrés Juez Pérez

OLMEDA DE LA CUESTA, Spain — This tiny town 100 miles east of Madrid is home to just 35 ageing residents. With an average age of 75, their village has the oldest population in Spain and it’s growing smaller each year. Many houses are in ruins.

Last year, in a bid to stave off its slow demise, Mayor José Luis Regacho hatched a bold plan. He would try attracting new blood by selling plots of land for as little as $250.

It was an enticing bargain with just one obligation: Buyers had to agree to build a house or business on the land within two and a half years.

Regacho says the town, which boasted 500 residents in the 1980s, now has between 10 and 15 living there permanently.

“Without this, my town is going to disappear,” he says of his scheme. “The youngest person is 45. So imagine 45 years without renewing the generation — it’s very difficult.”

Across Spain, thousands more communities are also battling to stave off extinction, exacerbated by the bursting of a housing bubble in 2008 that plunged the country into a double-dip recession.

Although the economy appears to be creeping toward recovery, with GDP growing slowly yet steadily over the past five quarters, unemployment remains at more than 23 percent with close to 6 million unemployed.

But although attracting foreign capital may seem an attractive proposition, elsewhere an influx of foreigners is raising different problems.

In Olmeda de la Cuesta, six plots were sold in the first sale last year, where the minimum price was set at $2,500. A second attempt with price tags as low as $250, which wound up in October, clinched another eight sales for buyers from places as far flung as the United States, Venezuela, Colombia and Poland.

Regacho admits high joblessness remains a major sticking point in his plan. “People have written to me saying: ‘We have two children, we’re going to build a house and then look for work,’” he says. “But we don’t have enough work for the people who are there now.”

Nevertheless, the mayor says his low-priced plots of land are perfect for artists, families looking for cheap vacation homes and online entrepreneurs — once he gets the Wi-Fi up and running, that is.

“We’re installing the first telephone antenna. We have fixed lines so people can ring your house or ring your neighbor to find where you are,” he says. “All the services you could want are five minutes away by car on a very good highway — a health center, bakery, supermarket. For people who are accustomed to living in the countryside, it’s a great life.”

Around 250 miles south in the Alicante province, the bustling town of San Fulgencio paints a very different picture. With almost 80 percent of its 13,000 residents foreign-born — mostly Britons and Germans — after the largest influx of expats in the country assured the town survival, it’s been named Spain's foreign capital again this year.

Even as the foreigner exodus continues in the wake of Spain’s financial crisis, expat numbers continue to rise in sunny San Fulgencio, just a couple miles from the Mediterranean coastline.

But the influx has brought its own problems, with the town divided in half both geographically and sociologically. Spaniards live below in the former old part of town, while foreigners live higher up in massive residential housing estates.

Although the two communities peacefully coexist, they’re almost entirely segregated, says Mayor Carlos Ramírez, 43.

“There is no real integration,” he told El Pais in August. “This used to be a small village of farmers with one local policeman who was blind in one eye, and suddenly a giant company descended on the village and began building thousands of homes on some land located three kilometers from the center, connected by a badly paved road. This physical barrier, together with the language issue, did the rest. They lead their own separate lives, and have over 200 establishments of their own.”

Although there are more deaths than births in this town, new retirees keep arriving each year to fill the gap. And while other foreigner-orientated residential estates on the Alicante coast have turned into ghost towns, San Fulgencio has resisted the onslaught of the real estate bubble and even the devaluation of the British pound.

Ascension Duarte Pardo, owner of Smart Property, began selling real estate in San Fulgencio five years ago, just as the Spanish housing market began to crash, dragging down the national economy. As companies progressively folded across the country, Duarte Pardo says her business survived — and thrived — on foreign money. Often, her business served as an unofficial translation service, a crucial go-between linking English residents with Spanish-speaking local service providers.

“Maybe they’ll call us needing help getting gas delivered because they don’t speak the language and can’t call themselves,” Duarte Pardo says. “The problem is always language. The English and the Spanish want to mix, but they simply can’t. A Dutch person might speak five languages but the English, like us Spaniards, don’t have that culture of learning languages.”

It’s a reality English expat Christine Jennings, 71, knows only too well. She’s lived in San Fulgencio with her husband, Brian, for the past 20 years, and regularly volunteers at a local dog rescue charity shop, where rows of English-version Danielle Steel novels line an entire bookshelf.

“I can get by in Spanish but I’m certainly not perfect,” she says. “It’s mucho años, mucho problema. As you get older it’s harder to absorb. It just goes in and out.”

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A Senate commission is currently looking into the problem of depopulation. But with Spain’s birthrate continuing to fall as women delay motherhood amid ongoing economic and employment uncertainty, immigration may be the only solution, at least for now.

Luckily, attracting foreigners to Spain, especially the sun-drenched south, has never really been a problem.

“I think that’s why everybody comes here,” says Angela Sutcliffe, manageress at The Lounge Restaurant and Bar in San Fulgencio. “You just feel better when you wake up and it’s sunny.”