viernes, 25 de febrero de 2011

Spanish ghost town

Artículo aparecido en el periódico holandés NRC Handelsblad el dia 23 de abril de 2010, que trata de las iniciativas repobladoras en Retortillo de Soria. Las fotos del reportaje se pueden ver pinchando aquí

Spanish ghost town buys new residents

The European countryside is slowly becoming deserted. The Spanish hamlet, Retortillo de Soria, guarantees young families jobs and housing if they relocate.

By Merijn de Waal in Retortillo de Soria


Unpacked boxes, tools and dust cluttered their house. Naked light bulbs dangled from the ceiling. But to Jordi Parraga and Ana García, every day they spend in Retortillo de Soria feels like a holiday. "The air is cleaner here. The pig's ribs, the oranges: everything tastes better,” said Parranga, sitting in his live-in kitchen. “Also, being Catalan, we are treated as foreigners here." he laughed.
The 30-something couple moved with their son Jordi (4) and daughter Ana (2) from Terrassa last month. In an attempt to stop Retortillo from becoming a ghost town, the town's mayor, Yolanda Gil, in a TV address, had called upon willing Spaniards to relocate here. Parents with young children were promised one of the ten steady jobs opening up at a local care facility and a cheap rental home with assistance from the municipality.

Comparable to Oman

"I saw it and thought, 'this could be something for us'," said García, as she warmed herself at her gas heater. Over the past 18 months, even the worst paying temporary jobs had become scarce. Parraga had become unemployed a few months before when he was forced to close down his construction business, as more and more clients defaulted.
"We could have worked even harder to survive in Terrassa," Parraga said. "More people work long days, with the bar as the only place to unwind. But I now see my children more in a single week than I have in the entire last year. That is priceless."
In Spain, which is going through a deep economic crisis, the offer made by Retortillo's mayor piqued the interest of thousands of people. "In the weeks following the TV broadcast, dozens of families visited the village to have a look themselves," the mayor said, speaking in her office at the care facility, which she also manages.
What the visitors saw was a village like many in Soria, the most sparsely populated province in Spain. The population has actually decreased by some 40 percent in the last century. Today, population density is comparable to that of the desert state of Oman.
Outside the holiday season, most houses are vacant and boarded up to protect them from the snow. The 50 residents who remain during the winter are nearly all senior citizens. The village's vicinity is dotted with the ruins of deserted sheep stalls. A playground out front of the town's medieval gates has fallen into disuse.

A deserted land

Soria is not the only part of Europe that is gradually emptying out. Almost 90 percent of the European Union is considered countryside, but only half of its population lives in those areas. Regional, national and European governments spend billions of euros every year in an attempt to turn the tide, with only limited success.
Francisco Ayuso (77) has lived in Retortillo his entire life. Until a few years ago, he was a shepherd, he said, sitting in the town's central square that still bears the name of the former dictator Franco. "I have spent more nights up there," he said, pointing his cane at the surrounding hills, "than I have at home."
Since he quit working, there has been only one shepherd left in the area, Ayuso said, with a tone of regret in his voice. But he said he understood why. His own children had also chosen different lives from the harsh existence of a shepherd. "They all went to college," he said proudly. Today, they live in different parts of the country. "There was nothing for them here."
Retortillo has few facilities left. The baker supplements his income working as a mailman. Public transport only comes only once a day, on request. A local bank is only open two mornings every week, but it draws few customers.
Mayor Gil won the 2007 election with her promise to save the village by repopulating it. She was unable to say exactly how quickly the village was running out of citizens. "But it is clear that more people die here than are born," she said. When Gil became mayor, 250 people were still registered in her municipality, which includes 11 even smaller villages. Only 210 remain today.

Planting a new seed

"We need children if we want to give this town a future," Gil said. The possible arrival of ten new families would not be enough to reverse the trend, she agreed, "but it's a start." Thanks to the Parraga-García family's arrival, the regional government will now be forced to re-open the local school, which had been closed for a decade.
Gil was loath to make an example out of her village. "Our biggest advantage is that we were able to create jobs by expanding our care facility," she said. The expansion, which cost a million euros, was funded by money from a wind turbine battery. "Not all municipalities have that kind of money in the bank," the mayor said. Besides, the question remains how many people will actually come. García and Parranga are the only ones who have actually moved so far.
Even they sometimes doubt whether they have made the right choice. The expansion of the local care facility has been delayed by several weeks, leaving them without jobs and an income for the time being. The rental apartment they were promised has yet to be finished. When their family calls, they try not to mention these setbacks. "We are spending the very last money we have left," Jordi said. "We don't even have enough to go back to Terrassa."

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