Spain’s New Rurals

Imaginative Urbanites and Architects revive the rural areas of Spain and Portugal

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Are those that live in villages ‘citizens’ or ‘yokels? But aren’t citizens that don’t know how to tell a lettuce from a cabbage also ‘yokels’? Why are those that live in rural areas in Spain always made fun of?

The bright lights and false promises of the cities made whole communities living in the interior of Spain emigrate en masse in the 1950s and 1960s. As a result, depopulation is dramatic in the country, and at a level greater than anywhere else in Europe, as it affects most of the Spanish territory.

Spain in fact wins the depopulation ‘Oscar.’ Thirteen per cent of the country is officially desert, as it has less than 8 inhabitants per km². Elsewhere, this only occurs in the Scottish Highlands and Lapland. We affectionately call Spain’s interior, which has an area twice a large as Belgium, ‘South Lapland.’

 

So far, and official promises aside, only a handful of local entrepreneurs have been able to reactivate these areas, thanks to the development of (mostly) rural tourism and rural architecture projects, which is increasingly accepted as an alternative to the traditional beach model.

To carry out these projects, financial aid has been sought through public bodies. Many subsidies are currently coming from the European Union, with the aim of financing the recovery of towns and create businesses. Meanwhile many municipalities and isolated communities facilitate anyone who wants to move to these run down locations, with the sale of houses for one euro, or whole villages located in incredible places at very advantageous prices. Interested parties must adhere to certain conditions, such as age, a commitment to rehabilitate houses, become registered residents of the village and invest in local projects. But many young city dwellers with poorly paid jobs and facing high living costs, dream of returning to the countryside with their family. Working at home has of course changed our lives. There are already many examples of professionals who have taken the jump and settled in remote villages, continuing their profession via internet or launching into a new one that encourages the repopulation of these areas.

Miguel De Santos, a journalist and director of the magazine Porter and digital platform El Hedonista, built a house, little by little, on a plot of land at the end of the village of Carrascal de la Cuesta in the province of Segovia. Increasingly attracted to rural life, his stays there became more and more frequent. Although his working life is increasingly complex, he decided recently to take the leap and live there permanently. He is happy in his eco-efficient, sustainable house – even though it has irregular wifi.

Something similar happened to the landscape designer and painter Fernando Valero Artola. A stone house in a village of only four permanent inhabitants is the reason he comes more and more often. Together with a group of people from the area, he is renovating the property – which includes an old henhouse and corral. It is situated on the outskirts of Torrecilla del Condado (Segovia) – an area that was used as the location for Siberia in the classic film Doctor Zhivago.

On the other hand Nacho Mariscal – one of the 10 siblings of the famous designer Javier Mariscal – has chosen to live in an old country estate in the region of Maestrazgo (Castellón). He has transformed the property into a very special hotel called Aldea Roqueta. The project was carried out by the original farmhands, who continue to work for him.

Another example is the entrepreneur Luis Corella, who decided to set up a business for the production of greenhouse roses. After rigorous research, he chose a town in the province of Soria, now the location of Aleia; the largest rose nursery in Europe. Trucks full of roses depart for Holland from here every day.

Vellosillo is a good example of rural architecture that motivates abandoned areas.
Vellosillo Dreams

Jorge Juan García was also very clear. Five years ago he came to live in the village where his family was born and formed an association of 170 neighbours who together set up Vellosillo Dreams (Segovia). With an investment of €200,000, Vellosillo Dreams, supports five local projects that encourage repopulation through agriculture, sustainable tourism and self-sufficient housing.

What Architects Say

But in order to leave the city behind, everyone is very aware that there are vital requirements, as urbanites have become quite fragile and dependent beings and not conditioned to live in a village, which at times is easy, but at others quite hard. This is where initiatives such as Aleia or Vellosillo Dreams slot in, but we should remember examples from other epochs such as the village of Carmona in Cantabria, the region of Vera or the village of Medinaceli that became repopulated thanks to the recuperation of its historic quarter. Hotels projects such as the Ayllón in Soria (see below), Consolación Hotel in Teruel and the Hotel Aire de Bardenas (Navarre), all located in harsh desert landscapes, are prime examples of Spain’s slow struggle to repopulate.

Hotel Aire de Bardenas in Navarre. Rural architecture in its purest state
Hotel Aire de Bardenas, Navarre

Architects Cristina Dominguez Lucas and Fernando Hernández Gil, (Lucas-Hernández Gil Studio) are authors of several interesting rural architecture projects. One example is the Ayllón Hotel (Segovia), where they connected several old houses through corrals and patios. According to them, this type of vernacular architecture is more adaptable than urban constructions as it has been designed without an architect, and with elements like vaults, terraces, patios and interconnected corrals. Essential things to consider they say, are heating and air-conditioning, position and high quality craftsmanship.

Ayllón Hotel in Segovia. Rural Architecture
Ayllón Hotel in Segovia.

Beatriz Guijarro is another architect who has taken part in numerous transformations of rural houses. “This type of housing,” she says, “is always connected to the outside world – the opposite of what happens in cities – and has many advantages.” She admits that when she started building in rural villages she was lucky enough to meet Vicente, a builder who handles all the materials and processes and from whom she has learned a lot: how to use clay, tile work, joinery and roofs, waterproofing and insulation and how to adapt them to modern heating and energy technology.

Ruben Picado and Maria José de Blas, from the Picado de Blas Studio, state that young people are leading the new rural shift with second homes that have changed the face of villages such as Medinaceli, areas such as La Vera and even as far back as the 1960s in Cuenca. Effective water policies (collection, treatment and mineralization), energy, communication, services and health care are essential, they emphasize, along with respecting historical sites and distorting the original fabric as little as possible, while still taking risks.

*Featured Image: Promotors of the project Vellosillo Dreams together with Ramón López (centre), the mayor of Sepúlveda. Image: David Brunat

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