18 Feb Empty houses
We were out walking again the other day, returning to the Cabo de Gata Parque Natural to hike a new trail. Come lunchtime, we needed somewhere to shelter out of the strong, cool wind, to hunker down and tuck into our cheese and tomato sandwiches. We found a perfect grassy spot beside the old well in a hamlet of about 6 or 7 houses facing each other across a rough track that served as their access. It’s a tranquil neighbourhood below the twin peaks of Los Frailes, the pair of volcanic hills that dominate the landscape here. Most of the houses looked well kept, walls whitewashed, roofs intact, gardens tidily tended. Yet nobody was at home; it seemed as if nobody had been at home for a while. The windows were unambiguously shuttered, roll-down metal blinds of the kind you see on shops or offices tightly rolled down. Doors secured, gates locked, no washing on a line, no dog barking or cat prowling silently, no vehicles parked, no trace of a human presence. Yet seemingly not abandoned. A sign fixed to one of the houses and pitched at a slight angle announced ‘Se Vende’, For Sale. Its weather-beaten state suggested many months, maybe years of misplaced optimism.
You see evidence of depopulation all over this corner of Spain. We see it in Bedar – lots of houses and hardly any people. On the immediate hillside around our cortijo there are about eighteen mostly big houses; fourteen of them are empty. Even in the village itself, with its blend of old terraced houses and apartments, there’s a sense of partial occupation, of vacancy. The narrow streets in the centre bustle rather quietly for a while in the early morning and late afternoon – all life stops between 2 and 5 pm anyway since for most of the year it’s too hot. The houses clustered around the square and the church are inhabited by mainly older and mostly Spanish people. Beyond these streets, many houses look shut up, their silent interiors hidden behind locked doors and shuttered windows, nobody at home. Their emptiness seems complete; these are not houses to which people come home in the afternoon or evening after work; people are absent. The estate agents, on the other hand, are very definitely present. Bedar is small but has two of them advertising properties to sell in the village or on the campo. Many prices are reduced – tells you something. If you Google from here somehow they can tell you’re in Spain but you’re not from Spain and that you might, therefore, be on the market for somewhere. So you find you’re bombarded with offers of properties for sale, or for rent, long or short-term, big or small. You know that vertical window on the right hand side of your screen? Well, it’s populated with stunning fincas for you to covet, perhaps to persuade you to dream.
So many houses, so few people. So what’s going on? Who owns the houses and if they’re not living in them where are they? And if they’re selling them, why? I suppose some owners live in Valencia, Madrid or Barcelona – I looked at one of the online rental sites and found Olga (yes, she is Spanish) who works in Barcelona but has a house here that belonged to her parents. Most of the rentals, though, are places owned by Brits or Dutch or Germans. Most of the houses for sale are probably Brits or Dutch or Germans repatriating because grandchildren have arrived or because the dream didn’t quite fulfill itself. Or now, perhaps, for the Brits, because they’re anxious about what comes next for Brexpatriates. This is a village of absentee, mostly foreign householders, perhaps with a few wealthier Spaniards who live and work in the big cities. The same is probably true of the hamlet where we stopped for lunch. The pretty casas are empty most of the year.
People say that there’s no work down here, at least very little. To own a house like these empty ones you would need to have money earned in some other place – a stash of capital, an inheritance, a final salary pension. To say there is no work is not quite true. There is plenty of work in the fields and the vast polythene metropolises filled with Europe’s fruit and veg that sprawl across the plains between the sierras. To drive from the empty houses of Bedar to the empty houses in the Cabo de Gata you have to cross this polythene plain and pass through Campohermoso (literal meaning: Beautiful Countryside), a town most undeserving of its name. It’s a shanty town, untidy, broken down, its halal shops hinting strongly at its cultural makeup. Moroccans, we hear and we see, do the work in the fields and the polytunnels. They live in the broken down houses or in shacks or old vans, or other makeshift shelters thrown up beside the polythene……
….A stone’s throw from all those empty houses.