In two generations, Spain has seen mass migration to the cities, with fields and old stone buildings left to molder and decay. This has left the countryside dotted with abandoned farms, granaries and storage sheds, overgrown gardens, olive groves, and 200 year-old stone boundary walls.
As The New York Times reports: “The going rate for a ruined hamlet is now close to €100,000. If you’re feeling flush, an entire village of 75 homes, all abandoned during the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939, will set you back €425,000. For a couple of million, you could even purchase a medieval hilltop settlement with its own fortress.”
Bargain-hunters from the United Kingdom were among the early adopters of these properties. In fact, the number of British nationals living in Spain has nearly tripled since 2001 and this country is host to more British citizens living away from home than any other portion of the world. In 2014, The Daily Mail did a round up of rural properties in the Spanish provinces, showing hay bales disintegrating in the barn. Bargain hunters were ecstatic—a house in one of these ghost towns sold for as little as €75,000, the price of a parking garage in Battersea.
But Americans are discovering the charms of ex-pat life as well. The Times also profiled a former ship’s captain and a cook for a cruise line in the Bahamas who bought a deserted village in northern Spain.
Return of the Artists
History is coming full circle, as children of the heroes and intellectuals who fled during the Spanish Civil War return to their homeland.
The artist and musician Angie Del Riego was raised in the Dominican Republic then lived for 30 years in the United States where she raised a family. “I felt foreign in Central Florida and Virginia,” she says. “I didn’t adjust to all the fast-growing culture, and the pace of life didn’t favor my creative aspirations.” In 2010, she was offered a chance to participate in art exhibit in Spain and she eagerly accepted.
“When I first came to this country, I knew more history than many Spaniards, having heard it at my father’s lips. Our ancestor, General Rafael Del Riego declared the first Spanish constitution in the 1820s, an action that later cost him his life. ”
Angie traced her father footsteps through the Civil War, to law school in Salamanca, and documented his years in a prison camp in Argueles a beach town on the border between Cataluña and France. “He was able to escape crossing the Pirineos mountains along with many other Republicans and Spanish families fleeing from the horrors of the war,” says Angie who is now editing his memoirs.
In 2012, after two years struggling to make a living as an artist in Barcelona, Angie met her new partner, Juan Antonio, and visited his hometown at the border near Portugal. In Extremadura, wild pigs roam and the landscape shimmers in the summer heat. “It was rough, earthy, ancient,” she says. “Like the Old Spain of my father and grandfather.” Immediately she felt at home.
Over the next three years, Juan rebuilt his great grandmother’s house dating from the early 1800s. “It had a bread oven on a slab, and an old stone hearth,” Angie says. During the renovation they lived down the street with Juan’s grandmother.
Juan created a spacious studio for Angie on the top floor. “I had never seen anyone build a house with his hands before,” Angie says. “It is a fine piece of craftsmanship and we feel so lucky to be living here.”
In the countryside, Angie is free to paint full-time, “living modestly without all the amenities that society says we need but that actually end up crippling us from being all that we can be.”
Much of her inspiration comes from the olive groves in walking distance from the house. Fascinated by gnarled and twisted trunks, many of them 200 years old, Angie created a series of drawings and poems about mythical women hidden in these trees. “The landscape here is magical,” she says, noting that she spends some time with the trees every day.
It Takes More than Money
If you’re pursuing this kind of real estate adventure and you don’t have the help of local friend or family member, consult this Spanish Property Guide. Then follow this checklist for reviving an old house.
- Work out how much money you want to spend in total, and then add at least 30 percent to that for unforeseen costs which will inevitably arise.
- Remember, this has to be a labor of love—for the buildings, the landscape and the people. You’ll need to know enough of the language to communicate with workers and officials. You’ll have to obtain the necessary permits for improvements, and learn to live on rural time.
- It’s good to be handy at growing food and fixing things for the nearest town may be twenty miles away.
Learn what to expect leaving your home country and adopting another from the Ten Commandments for Living in Spain. And find more resources here:
If you can only fantasize about a move to Spain…
Feast on this poem by Federico Garcia Lorca who hailed from Andalusia, a region with the most striking and varied landscape—from alpine forests to fertile plains, tidal marshes to arid deserts. Lorca reminds us of the difference between city and country living, citing the virtues of the simple life.