Spain struggles to repopulate its deserted rural interior

Sarnago lost its last resident 37 years ago but Jose Maria Carrascosa and his association are trying hard to revive the village, an uphill battle in one of Spain's most depopulated regions.

Spain struggles to repopulate its deserted rural interior
All photos by Cesar Manso / AFP

A rural exodus, which began in the 1950s as people moved to find work in factories, has left some parts of Spain with just two people per square kilometre — the same density as in Siberia.

This is the case in parts of Castile, a vast region in central Spain where Sarnago is located, in the northern Aragon region and the southern provinces of Extremadura.

It makes Spain a “strange country within Europe” since no other similarly sized nation on the continent has such demographic deserts, Spanish writer Sergio del Molino wrote in his travel book “La Espana Vacia” (“Empty Spain”), published last year.

“The depopulation here was brutal,” said Jesus Hernandez, the mayor of San Pedro Manrique, a larger town of around 600 residents near Sarnago.   

The emigration from the region was especially fuelled by a decision in 1965 while Spain was in the grips of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco to plant 22,000 hectares (54,000 acres) of pine trees to feed the paper industry, which pushed out cereal farming.

Two years later, Carrascosa's father moved his family to Tudela, a town further east in the fertile Ebro Valley.

Not forgotten

But wind-swept Sarnago, which at one point was home to about 400 people including 30 children, has not been forgotten by its former residents, who have restored 25 of its 40 houses and now have running water and access to electricity.

Carrascosa, who heads an association that seeks to reverse the village's fortunes, is proud of his three-bedroom home in Sarnago, which he visits regularly for short stays.

Through meetings, a magazine and social media, he encourages other former residents to maintain a link with the village too.   

The restoration of homes, though, has still not led to any permanent residents, mainly due to lack of public services in the village, located some 200 kilometres (135 miles) northeast of Madrid.

The nearest public health centre is four km away in San Pedro Manrique but offers only basic medical care.

There is a primary school there as well, with 66 children, but no high school.

Jesus Catalan, a 71-year-old pensioner, and his wife live in Sarnago from March to October but leave in winter when temperatures can drop to minus 15 C.

“January and February are very hard and if there is a heavy snowfall you
are trapped,” he said.

Rural tourism has grown in recent years in the region, which boasts picturesque tree-covered valleys, mountains and even dinosaur footprints.    

Father of two Gonzalo Esteban, 42, moved to the nearby town of Yanguas, with just 40 residents, in 2001 with his wife from Valladolid, a city of 300,000 residents, 250 km away, to open a rural inn with a restaurant
specialising in mushroom dishes.    

But Esteban said he was aware that the town, which has just seven young families including his own, could easily die out.    

“All it would take is for three families to leave with their children,” he said.

Rural tourism is not enough to make up for the decline in agriculture, as farm workers over the decades have been drawn away to factory or administrative jobs in the nearby Basque Country and Navarra.

Elsewhere in Spain, the industrialised regions around Madrid and Barcelona also proved a pull to rural workers, while out-of-date machinery and farming techniques in poorer places sent people in search of better paid jobs.

Incentives to farm

Farming is key in revitalising the deserted areas, unions and environmentalists argue.

“If there are no farmers and livestock breeders, villages become depopulated,” said Aurelio Gonzalez, head of the regional branch of the union of small farmers and breeders.

European Union agricultural subsidies, which focus on boosting competitiveness instead of “the net amount of jobs created”, are also to blame, said Daniel Lopez, of environmental group Ecologists in Action.

He pushes for more support for ecological farming, with similar programmes as in France and Italy.

During the medieval Reconquest, or Christan campaigns to recapture territory from the Moors, livestock farmers received financial incentives to set up on land taken from the Muslims, Carrascosa said.

Juan Antonio Sanchez Quero, who is in charge of fighting depopulation at the Spanish Federation of Municipalities and Provinces, said it was time to again offer fiscal incentives to livestock farmers to reverse a process that threatens to close many towns.

“Something like that” could help his region and others like it,  Carrascosa said.

By Álvaro Villalobos / AFP

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EXPLAINED: What you need to know about locksmiths in Spain

If you get locked out, have a break-in or need to change or fix the door lock at your home in Spain, here are the rates and advice you need before calling a Spanish locksmith (cerrajero).

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about locksmiths in Spain

Like anywhere, locksmiths are generally expensive and the price can vary greatly depending on the service you need and where you are.

It also depends on when you need them, as it’ll cost much more to call them out on a Saturday night than a Monday morning, for example.

Nor would it cost the same to open your front door as it would a reinforced security door.

But locksmiths don’t just make copies of keys and bail you out when you’re stuck outside your flat.

They also offer a whole host of different services including, but not limited to, opening safes, creating master keys, installing security doors, anti-drill doors, cutting specialist locks that reject copied keys, and even unlocking the boot of your car.

How much does a locksmith cost in Spain?

Given all these variables, the price can range massively.

According to Cronoshare, the average price for a nationwide call out in Spain can start from €80 anywhere up to €400.

On average, for a basic service, you can expect to pay anywhere between €40-€70 an hour for the labour, with the price of changing or installing a basic lock anywhere between €80-€200. 

For basic door openings, it depends on the situation you find yourself in: for doors locked with a key, which is a more complex task, prices average around €200, and for doors that are jammed or slammed shut, slightly cheaper in the €80-€100 range.

For an armoured or security door, prices can start at around €300.

In short, a general rule is that the more complex the task is, the higher the prices.

And as always, prices can vary depending on where you are in Spain, the quality of the locksmith, the time of the day and week you need his or her services, and if its a public holiday or not. 

So, as always, compare prices to try and find the most economical solution without skimping on quality.

As such, the following rates are estimations taken from average prices from locksmith.

Weekend/holiday rates

Where prices can really start to add up, however, is when you have an emergency situation requiring a locksmith’s assistance at the weekend, on a public holiday, or outside of normal working hours.

And if you live in Spain, you probably know there’s quite a few of those days throughout the year.

If you really need a cerrajero on a public holiday or during non-working hours (usually defined as anything between 8pm-8am) prices can reach €300 or €500 due to the fact you’ll have to cover the cost of travel, which starts from around €40 plus the increased rate.

Then you must also include the price of labour to the flat rate, which is usually somewhere between €40 and €70 an hour regardless of when you call them out.

Key vocabulary 

We’ve put together some of the basic vocabulary you might need if you find yourself needing a locksmith while in Spain.

el cerrajero – locksmith

la llave – the key

la llave de repuesto – the spare key

la puerta – the door

la cerradura – the lock

la bisagra – the hinge

día festivo – public holiday

cambio de bombín – change of cylinder lock

puerta blindada – armoured door

coste de mano de obra – labour costs

quedarse afuera – get locked out 

puerta cerrada de un portazo – door slammed shut

puerta cerrada con llave – locked door

Tips relating to choosing a good locksmith in Spain 

If you’ve just started renting a new place or have bought a property, it’s advisable to change the lock as you don’t know who has keys to your front door. If you’re a tenant, try to negotiate this with your landlord as it’s in both of your interests that only you two have keys to the property.

If there has been a burglary in your property while you’re living in it and there’s no sign of forced entry, then there’s a very big chance that the burglars had a copy of your keys, and you should definitely change the locks. 

If you’ve lost your keys and you think it happened close to your home, again it’s advisable for you to change the locks.

One of the best ways to avoid being locked out and having to cough up a hefty sum is to give a spare set to someone that you trust that lives in your town or city in Spain. 

When it comes to choosing a locksmith in Spain, you should make sure he or she is a reputable one. Asking friends and family first can be your first port of call.

If not, make sure you read reviews online if available to get any insight beforehand.

In order to avoid any nasty surprises, ask them on the phone for a budget (presupuesto) for all the costs attached to their services before accepting.

Be wary of cerrajeros that automatically want to change the whole lock when a simpler and less costly option is possible. 

Usually they should offer you a contract for you to read carefully before signing. It should include a three-month guarantee for the potential new lock or at least a breakdown of the costs.

Make sure that they are not charging you an excessively high price if it’s an emergency, as this is not actually legal.

There’s also asking them to prove their accreditation with the Unión Cerrajeros de Seguridad (UCES).

Weekend and holiday rates can be higher nonetheless, so consider your options and if it’s worth staying with a friend or family member for a night to save some money. A trustworthy and honest cerrajero will let you know about the money you could save if you choose to wait as well.