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Surprising Ways Spain’s Historic Little Villages Are More Modern Than Madrid

Jefferson Bonar has been living outside the Andalucian town of Salobreña for over three years now and has spent that time drinking, wallowing in self-doubt, and occasionally working on his novel, which despite his best efforts is finished and available now on Amazon.

Surprising Ways Spain’s Historic Little Villages Are More Modern Than Madrid
Photo: philipus/Depositphotos

Here, he shares his observations of village life with The Local.

Like many others who have come to visit Spain, my first impression of its Little White Villages were of quaint little time capsules where nothing much has changed for centuries. You can hang about in dusty-old cafes, drink warm red wine while nibbling on plates of jamon serrano and questionable sardines, and convince yourself this was probably not that different from how the Moors spent their hot August afternoons, as long as you ignore the motorcycle racing on the television in the corner.

But for the past few years I’ve lived in one of those Little White Villages, the Costa Tropical town of Salobreña. I have realised that I, much like my fellow extranjeros, have been duped.

In fact in many ways, this town is more modern than Madrid, Paris, or that floaty city from Star Wars. After doing a bit of research for my novel, I have found the pace of change here to be breathtaking and profound, to the point where it wouldn’t surprise me to learn the Visigoths once argued over what to do about the hordes of drunken Saxon holidaymakers every summer, or that the Moors once had their own Wi-Fi network made from the dried entrails of their enemies.

Here are just a few of the more interesting examples I found just from researching my own town of Salobreña:

1: Geography

Picture this: you go down to one of the many fine beaches Salobreña has to offer, you lay out your towel, set up the cheap umbrella that will last exactly until the slightest breeze catches it, then hit a button on a magic time machine and transport yourself three hundred years into the past. You know where you’d be?

Underwater.


Photo: Neftali77/Depositphotos

Because all of the land that surrounds Salobreña, on which the main crops are sugar cane and hotel chains, is barely as old as the French Revolution. Up until the middle of the eighteenth-century, Salobreña had no beaches to speak of. The fine sands you see today currently covered in holiday flats and ice cream shops only came about after the River Guadalfeo flooded sometime in the 1750’s and brought a massive load of silt down from the Alpujarras mountain range, all in one go, changing the landscape forever.

2: Architecture: 

Like many towns, Salobreña is built on a hilltop, the highest point of which is taken up by the castle. “Ancient” and “Moorish” are words I once read on the placards they have there for the tourists. Here’s what they also said:


The 'ancient' rampants of Salobreña's castle. Photo: OlafSpeier/Depositphotos

Most of the castle you see today was built in 1960. In fact, almost nothing of the original structure is left. After the nineteenth-century, the castle was left to ruin, some of it even being used as building material for the surrounding houses. What you see today is a rebuilt replica, a scheme devised by Franco to preserve Spain’s glorious past. It’s a bit like going to see a Picasso in an art museum only to see “Made in China” stamped on the bottom and realizing you’re actually standing in the gift shop. It looks the same, but it isn’t really the point.

3: Language

The Phoenicians called is Selambina, the Romans called it Segalvina, the Moors called it Shalubānya, the Christians currently call it Salobreña, and my three-year-old son now calls it “Salobeenya”, which I firmly believe to be the next evolution of the name. The future is coming, my friends.

4: Sports:

You wouldn’t know it, but this is one of the most popular places in the world for bicycling. And I’ve never understood why. During the summertime, swarms of people poured into Spandex can be seen huffing and puffing their way around the windy roads here, crawling their way up impossible hills, or indulging in their favourite hobby of creating long tailbacks on roads where there’s no room to pass.


Photo: ramonespelt1/Depositphotos

I know cycling is big in cities as well, and I saw a bit in Madrid. A bit. But those were tourists, renting their bikes for little strolls around shopping areas, or the odd hobbyist.

What you see here in Salobreña are €5-10k superbikes, sexy two-wheeled equivalents of Ferraris and Porsches that would make riders on the Tour de France jealous. And the accessories – carbon-fibre helmets and wrist monitors and complex water delivery devices and computerized monitors that do God-knows what, none of which do anything to tell the rider that they need to let me past, I have ice cream melting in the back.

5: Entertainment:

This is the only place I’ve seen a fully-computerized karaoke bar. Fully-computerized.


Photo: josekube/Depositphotos

The host is a robot. I have spent years living in New York, Los Angeles, London, and various other places. I’ve never seen karaoke run by a robot.

Don’t have that in Madrid.

Jefferson Bonar’s debut novel A Murder Most Spanish, the first in a murder-mystery series set in 17th-century Spain, is now available on Amazon in both eBook and paperback editions.  BUY IT HERE

READ ALSO: Five reasons I love living in Andalusia

MONEY

Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.

READ MORE:

Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 

 

Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.

Santander

Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.

BBVA

The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.

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