An Aussie in Galicia: Meet the woman who swapped the Sydney suburbs for rural Spain

Heath Savage had never even visited Galicia when she decided to upsticks with her partner and buy a ruined farmhouse in a tiny hamlet in Spain's northwestern region.

An Aussie in Galicia: Meet the woman who swapped the Sydney suburbs for rural Spain
Heath Savage plans to open a B&B in rural Galicia. Photo: H Savage

In November 2017 I resigned from my full-time role in Sydney, as a trainer and assessor in community services and counselling, to spend three months in Belfast, caring for my mother, who had fallen and broken her hip. She spent 8 months of that year in hospital and rehabilitation, and I lived in her small apartment while I coordinated her return to independent living.

I had a fair bit of time on my hands between days spent at the hospital or consulting care managers, social workers and doctors. I watched a lot of television! I followed a show that featured people who relocated to other countries, to facilitate lifestyle changes, and my awareness of my own situation increased; the life that my partner and I were living in our home country was only going to become tougher as we aged.

Our suburb was becoming a city, and the rising cost of living alarmed us as we faced eventual retirement on a tiny, fixed, income, while still servicing a mortgage. So, the idea of relocating took root. During one of our nightly telephone talks, I ran it past my partner, whom I expected to question my mental health. To my surprise, she readily agreed that we should look into it. We had both become dissatisfied with city life and the struggle to maintain careers. So, I did. I had three months of winter to spend playing on my laptop, researching.

The reaction of friends and family to our news-flash was revelatory. Most, once their eyebrows descended, reacted in incredibly affirming and positive ways. A hearty: “Wow!” was the most common – a feel-good reaction that demonstrated they were genuinely pleased for us. Those who said nothing demonstrated their true feelings towards us; how little they cared.

A tiny minority of the people we considered close to us barely acknowledged the event, save to ask a couple of shallow questions. I concluded that this reaction indicated either envy, or that our relationship was never more than superficial. That was disappointing, but not surprising, and I have lost no sleep, ‘though my Christmas card list has shortened.

The most common and, probably obvious, question, asked of us, from supporters and detractors alike, were: “Why Spain, and why Galicia?”

To the first part, I answered: “Why not?” So, why Galicia? Neither of us visited Galicia before. I holidayed once in Andalusia, and I liked it, but never felt drawn to it. While browsing the possibility of re-locating to Europe, Galicia was not even on my list. I looked at France, at Italy, and at Portugal before Spain. And, when Spain began to make the most sense practically, it was to Asturias that I looked. We love mountains and rivers, and we love the sea. I found beautiful Asturian houses in abundance, in lovely locations. None excited me. Practically, it also posed too many challenges at our stage in life.

Out of curiosity, and just to compare property prices, I finally typed Galicia into the search box. When the page opened, I lost my heart. The more I looked at her, the deeper I fell. Perhaps she called out to that drop of Celtic blood in my veins? Perhaps I answered the siren call of the Atlantic shores, the green mountains; those deep river ravines, ancient forests and dry-stone walls? The food, the music, the people, the strong, unbending culture all compelled me to wards Galicia.

Then, I spotted “our house.” Just as my first sight of my partner Sarah told me that she was “The One”, I looked at her and I knew. I shook poor Sarah awake at 1.30am to tell her: “I have found our house.”

Our new home sits comfortably in a hamlet of six stone houses on the fringe of a small, but vibrant village, in the region of Ribeira Sacra – the “Sacred River.”

A lane lined with blackberries, ivy, chestnut and beech and bay trees line the camino. Casa Girasol, nestles behind stone walls on high-ground, overlooking our little piece of this ancient, magical land, bordered by the wall of a 12th century convent. From the terrace, we can see the roofs of the village houses, a stork’s nest or two, and the clock tower of the casa de consello. We can hear the convent chapel bell ring the angelus at morning, noon, and sunset, summoning the nuns to their devotions; we can hear birdsong and the clacking of storks’ beaks.

Our land has a small orchard: an apple tree, a cherry tree, a pear tree, raspberries and blackcurrants. It has trees bearing sweet chestnuts, hazel and walnuts. Poppies sway in the breeze. Climbing roses scent the air.

Therein lies my answer. This is why we chose Galicia.

Next week: Heath and Sarah host their first volunteers on a scheme that matches people who need help restoring properties with volunteer workers who provide labour in return for board and lodging.

READ ALSO: Group of friends buy entire abandoned Spanish village to fulfil retirement dream

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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.


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.


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.


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.