Living in Spain: What to do with a dilapidated Galician farmhouse that housed pigs for decades?

In this week's installment, Heath Savage tackles a problematic corner of the dilapidated farmhouse she bought in Galicia.

Living in Spain: What to do with a dilapidated Galician farmhouse that housed pigs for decades?
Photo: nelsonart/Depositphotos

Our alpendre (I love this word!), is, as its name suggests, the front porch of the house.  When we arrived, we contemplated contacting a locations scout, to offer it as a setting for horror movies.  

Neither of us ventured in there much at all. Previous owners had erected a shaky brick dividing wall, creating a narrow stairway, and then installed a flimsy false ceiling. It was a “mezzanine” floor, filled with treasures that included a mummified mouse, some hardened bags of concrete, and broken garden furniture.

Some very dodgy wiring provided light, from a single dusty bulb taped to a piece of board. The architects who inspected the house prior to our purchase simply omitted it from their report. The message we interpreted from this omission was: “Don’t even go there!”

The roof and external stone walls were sound, and, on the up-side, we unearthed a usable “esky” (see Australian dictionary), which we rejoiced in disproportionately, to the puzzlement of Eddie. Nothing excites and Aussie more than a thermal plastic box, which they can fill with ice-cubes and beer. We duly washed and christened it. I digress…

Amongst the garbage was a very old wooden donkey yoke, which we have re-purposed into rustic chic coat and towel racks. We didn’t upcycle the desiccated rodent. He got a Viking funeral, on the garden pyre.

The intrepid Eddie climbed onto the ceiling and chucked all the garbage down. We transported it to the “crap pile” in the garden. After sweeping and washing out a decade’s dirt, we pondered future use of the space. A couple of tonnes of firewood lurked in the wood store, which was accessed via a giant step onto a wobbly plank, supported by some bricks: a broken leg waiting to happen. Our neighbour (Belen, keeper of the rabbits made famous in an earlier instalment) told us that a two-metre snake frequented this wood-pile in search of mice (living, not mummified), and frequently had to be chased out in summer.

That was the inspiration I needed. We formed a human chain, with Cat, our Workaway volunteer from Madrid, at the forefront. Within two hours we removed and re-stacked all the wood outside.  Phase One completed. Phase Two: Eddie removed the makeshift ceiling and put it on the growing pile in the garden. Phase Three: he knocked down the wibbly-wobbly wall, after a quick call to “Tony Taps”, who had to remove the uninsulated live electrical wire, that we found running through from the kitchen!  Phase Four: transform the surprisingly airy space that emerged from the gloom.  But into what?


Huge chestnut beams, a vaulted roof, and massive, ancient stable door were features that had been hidden in the darkness. Our new boot-room was born. Re-pointing the stone walls took a lot of labour, as did scraping 200 years of charring off the beams.

Another neighbour, Fernando, whose grandparents and parents grew up in our house, told us that this was where his family’s pigs had lived cosily during many hundreds of Galician winters.  In October, their various parts would hang from the beams, smoking under chestnut and apple-wood ashes. A family’s history and connection to this land is built into the stones of our house. We love that.

The treacherous steps have now been widened, the floor and brick adjoining wall have been tiled. Our washing machine, which languished in the shed since last October, when we re-did the kitchen, has been dusted off and placed on a plinth, where, once more it fulfils its destiny.

Tony installed LED strip lights, and an industrial style drop-light over the new laundry area. One of Frank’s custom-made drying racks has been hung from a beam; using its ropes and pulleys we can hoist it to the rafters and dry clothes in winter without resorting to a tumble-dryer. Eddie installed a sink, shelves, and built a marvellous open-fronted coat and boot cupboard.  The door has been sanded, re-varnished, and adorned with a new iron handle and lock. Lee has engraved a slate house sign to mount on the wall next the door, to greet guests as they enter. Like the rest of our home, the skills of many local men have brought our ideas to life.

I love our new boot room. We, and our guests, now enter into a bright, clean, welcoming space. And I love having a washing machine again! We will miss our weekly trips to the laundromat in Monforte, run by a lovely Catalan family who politely ignore the state of our rescue dog’s damp, smelly blanket, and return it to us all fluffy and clean. We will now need another excuse to visit Barcelona, next-door, for tapas. If it ever stops raining, I am going to enjoy one of my great delights in life; hanging out a line of clean washing in the sun.

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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.