The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
How Spain’s ghost towns are being brought back to life
Times are changing in rural Andalucia, with new initiatives luring visitors to the region’s struggling hilltop villages, says Amanda Hyde
Over the past few decades, some of Andalucia’s famous pueblos blancos (“white villages”) have become ghost towns as younger residents relocate. For every Frigiliana and Mijas, where geraniums bloom along photogenic lanes, there’s a shuttered settlement where a handful of holiday houses only open their doors for a few weeks a year.
To make things worse, those towns that do rely on tourism have had a tough time. Soon after the pandemic, some towns – such as Pampaneira, Bubión and Capileira – were doused in Saharan dust due to Storm Celia. Local officials publicly wondered who would fund a clear-up now that most of their houses belonged to secondhome owners.
But things can be done to tempt residents – and tourists – back to neglected regions. After all, there’s much to love in the pueblos blancos, where whitewashed houses overlook some of southern Spain’s most dramatic countryside.
A handful of organisations have been set up to entice city-dwellers to these once-thriving centres. Through Holapueblo (holapueblo. com) and others, would-be residents can virtually explore the towns and properties. Vente A Vivir A Un Pueblo (venteaviviraunpueblo.com), another initiative designed to showcase rural towns and villages, highlights 46 settlements in Andalucia that urbanites could move to. In some of these places, you can buy a house for as little as £25,000, which may entice would-be residents wishing to take advantage of Spain’s new digital nomad visa scheme.
In Genalguacil, north of Estepona, a much-publicised contemporary art festival, trail and residencies were set up to stem the exodus of locals (the population had dwindled from 1,500 to just 400). Villagers collaborate with artists, bringing ancient craftsmanship to public art and pieces displayed in the local museum, while biannual festivities bring the crowds to what’s acknowledged as one of the prettiest villages in the region.
Holidaying here offers a totally different kind of trip to the ones on the Spanish Costas.
In the pueblos blancos, pools are mostly municipal. Dawn and dusk are for summer hikes in the hills (any other time of day is just too hot). And, instead of zooming from beach to beach, you can wander between villages and castles at a slower, gentler pace – perhaps a blueprint for a new type of tourism in Andalucia’s most rural pockets.
It’s a philosophy already adopted in Moclín, a hilltop village around 40 minutes’ drive from Granada. Britons Ian Rutter and Andrew Watson found themselves here in 2016, looking for somewhere to emigrate. After setting up a B&B, Casa Higueras (casa-higueras.com), they went on to found Granada Cultural Holidays ( granadaculturalholidays. com) in the village.
Back then, Moclín was having a hard time. The school had shut and depopulation is an ongoing problem. A number of houses are owned by British holidaymakers, some of whom haven’t visited since Brexit. The pair didn’t want to add to the village’s woes, and so instead involved its inhabitants with their endeavours, such as arranging a party for the coursegoers who’d come to learn flamenco. Rutter has also helped the villagers, who take immense pride in their castle and walking trails but little idea of how to tell the world about them, with marketing Moclín’s charms. He’s now working on an arts festival for the village which will launch later this year. He says: “Staying in one place and immersing yourself in the traditions of the people is unique. It’s still something that a lot of people are missing out on.”
There’s much to love in the pueblos blancos. In some areas, you can buy a house for £25,000