Trans-Iberian

Trans-Iberian

Covering everything from the major news of the week and burning social issues, to expat living and la vida local, EL PAÍS’ team of English-language bloggers offers its opinions, observations and analysis on Spain and beyond.

The silent towns of Catalonia

Por: | 17 de marzo de 2016

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Conesa (Picture Alexandra Sans Massó)

Flying into London can be an overwhelming experience. If you take a particular trajectory, it can feel like the whole of southern England rushes towards you as a seething mass of human life, with no breaks for nature amid the grey hues of habitation.

England - and in particular the affluent Southern regions - are crowded. The UK as a whole has a population density of 255 people per square kilometre and this rises to 419 in England, making it second only to Malta as the most densely populated country in the EU.

Spain, by contrast, has a population density of 91 people per square kilometre, putting it at the spacious end of the spectrum. Not that you’d really notice it in Barcelona where I live: the city has an eye-popping 714.9 inhabitants per square kilometre according to the Institut d'Estadística de Catalunya, putting it right up there with London, Moscow and Athens. Not only that, but city living in Spain tends to mean being cooped up in flats, with just a balcony for comfort (or a terrace if you’re lucky), anathema to the garden-loving British.

Take a step outside Barcelona - or more of a car ride, really - and all this changes, as population density falls through the floor. Sometimes it can feel almost uncanny, as town upon town passes by your window with no sign of inhabitation beyond the odd stray dog and a flair of graffiti. Welcome to the silent towns of Catalonia.

I’ve got to know many of them over the years: there’s Foixà, a charming rural village in Baix Empordà with a fixed population that feels like it could fit into the town’s well-preserved castle, home to a bare-bones shop, a homely restaurant and a bar that defies the binary logic of open and shut.

There’s Querol, a beautiful hamlet nestled in the castle-strewn mountains of Alt Camp, almost unreachable by public transport, whose entire population comes together in the town’s titchy square to celebrate the festa major on August 15. And there’s Arsèguel, an eagle’s nest of a village in the the Pyrenees, whose citizens are dwarfed in number every summer by accordion lovers, as the town welcomes Europe’s largest gathering of acordionistes. Just this month I discovered Conesa in the Conca de Barberà, a town so small that a Google search turns up pages of references to a Barcelona sandwich bar before the true Conesa shows its face.

In a way there’s something rather depressing about these places. They’re not ghost towns in the truest sense of the word although they do feel haunted by the past. Meanwhile, in the present day they speak of the dwindling populations and ageing inhabitants found in so many Catalan conurbations, where the young people have had to move to find work, taking their children with them. There’s something particularly poignant about the orderly little playground that sits next to Querol’s town square, eagerly awaiting local children who simply don’t exist.

As recently as 1920, Conesa’s population numbered 511, for example. Now it has dwindled to less than 100, who rattle around what is a beautifully preserved town, (apparently) flush with cash from the neighbouring wind turbines and with nothing to spend it on. This depopulation turns an inevitable vicious circle, as dwindling populations force the closure of local services, which in turn makes family life difficult to sustain.

And yet despite all this, there’s something I love in the silent Catalan towns. It’s not just the space - the wonderful, liberating, wind in your hair space - that they offer. It’s the spirit: the way villages will celebrate their festa major with a joyous song and dance even if only 35 people are every going to show up; it’s the ambitious plans for high-speed internet connections that might - just might - make these villages into budding work spaces; it’s the man walking his goat who invites you to a calçotada; and it’s the Catalans who will drive 100 kilometres to vote in the town of their birth, years after they’ve left, just because it seems the right thing to do.

It’s the warmth of human life in other words and - perverse though it might seem - the silent towns of Catalonia resonate loudly with it. Long may they continue to do so.

 

 

 

 

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Authors (Bloggers)

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of Andalucia.com and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at korenhelbig.com.

Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area perelloplus.com. @JuliePybus

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Spain-Holiday.com. Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check: www.lookingfordrama.com.

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