x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The ghost towns that haunt Spain

Welcome to Spain's number-one ghost town, which is almost totally devoid of community, culture and people.

Valdeluz, the half-built town near Madrid that was abandoned after the property crash in 2008.
Valdeluz, the half-built town near Madrid that was abandoned after the property crash in 2008.

VALDELUZ // Drive an hour out of Spain's historic capital, through ruggedly beautiful hills and valleys, past picturesque medieval towns and church spires, and you can visit a town almost totally devoid of community, culture and people.

Welcome to Valdeluz, Spain's number-one ghost town. Its brand-new, tree-lined avenues look like an eerie, abandoned film set. One recent lunchtime, the number of residents visible could be counted on two hands.

A crane, idle for three years, juts out from the landscape alongside a half-finished block of flats. "For rent" is scrawled on tattered posters or on the side of almost every building. There is a hairdresser, a vet and a bank, but they have no customers. No one has bothered opening a grocery store.

"There is no sense of community here. People commute to the city. Nobody knows their neighbours," said Marie Carmen, 65, the only customer at the bar on the edge of the conurbation. "You have to be a very calm person to like it here."

When construction first started in 2006, at the height of Spain's property boom, Valdeluz seemed like a great idea. The local landowner managed to convince the government that the high-speed train between Madrid and Barcelona should stop here, rather than at the busy industrial centre of Guadalajara about eight kilometres away across the arid plains.

Four large housing developments were planned that would be home to 30,000 residents, lured by the cheap and speedy commuter train into the city. Rumour has it that politicians and football players bought up dozens of properties in expectation of quick returns.

But, in 2008, Spain's massive property bubble burst before even the first phase of building was complete. The direct, low-cost commuter train service never materialised. Only about 3,000 residents moved in. The lead developer went bust - his shiny, new apartment blocks absorbed by the bank.

One of the few perks that were built in time was a sprawling golf course outside the town. Its manicured, evergreen lawns look out of place amid the desert of the surrounding landscape.

"The golf courses in Madrid are saturated and very expensive, so this is a good place to come," said Fernando De la Fuente, who had driven from the capital for a tournament that was only a quarter subscribed.

Valdeluz is far from unique. White-elephant projects popped up all over Spain during the building splurge of the past decade.

A typical example was the sparkling new private airport at Ciudad Real, a few hours south of Madrid in the region of Castilla La Mancha made famous by Don Quixote. It closed this April barely four years after it opened.

It was one of many projects across Spain backed by "cajas", local savings banks that had regional politicians on their board encouraging them to invest in provincial vanity projects that made little long-term sense. Since the crisis took hold and the scale of toxic debts emerged, many cajas have been taken over or merged into larger banks.

All along the Spanish coast, and in the region around Madrid, vast building projects were undertaken that stood little chance of being filled. At one stage, in 2005, Spain was building more homes than France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined.

"There was a huge amount of speculation around here," said Ms Carmen. "Now, you have three-bedroom places that used to cost €320,000 [Dh1.53m] going for €120,000." Yet, for all the hubris, corruption and mismanagement evoked by places like Valdeluz, something positive is starting to emerge from its desolate surroundings. Last year, Dennis Krijt, a half-Dutch half-Spanish 39-year-old, opened the town's first cafe-restaurant - a surprisingly upmarket venue serving international cuisine and providing the few residents in the area with something resembling a community atmosphere.

"The people here needed something and I thought I could try to give it to them," said Mr Krijt, who quit his IT job in Madrid when the firm began downsizing.

"We do weekly English classes, we have Wi-Fi and newspapers and good food. It's something for people to do."

Thanks to a near-monopoly on local entertainment, he says, his business is thriving. Despite buying his home in 2006, when prices were at a premium, Mr Krijt seems unfazed by the downturn and the surreal atmosphere of the town.

"When I moved in, the skyline was nothing but cranes," he said. "But I never expected it to fill up very quickly. I have done my time in big cities. This is what I was looking for."

And as the economic crisis takes hold in Madrid, more and more people are being tempted by the rock-bottom prices offered in Spain's number one ghost town.

"We've seen a lot more people show up over the summer," said Ms Carmen, back at the town's bar. "Unemployment is the biggest company in Spain these days. It makes sense that people are looking for low housing costs and lots of space. "I have no plans to leave - it's very relaxing out here."