Sunday 5 July 2009

Dinosaurs, a glass fish, and an Australian songbird

By Richard Morley
I have been away. I went to the land of dinosaurs.

Deep in a wooded valley in the heart of the Tierras Altas, the Highlands, northwest of Soria lays a small, isolated village. It is called Valdelavilla.

Up until the mid 20th century, Valdelavilla, like many small communities in Spain, earned a living from rural pursuits until the pull of a better life drew the inhabitants to the larger towns and cities. Up to the time Valdelavilla was abandoned, sheep grazing, forestry and subsistence farming provided the twenty or so families that lived there with a poor life. Eventually they left.

This is a story repeated all over Spain. Today there are around two thousand, six hundred of these abandoned villages scattered throughout the country.

On the road from Soria, wide alluvial plains provide space enough for sweeping barley fields, but as you climb into the mountains the cultivated fields become tiny and strewn with boulders. Eroded spars of bare limestone pierce the surface and make detours for farmers with ploughs. The crops are sparse. Lonely farmsteads and stone pueblos dot the landscape. The road twists and turns as it follows the path of least resistance along the valleys. One wonders what supports such tiny communities and whether they too, like the other two thousand and six hundred, will one day be left empty and decaying.

One such is Vallarijo. At one time, according to official records, this tiny hamlet supported 32 families who owned between them 16 beehives, 5 mules, 16 colts, 26 pigs, 654 sheep and 280 goats. Although the village itself it set on a rugged slope, not far away on a flood plain of the Rio Linares they grew cherries, olives and other crops on 45 “Yugadas” of land. A “Yugada” is an old Roman measure of land equivalent to half and acre or a quarter of a hectare. It was meant to be the area of land a double yoked team of oxen could plough in a day.

Today, Vallarijo lays abandoned and desolate. To view its remains makes one think of looking back to some ancient, forgotten time, but the presence of ceramic electrical isolators reveals its demise as being much more recent. The last resident left in the early sixties. Being a forty minute walk away from Valdelavilla, I have visited it on several occasions. The bramble and weed strewn houses with their collapsed roofs and walls present a melancholy sight.

Many of these places are actually for sale. For not a lot of money you can own your own Spanish village, but I would imagine the cost of restoring it would be horrific.

But unlike the Vallarijo and the others, Valdelavilla rose again.

The Main Building housing the bar and restaurant at Valdelavilla

The region in which it sits is now a national park. Not nearly famous enough for its beautiful, steeply wooded valleys, exposed limestone cliffs and verdant vistas along the meandering Rio Linares, it receives nothing like it fair share of visitors. A (rather cynical – I thought) description of the history of the area tells of a time when the hills were covered with oak trees. These trees were used to build the ships of the Spanish navy, including the “Armada Invencible” that attempted to invade England in 1588. This history (hence the reason I thought it cynical) goes on to say that much of this oak can now be found lying at the bottom of the English Channel! One can only assume that after the cutting of the trees the hillsides were left bare and open to erosion for many decades. Thirty years ago the whole area was planted with non indigenous pine, which might be useful for building and telegraph poles, but their rigid lines do not enhance the landscape. In the late nineties, a group of businessmen financed the renovation of Valdelavilla into a resort hotel. It is not however a luxurious place. The cottages are small, the plumbing is minimal. The steepness of some staircases and lowness of ceilings present a permanent danger to those not so nimble on their feet or of above average height. Floors are not even, the oak beams crooked and the cobbled paths could easily twist an ankle or two. In other words the village is an (almost) authentic representation of how difficult life was to the original inhabitants. No wonder the flat floors and spacious rooms of city apartments drew them away.

In 2001 it was discovered that the village’s remoteness and total absence of a mobile telephone signal made it ideal for improving the English of Spaniards wanting to practise the language. You can read about that in “Victimising the Spanish” from a few months ago.

The most prolific growth in this bare wilderness seems to be that of wind turbine generators set along the ridge of every hill, their huge sails revolving slowly in the ever present wind.

But the limestone has kept secrets for millions of years. Now erosion and the determined chipping away of geological hammers are revealing what once was a home for dinosaurs. Forty minutes before arriving at Valdelavilla, we turned off the main road at Garay to see a five metre high concrete Tyrannosaurus Rex celebrating the discoveries made so far. Not far from Valdelavilla, the eroding landscape has revealed tracks of dinosaur feet. Once made in a muddy river bed and now fossilised for all time, this has given palaeontologists insight into how gregarious the dinosaurs were. They would herd in huge groups, protecting their young in the centre of the herd like elephants do now.

I have been to Valdelavilla several times. Its approach, down a long and winding series of hairpin bends means that the winter snows cut it off almost completely. For this reason it is only open from April until October. But the photograph below was taken on May Day 2008, revealing that nothing can be taken for granted in these lonely places. I was away for a week with no access to the outside world. I returned to Madrid to find that life had continued as ever.

In the centre of the city, in the Puerta del Sol, the place from which all distances are measured, the hole they have been working on for four years has finally opened as a station for the Cercanías commuter train system. Its very modern glass entrance, consisting of two unequally sized glass domes, has been quickly given the nickname of "El Pez", or the fish, by the citizens, has come under fire for detracting from the historical architecture of the plaza. I haven’t been down to see it myself yet, but when I first came to Madrid the Puerta del Sol was little more than a bus station with ugly concrete bus shelters. So El Pez has to be better than that.

I wrote in April how street and plaza names were being changed to remove references to the Franco era. Last week the Ayuntamiento, Madrid’s town council, decided to strip Franco of the honorary titles the city bestowed on him during his time in office. Among others he was an honorary mayor and adopted son of the city (he was born in Galicia) as well as having several medals.

Following the law passed by the socialist government in 2007, Madrid has now followed other Spanish cities by removing these honours. Naturally, it was the far left party, Izquierda Unida, who initiated the vote in the Ayuntamiento, but with the exception of two right wing councillors who walked out in protest, the vote was carried unanimously by all remaining parties.

The interesting thing is that this was a move from within the town hall – and done openly. It is not that long ago that central government, without consulting the Ayuntamiento, decided to tear down a statue of the ex-president. The action was carried out at two o’clock in the morning, leaving a blank area of pavement for office workers to find when the sun came up. Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, Madrid’s mayor was said to be absolutely furious.

Of course, the big news that dominated quite a lot of the press, was that Kylie Minogue, the Australian pop singer, gave a concert in the bullring at the Plaza del Toros, not far from where I write this. I am not sure if I am too troubled about missing that! Ventas Bullring

Ah, it’s good to be back.
Did you find this interesting? Feel free to leave a comment below.


  1. Regarding the trees, it is said that a squirrel used to be able to go from tree to tree from the north to the south of Spain in medieval times.
    And now there are many more trees than 30 years ago. I remember crossing Castille with my father from the North of Spain coming to Madrid or going to Salamanca, and the only amusement was either counting red cars or trees on the way.

  2. Great piece, Richard! Can't wait to return there in a few months. You have captured the essense of this place beautifully.

  3. Valdelavilla is one of the "English towns" I have not yet visited - it sounds great and I need to add it to the list of places visited in Spain. As always, thanks for an interesting and educational blog.

  4. Great piece on Valdelavilla and the surrounding villages, Richard. In 2001, while attending one of the first Pueblo Ingles sessions, we were visited by one of the original inhabitants of the hamlet. The old man was giving his grandchildren a tour of where he had grown up. He invited me to listen as he shared very interesting stories of his youth in Valdelavilla. An unforgetable bonus of Pueblo Ingles for me.

  5. I was in Valdelavilla a little over a week ago for the VaghanTown program and fell in love with the place. While there, we hiked to Vallarijo. It's a lovely property, but falling to ruin. It would certainly take a lot of money to restore, but I'm curious if anyone knows how much the property might sell for. Does anyone know?