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Castles in Spain

Castles in Spain

A country that once sought to conquer the world is now the latest victim of the Eurozone crisis.

Zurriola Beach in the city of San Sebastián, Spain. Photograph by Julio López Saguar.

It’s still early by Seville standards. I’m sitting in a backstreet bar, the sort of place that makes Spain so terribly Spanish: café con leche and half a tostado with something spread on it. Breakfast for 1.70 euro. Unhurried happiness.

Across the street is the Arenal market. It doesn’t look like much now. Most of the shutters are down. A sign points toward a vegetarian restaurant that will presumably open later in the day. This is not the most lively part of Seville—there are no tourists around—but things were very different half a millennium ago: this was the heart of a Europe that was on fire and conquering the world.

Behind the market lies the Guadalquivir River. From its arena—the sand of its bank—the conquistadors left for the “new” world, still a hazy notion in the early sixteenth century: Columbus had mistaken Cuba for Asia; the Pope hadn’t yet ruled that the inhabitants of the “Indies” were, in fact, humans. Five small wooden ships set sail, right here, in 1519, under the command of Hernando de Magallanes. Like Columbus, he hoped to find a route to the Spice Islands and the other business opportunities of the Orient by sailing west.

Magellan only made it halfway around the globe, to the Philippines, where he got into trouble with the locals and died violently. But to his everlasting glory, Magellan had found a way through the American continent and sailed across the vastness of the Pacific, without any idea how big it really was. Only one ship completed the journey. The Victoria, not quite 26 metres long, eventually passed Africa and made it back to Seville three years later. The Earth was indeed round.

Over the years I have crossed Magellan’s path a number of times: in the Philippines; on the island of Banggi, north of Borneo, where his expedition is said to have stopped for repairs in 1521; in Indonesia’s Banda islands, which were the centre of the colonial spice business and are still cluttered with the architectural residue of Europe’s occupation. And I remember arriving in Punta Arenas, on the southern tip of Chile, anxious to see the straits that carry Magellan’s name. Even if you fly in, Punta Arenas feels palpably remote, beyond the endlessness of Patagonia. Cruise ships call when the weather permits, but it remains a blustery outpost with weathered wooden houses that have sagging floors and musty carpeting. Cold rain blows in your face, even in summer.

To Magellan and his men, on the other side of the planet, Seville must have seemed so far away. No wonder they all believed in God, spes unica.

It’s all over now. Europe no longer rules the world. It can barely stand on its own feet. Every day I spend in Spain has the smell of impending disaster. It is as if an enormous Vesuvius is about to erupt and cover the entire continent.

The world keeps pointing fingers at Southern Europe, at Greece and Italy and now Spain: Too much café con leche on shady terraces, not enough work ethic. Too much Retsina. Too many civil servants. Too much sin. And Europeans, many of them too old to care, squabble endlessly about who, if anyone, should pay for the Mediterranean slackers.

Spain has turned into an economic nightmare. Its dodgy banks reportedly sit on about $400 billion in real-estate-related debt, half of which is problematic or impaired in one way or another. The country’s economic output is projected to shrink by about 1.7 percent this year. Not surprisingly, a quarter of the labour force is sitting at home, while youth unemployment is 50 percent. The Spanish word for someone who defaults is particularly fitting: moroso.

The past year has seen massive cuts in government spending and a wave of anti-austerity protests; in Madrid, the language of revolution is ubiquitous, scrawled across walls of graffiti and splattered on posters everywhere you look. Yet despite the frustration, the city clings to its party mood, the streets still noisy late into the night.

The Spanish hinterland is a different matter. There the lights have been fading for years. Many provincial towns now look more dead than alive. Shopkeepers have given up, hotels have closed and the young people are gone. They’ve left a handful of old jubilados behind, grumpy pensioners who spend the day bitching and drinking in tiled, echoing bars that face the square and the church and the town hall. They don’t have much time left—the cobble-stoned streets are getting too steep to climb—but since they can’t sell their houses in the current market, the jubilados have nowhere to go. So they’ll sit it out.

When I reached the hamlet of Cabra del Santo Cristo, lost in Andalusia’s deepest olive-growing country, I was surprised to find it had a functioning railway station, complete with proper platforms in both directions (Madrid—Almería) and handicapped parking in front. Money from the European Union, they explained at the cantina on the other side of the road.

The fact that a cantina existed was an even bigger surprise, since Cabra del Santo Cristo hardly has any residents left. One old man was sitting by himself, ending a late Sunday lunch with some melon. Two other customers were discussing the price of toilet paper, how it had gone up since the introduction of the euro. “Wasn’t that more than a decade ago?” I asked. Well, yes, but it was the sort of evil they had never come to terms with. The woman said she would go back to using newsprint, as she remembered her grandparents doing. The problem is that, with the exception of the odd train passenger from Madrid with a copy of El País, no one here reads newspapers anymore.

All over Spain, the cutbacks and austerity measures—in health, education, nearly every area of public spending—are real. Some government departments have lost a third of their budgets in one go. La crisis is biting. Confusingly, the message has changed from spend! borrow! live for the moment! to save! work more for less! forget about retirement! This doesn’t make much sense. Anyone can figure out that, if you stop spending in an economy geared for growth and freewheeling excess, it will grind to a halt. The wheels will come off.

In Spain, as elsewhere, high-income economies do not thrive on bare necessities. They cannot survive unless people and governments live and consume beyond their means. Upgrade to a new phone every six months, buy a new wardrobe four times a year, trade in the car. Credit is the very fuel that keeps the system going.

Much of Spain is like the handicapped parking in front of the station in Cabra del Santo Cristo: someone else paid for it. (Spain consistently receives much more money from the EU than it contributes.) And who knows if it will ever be paid back? Except that, now, the money is gone and the system is maxed out. Local governments all over Spain have looked the other way and run up dizzying bills for years, if not decades. Stories keep popping up in the news about mundane things like unpaid rubbish collection. In Valencia, politicians somehow short-changed the city’s cancer hospital, leaving a fifty-eight-million-euro hole in its budget. Local savings banks have been put out of their misery. Still, the problems might have been manageable if it weren’t for the burbuja—the bubble.

The burbuja isn’t hard to spot. Layers of unsold real estate surround the big cities and clog the Mediterranean costas. You can see them from the motorways and from the shopping centres: gloomy developments where thousands of new housing units gather dust and grow ever more worthless. At roundabouts across the country, there are road signs pointing toward them: urbanización.

But the roads leading to many urbanizaciones are no longer being kept up. The palm trees are dying and the landscaping is vanishing under the weeds. Young couples unwise or unfortunate enough to have bought a few years ago have fled by now, unable to pay the mortgage or fed up with living in ghost towns.

SE VENDE. It has become the national motto of Spain: everything is for sale.

Even small villages and towns far from anywhere have empty or semi-abandoned urbanizaciones of unsold row houses, often built on the edge of town, where the rubbish heaps used to be; they just sit there with electrical wiring protruding from the walls. Some streets are simply fenced off. This mountain of surplus real estate has rippled through the rest of the housing market: older houses, even desirable properties with elegant facades and interior patios, are also proving hard to sell.

SE VENDE. In many cities the signs seem to hang from every other balcony. You often see the two little words spray-painted in desperation across the walls, with a mobile-phone number underneath.

Of course, the burbuja has also worked its way through the banking system. Rippled isn’t strong enough a word. As the panic spreads and rating agencies in New York turn up the heat—S&P downgraded the country’s credit to BBB+ in April—Spain is facing ruin, constantly looking over its shoulder to see if the lights are still on in Greece and Portugal.

It would be heartbreaking to see the Spanish way of life wiped out by the logic of the financial markets, crushed by men in suits and ties who work in London or Singapore and don’t really know about café con leche, about a touch of Mediterranean sloppiness—the way things have always been in Spain. But too many people have taken too many liberties with economic reality. Spain helped itself to easy money from the European Union and from the banks. People were lured into mega-malls and fell in love with credit cards and real estate. When the time came to pay back, there wasn’t enough business to keep the fantasy afloat. So now they’re broke and in denial, trying to figure out why the good life just slipped away.