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Tamaño letra

The Spanish Siberia

Just two hours from Madrid, the district of Molina-Alto Tajo in Guadalajara province has a population density even lower than that of the Russian region

  • The district of Molina-Alto Tajo in Guadalajara province, near the border with Teruel, is one of the most unpopulated areas in the entire Iberian peninsula. A rural exodus that began in the 1950s has turned this administrative division into a freezing desert – it is also one of the coldest places in Spain. Official records show that the area, which encompasses 77 villages, has a population of 1.63 inhabitants per square kilometer, but the real figure is almost certainly lower as hamlets such as Selas have 64 registered residents but only 11 people actually live there. Compared with other sparsely populated regions of the world, the statistics for Molina-Alto Tajo are remarkable: in Siberia the population density is three people per square kilometer while in Lapland it is two.
    1A freezing desert The district of Molina-Alto Tajo in Guadalajara province, near the border with Teruel, is one of the most unpopulated areas in the entire Iberian peninsula. A rural exodus that began in the 1950s has turned this administrative division into a freezing desert – it is also one of the coldest places in Spain. Official records show that the area, which encompasses 77 villages, has a population of 1.63 inhabitants per square kilometer, but the real figure is almost certainly lower as hamlets such as Selas have 64 registered residents but only 11 people actually live there. Compared with other sparsely populated regions of the world, the statistics for Molina-Alto Tajo are remarkable: in Siberia the population density is three people per square kilometer while in Lapland it is two. Getty Images
  • Every day at 8.30am, 11-year-old Juan and his mother walk to the bus stop to wait for the bus that will take him to school in Molina de Aragón, the most populated municipality in Molina-Alto Tajo with 3,572 inhabitants. Juan is the only child in Selas, a hamlet of 11 permanent residents – although the local census puts the population at 64. Juan never got to see the municipal schoolhouse, which closed in 1974 after most residents moved to the cities. Juan complains about how hard it is for him to watch YouTube videos, about the lack of other children to play with, and about the poor 3G cellphone reception.
    2Next stop: school Every day at 8.30am, 11-year-old Juan and his mother walk to the bus stop to wait for the bus that will take him to school in Molina de Aragón, the most populated municipality in Molina-Alto Tajo with 3,572 inhabitants. Juan is the only child in Selas, a hamlet of 11 permanent residents – although the local census puts the population at 64. Juan never got to see the municipal schoolhouse, which closed in 1974 after most residents moved to the cities. Juan complains about how hard it is for him to watch YouTube videos, about the lack of other children to play with, and about the poor 3G cellphone reception. Getty Images
  • José María Alarcón, 55, talks with his wife on his cellphone in one of the few spots in the area that gets good reception. He is a shepherd, but does not have a herd of his own and will only be taking care of these sheep for 15 days while his colleague is away on vacation. A shepherd all his life, Alarcón gets paid by stockbreeders to take care of their animals for them. His two children moved away to pursue their studies, like most other youths in the area. Passing a trade down from generation to generation is very difficult here.
    3A hired hand José María Alarcón, 55, talks with his wife on his cellphone in one of the few spots in the area that gets good reception. He is a shepherd, but does not have a herd of his own and will only be taking care of these sheep for 15 days while his colleague is away on vacation. A shepherd all his life, Alarcón gets paid by stockbreeders to take care of their animals for them. His two children moved away to pursue their studies, like most other youths in the area. Passing a trade down from generation to generation is very difficult here. Getty Images
  • Margarita poses behind the counter of her bar and general store in Anquela de Ducado – population 78. Hers is the only commercial outlet in the village and also services outlying towns. However, Margarita, 64, is about to retire after what she considers a lifetime of public service. The general store, whose fittings are to be shared out among the locals, had been in operation for over 70 years. Local authorities are taking up where she leaves off by offering a space that will serve as a bar and meeting point for the village’s few remaining residents.
    4Goodbye to the general store Margarita poses behind the counter of her bar and general store in Anquela de Ducado – population 78. Hers is the only commercial outlet in the village and also services outlying towns. However, Margarita, 64, is about to retire after what she considers a lifetime of public service. The general store, whose fittings are to be shared out among the locals, had been in operation for over 70 years. Local authorities are taking up where she leaves off by offering a space that will serve as a bar and meeting point for the village’s few remaining residents. Getty Images
  • City dwellers might be forgiven for thinking this photo was taken several decades ago, but it is dated late February 2015. It is the inside of Margarita’s bar, where time stood still at 8.20pm on one unspecified evening. This is the local meeting place for the remaining inhabitants of Anquela de Ducado, who come here to share drinks and talk about soccer and other topics. Ever since Margarita decided to retire, the conversations have moved on to another location that the local council has provided to ensure that the community still has somewhere to meet.
    5The bar where time stood still City dwellers might be forgiven for thinking this photo was taken several decades ago, but it is dated late February 2015. It is the inside of Margarita’s bar, where time stood still at 8.20pm on one unspecified evening. This is the local meeting place for the remaining inhabitants of Anquela de Ducado, who come here to share drinks and talk about soccer and other topics. Ever since Margarita decided to retire, the conversations have moved on to another location that the local council has provided to ensure that the community still has somewhere to meet. Getty Images
  • María Ángeles Moreno, 44, is from Anquela del Ducado, but lives in Selas with her husband and her son Juan, the only child in the village. They run a bed-and-breakfast that they opened with European subsidies. Rural hotels are one of the few industries that are doing well in the area. Tourists come to get away from city life for a while, and employees from energy firm Iberdrola stay here when they have to do maintenance work on the nearby wind turbines. María Ángeles and her family live on the ground floor of the rural inn. Across from the house is a patch of land where she hangs the washing out to dry. Her husband Javier was once mayor of Selas, but is now unemployed.
    6María Ángeles Moreno, 44, is from Anquela del Ducado, but lives in Selas with her husband and her son Juan, the only child in the village. They run a bed-and-breakfast that they opened with European subsidies. Rural hotels are one of the few industries that are doing well in the area. Tourists come to get away from city life for a while, and employees from energy firm Iberdrola stay here when they have to do maintenance work on the nearby wind turbines. María Ángeles and her family live on the ground floor of the rural inn. Across from the house is a patch of land where she hangs the washing out to dry. Her husband Javier was once mayor of Selas, but is now unemployed. Getty Images
  • There is a popular saying in rural communities: “When the school and the bar shut down, the village is gone.” So while the men head to the local council-ceded bar, the women residents of Anquela del Ducado keep their old school alive by going there to play cards or chat by the stove. The two locations are the local community centers.
    7Playing cards at school There is a popular saying in rural communities: “When the school and the bar shut down, the village is gone.” So while the men head to the local council-ceded bar, the women residents of Anquela del Ducado keep their old school alive by going there to play cards or chat by the stove. The two locations are the local community centers. Getty Images
  • Rillo de Gallo – population 78 – is another village in the Molina-Alto Tajo district. Martina Mateo, 54, has a bakery there that she runs with her daughter. Both of them deliver bread in their van to all the outlying villages. Many of their customers are in their eighties, and would find it difficult to get to the bakery themselves. “La Mateo,” as Martina Mateo is known around the area, knows that keeping her business alive requires heading out to find customers. Both women also have another bakery in downtown Molina de Aragón, and consider their van an additional sales point. Sunday bread deliveries are shared with another bakery from Maranchón, so each business gets two Sundays off a month. Martina’s daughter studied baking in Madrid, where she learned new varieties and techniques, but doesn’t see these new types of bread taking hold in a place where traditional products “rule.”
    8A bakery in a van Rillo de Gallo – population 78 – is another village in the Molina-Alto Tajo district. Martina Mateo, 54, has a bakery there that she runs with her daughter. Both of them deliver bread in their van to all the outlying villages. Many of their customers are in their eighties, and would find it difficult to get to the bakery themselves. “La Mateo,” as Martina Mateo is known around the area, knows that keeping her business alive requires heading out to find customers. Both women also have another bakery in downtown Molina de Aragón, and consider their van an additional sales point. Sunday bread deliveries are shared with another bakery from Maranchón, so each business gets two Sundays off a month. Martina’s daughter studied baking in Madrid, where she learned new varieties and techniques, but doesn’t see these new types of bread taking hold in a place where traditional products “rule.” Getty Images
  • This cow drinking out of a bathtub – a typical trough in rural areas – belongs to the farm of young Juan’s uncle. Seven of the 11 residents of Selas are related. The child’s uncle and aunt have other jobs besides tending to a herd of around 100 cows. She is a school janitor in Molina de Aragón and he works as a forest ranger.
    9A cattle-farming school janitor This cow drinking out of a bathtub – a typical trough in rural areas – belongs to the farm of young Juan’s uncle. Seven of the 11 residents of Selas are related. The child’s uncle and aunt have other jobs besides tending to a herd of around 100 cows. She is a school janitor in Molina de Aragón and he works as a forest ranger. Getty Images
  • The meeting room at Selas town hall serves many purposes. Juan and his aunt use it as a study room, but it also turns into a medical practice when the doctor shows up once a week. The village has a health center, but there is no heating, so it’s more convenient to use the town hall for appointments. For serious medical conditions, residents can go to Maranchón, which has an outpatient center, or to Guadalajara hospital.
    10The meeting room at Selas town hall serves many purposes. Juan and his aunt use it as a study room, but it also turns into a medical practice when the doctor shows up once a week. The village has a health center, but there is no heating, so it’s more convenient to use the town hall for appointments. For serious medical conditions, residents can go to Maranchón, which has an outpatient center, or to Guadalajara hospital. Getty Images
  • Despite being one of the most sparsely populated areas in Spain, the Molina-Alto Tajo district is just two hours from Madrid by car, or around 200 kilometers. It has good connections with Guadalajara and the villages that comprise it are also easily accessible from the N-211 national highway. Even though the houses stand empty, there is no sense of dereliction because many of them function as vacation or weekend homes. Another defining trait of the area is its low temperatures. It is not for nothing that it’s known as Spain’s freezer: the coldest temperature ever recorded in the country was logged here – -30ºC, on December 17, 1963. It was also one of the first places in Spain to get a weather station, in the 1940s, as it was paramount to keep tabs on conditions along the air route between Madrid and Barcelona.
    11Spain’s freezer Despite being one of the most sparsely populated areas in Spain, the Molina-Alto Tajo district is just two hours from Madrid by car, or around 200 kilometers. It has good connections with Guadalajara and the villages that comprise it are also easily accessible from the N-211 national highway. Even though the houses stand empty, there is no sense of dereliction because many of them function as vacation or weekend homes. Another defining trait of the area is its low temperatures. It is not for nothing that it’s known as Spain’s freezer: the coldest temperature ever recorded in the country was logged here – -30ºC, on December 17, 1963. It was also one of the first places in Spain to get a weather station, in the 1940s, as it was paramount to keep tabs on conditions along the air route between Madrid and Barcelona. Getty Images
  • The hills are one of the main sources of wealth in the Alto Tajo. Forestry-related work provides many people here with jobs. Logging, sawmills, resin processing and other related industries represent an essential part of the economy. People still have vivid memories of the fire that broke out nearly 10 years ago in Riba de Saélices, killing 11 people and burning down 4,500 hectares of forest land.
    12Wood work The hills are one of the main sources of wealth in the Alto Tajo. Forestry-related work provides many people here with jobs. Logging, sawmills, resin processing and other related industries represent an essential part of the economy. People still have vivid memories of the fire that broke out nearly 10 years ago in Riba de Saélices, killing 11 people and burning down 4,500 hectares of forest land. Getty Images
  • Juan, his mother and their dog Luperca – named after the she-wolf that suckled Rome’s two founders, Romulus and Remus, according to the legend – walk down the empty streets of Selas, where there are more canine residents that human ones. Juan is headed for the town hall, where he is taking afternoon classes with his aunt. During the school year, he is the only child in town, but in the summer the local population grows three- or four-fold and the average age also goes down. Statistics for many such villages show that seniors 65 and over represent around 41 percent of the population, while children under 14 make up less than eight percent. Population ageing is one of the problems in these rural areas.
    13More dogs than humans Juan, his mother and their dog Luperca – named after the she-wolf that suckled Rome’s two founders, Romulus and Remus, according to the legend – walk down the empty streets of Selas, where there are more canine residents that human ones. Juan is headed for the town hall, where he is taking afternoon classes with his aunt. During the school year, he is the only child in town, but in the summer the local population grows three- or four-fold and the average age also goes down. Statistics for many such villages show that seniors 65 and over represent around 41 percent of the population, while children under 14 make up less than eight percent. Population ageing is one of the problems in these rural areas. Getty Images