Just before the pandemic, Melanie Guil visited a small Spanish town in León that, for decades, has been fading from the map. She asked the residents’ of Fornela tell us their stories, and here they are.
It’s a cloudy and chilly March Saturday in the Valley of Fornela. There are no customers in the bar of the local albergue, only a man called León sitting quietly by the fireplace. “In winter, there are only four of us”, he says while he waits for his café con leche to cool down. He is one of the few remaining residents of Peranzanes, the capital of the valley. All four of his daughters, as most of the youth and adult population, have migrated to urban hubs in search for better opportunities.
The Valley of Fornela is located within the Ancares National Reserve, northwest of the province of León, a confluence point between Galicia, Asturias and El Bierzo. Along with many other rural areas of Spain, it belongs to the denominated España Vacía, affected by the depopulation phenomenon that began in the second half of the twentieth century. From the seventies until the present, it has lost around 70% of its population. Today, only around 200 inhabitants remain, distributed along the six villages of the region: Guímara, Chano, Trascastro, Cariseda, Faro and Peranzanes.
Paved roads, power and phone lines are all luxuries that weren’t available until only a few decades ago. Up until this point, Fornela lived in complete isolation, with residents having to travel for days along dirt roads to reach the rest of the Bierzo region.
Going back even further, from the eighteenth century onwards, street trade became one of the most important economic activities and a main characteristic of the valley’s identity. Fornelos created their own local dialect, the Burón, a mix between Castilian, Leonese and Galician, to communicate and trade with each other.
While technological and infrastructural advances were introduced around the seventies, in parallel, a population-bleed of devastating socioeconomic consequences began. Young people fled the region, leaving only older generations and no one left to work. It has been a few decades since coal mining was discontinued due to lack of workforce and local demand for the raw material, leaving the working-class tradition almost extinct.
A walk through the valley reveals only the shell of schools where children no longer run, and slumping churches where the bells no longer ring. The priest only comes for local festivities and funerals; the doctor visits three times a week.
“Life has changed greatly. These towns keep declining, they are close to disappearing”, says Irene. Like León, she lives in Peranzanes, and is well known, being the owner of one of the most popular bars in the village. She smiles nostalgically when she remembers those times in her kitchen cooking for more than 150 people.
Ten years ago, her husband fell ill and passed away some time after. Her two sons had moved away for work and, having no one to help her, she saw herself forced to close. Today she lives on her own and spends her days between domestic chores and brief walks in the sun. She remodeled her place into a one-story house and her bar, which was once the home of long chats and clinking glasses, became a warm and spacious dining room.
Oliva lives in the village of Chano and her bar is still up and running. In an effort to adapt to current times, she has installed a projector behind the tables, where people can join in and enjoy an evening watching football, the news or a TV movie.
Three women sit at a table left to the projector while a man orders a caña at the bar. The influx of people has decreased noticeably. “Well, this bar is a clear example. You see, it used to be full and now it’s empty. Same with our town. It will just end up a ghost town”, she explains. Oliva can only open on weekends; the rest of the days, no one comes. Even in summer, Fornela’s high season, she notices half the attendance than in previous years. Tourists arrive, stay a few days for the regional festivities and then leave to continue their vacation somewhere else.
León finally takes a sip of his coffee and glances at the empty room. On a regular year, Peranzanes expectantly awaits for August 15, the day of the Virgin of Trascastro and patron saint of Fornela, the most important time of the year. All six villages come together to receive thousands of tourists and fornelos scattered throughout Spain in a huge celebration of popular dances.
Its inhabitants fight to preserve this tradition that dates back more than 500 years. Since 2005, they have been attempting for the Board of Castilla y León to recognize Fornela’s local dances as an event of Regional Tourist Interest.
“Existing in memory is one of the most powerful forms of existence known to humans,” wrote Sergio del Molino in his book ‘La España Vacía’.
There is a certain romance in nostalgia. And it is this nostalgia that keeps the Fornela Valley alive, which subsists essentially thanks to tourism. Thousands of people come every year to submerge themselves in the rich ancestral culture of the region, and the villages are able to temporarily patch up the wounds of its population-bleed. Grandparents, sons and grandsons, all generations gathered to celebrate tradition and dance to the rhythm of memory. But as the last chord sounds, tourists leave and rural Spain faces abandonment once more.
This is another of the many regions that lives off its past traditions. With most tourism greatly impacted by the current health crisis, there are many doubts regarding what will happen to the towns of the España Vacía. The rise of remote work is causing a significant amount of people to return to their hometowns. Additionally, fear of another lockdown is making people flee from big cities to less populated areas. Could this mean the repopulation of these previously neglected areas of Spain? In the meantime, Fornela and its people continue to resist, with their hopes set on the 2021 festivities. One thing is certain: they will keep dancing against oblivion.
Melanie is a freelance concert and events photographer from Buenos Aires, currently living in Madrid and studying Photojournalism at EFTI. She enjoys documenting the music scene and writing about arts and culture. You can follow her on Instagram @melguilm and see her work here.