Foncebadón is the highest village on the Camino, where pilgrims climb the mountain trail west from León. The area is known as the Maragatería and by the 1990s its ruined villages had become emblematic of the new social problem of España vacia, ‘empty Spain.’ The de-populated ghostly rural villages were often just tumbledown heaps of ruins where roofless houses crumbled in the winds and winter snows. The young people of the villages migrated to towns and cities in search of work and a more connected life. Children’s voices were no longer heard in the streets, and the only game of chase was provided by stray cats. Some older inhabitants stubbornly remained, struggling to live out their last years in dignity in the villages where they were born.

Such a village was Foncebadón, a place in the middle of nowhere, which briefly became a national news story thirty years ago. Its only remaining natives, an old woman called María and her son, were involved in a stand-off with four civil guards and two priests from the diocese who had brought workmen and a truck to the village to take down the church bells and remove them to a diocesan museum.[1]

The removal of the bells was a symbolic – almost liturgical – act to declare the settlement dead. María had been forewarned that they were coming to take the bells away and she climbed up on the roof of the church. Armed with a hefty stick, she took up position to defend the bells. She cut a figure like Hemingway’s solid matron ‘Pilar’ in his novel of guerrilla resistance For Whom the Bell Tolls, making her last stand against the enemy attack. María was the last remnant of the community and bravely determined to resist the assault. She brandished a stick at the priests and the civil guards.

“These bells must remain here to toll my death knell!” she cried. “You have no right to remove them!”

María on the church roof defending the bells.

 María pelted the invaders with roof tiles. The priests argued impassively with her, saying she had no legal rights over the bells which belonged to the diocese, not to the village. She defiantly replied the bells would toll for them if they took a step closer.

In this incident we see the Church acting with the opposite of what Pope Francis talks about so powerfully. He says we need to recognize the dignity of those living on the margins and go there to listen to them.[2] The priests and the civil guards only listened to the roof slates whistling past their heads, thrown by María. They retreated and in Foncebadón a rural myth was born.

María’s story made the front pages of Spanish national newspapers, but only briefly, then Foncebadón disappeared again in the mists of the Maragatería. For some who read about it, however, this event in a forgotten ruined village became emblematic of España vacia and led to other press stories concerning rural depopulation and its social pressures, which fall disproportionately upon women like María.[3]

The fate of Foncebadón was similar to that of many dying rural communities all over Europe. Small farms find it increasingly difficult to survive and agricultural workers have fallen from 20% of the European population to a figure below 3% today, and since few of those are under 35 years of age the decline is set to continue.

Part of the problem has also been in political choices that favor large-scale agricultural production at the expense of the life of rural communities. Pope Francis speaks of the way economic systems favor industrial-scale production in the agricultural sector. He teaches that civil powers have a duty to help restore the balance:

Economies of scale, especially in the agricultural sector, end up forcing smallholders to sell their land or to abandon their traditional crops. Their attempts to move to other, more diversified, means of production prove fruitless because of the difficulty of linkage with regional and global markets, or because the infrastructure for sales and transport is geared to larger businesses. Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production.[4]

There is a clear message here from the Holy Father to Catholics and others making political choices in such forums as the European Parliament. The employment and land-ownership issues affecting rural depopulation have often been worsened by policies favoring large-scale agricultural production, such as the Common Agricultural Policy in the EU.

The passing pilgrims regenerate the village.

Unknown to Maria on the day of her confrontation with the representatives of the Church, her ruined village was soon to be reborn. Through the late-1990s, the number of pilgrims passing through these deserted villages increased and they looked for lodgings and food. Foncebadón had a reputation among pilgrims as a dangerous place where packs of wild dogs posed a threat to travelers. It was a myth created by the actress Shirley MacLaine who wrote about her fear of wild dogs in a bestselling book about her adventures, El Camino. Her book was an early example of the New Age pilgrim ‘mystical wellness’ genre, and although the dogs in the book were a fictionalized Camino yarn, the story stuck.

The legend helped kick-start a passing interest in Foncebadón from travelers, and MacLaine’s book inspired many to walk the Way of Saint James, which has become a ‘Way of Wellness’ in the alternative culture. It also seeded a new presence of squatters and a hippy commune in the village. Then came new paying residents: small-time business dreamers who could buy a ruined house for the price of a second-hand car, and afford to buy new timbers to replace the roof. Using their own labor to work on the refurbishments, these entrepreneurs had a modest ambition: to turn village houses into pilgrim hostels, bars, and restaurants, and just make enough income for a quiet secure life in the Camino’s hospitality industry. The bells defended by María can still be seen today in the bell tower of the church, now a pilgrim hostel. “We were created with a vocation to work,’ says Pope Francis:

The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replaces human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity. Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfilment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work.[5]

Foncebadón now became a new symbol, representing life returning to resurrected former ghost villages: places in España vaciada that were newly re-populated. The economic base was the pilgrim trade and customers mostly arrived on foot. All they needed was a bed, a meal, and a stamp in their pilgrim passport. That had been the basic economy of such villages in the great days of Catholic pilgrimage across Europe. A town did not make serious money unless it had some holy relics, but providing a bed and a meal could earn the villagers a modest regular income. So Foncebadón was once again working, bringing in a modest income, and the sound of children’s voices could be heard in the streets again for the first time in decades. Now there was even a slow Internet connection for pilgrims to send an email or a Whatsapp selfie to family and friends in the USA, Ireland, or Australia.

Foncebadón becomes a place of hospitality again.

That was the story of the repopulation of Foncebadón before February 2020. Then the plague arrived. In this province of León and all along the Camino movement of pilgrims gradually stopped. Close contact in dormitories and public hospitality venues was an obvious danger, and pilgrims began giving up and going home, even before the lockdown was announced. Finally, the Spanish Prime Minister announced the news of a total lockdown. Within a few hours the hashtag #QuedateEnCasa #StayAtHome was trending and suddenly, the very essence of pilgrimage, which is continual movement from one place to another, was not just antisocial but was illegal.

For the first time in the modern Camino revival, nobody was walking to Santiago to venerate Saint James, and it remained a banned activity for more than a year. Then, in anticipation of the post-Covid reopening, Pope Francis announced a double Holy Year, taking everyone by surprise with an extended two-year Xacobeo 2021-2022. This was partly to help pilgrims with a longer opportunity to gain indulgences, and also for Covid safety, spreading the visitors over two years. It would also benefit the economy of the Camino infrastructure and help hospitality to recover. The post-Covid world offers many opportunities – not just for the Camino but more widely – to re-think the ways we do things. Pope Francis wants us to seize the moment and look for the benefits of change.

The pandemic and the economic crisis offer a chance to examine our lifestyles… respecting and implementing biodiversity; guaranteeing access to clean water; adopting more restrained lifestyles; changing our understanding of value, progress, and success by taking into account the impact of our businesses on the environment… Let us put the regeneration of the earth and universal access to its goods at the heart of our post-Covid future.[6]

This series, Postcards from the Camino is prompted by Xacobeo 2021-2022 so I end this episode with an update regarding the current state of the Camino. In the current situation, pilgrims cannot cross regional boundaries, so the figures below represent mainly pilgrims arriving in Compostela from routes within the province of Galicia (the last stage) and the majority are Spanish.

Although it is still a difficult time due to Covid-19, with frontier closures between Autonomous Regions and on the border with Portugal, the Camino has begun a slow recovery in April. Thousands of pilgrims are waiting and hoping for a chance to set out and some have begun already! We have welcomed in Compostela this month 977 pilgrims: 511 women and 466 men. There were no incidents and the pilgrims who journeyed to Santiago de Compostela did so respecting all of the hygiene and security regulations, respecting the restrictions in place. It is now possible to assist at the Pilgrim Mass and visit the cathedral. These are difficult times and we ask all pilgrims to respect the rules and prohibitions and not take any personal risks or endanger others.[7]


[1] Julio Llamazares, “Las campanas de Foncebadón”, El País. 25 March 1993. https://elpais.com/diario/1993/03/26/opinion/733100401_850215.html

[2] Pope Francis, Austen Ivereigh, Let Us Dream (Simon & Schuster, 2020.)

[3] Jeremy MacClancy “Where Are the Women in ‘Empty Spain’?” https://www.europenowjournal.org/2020/11/09/where-are-the-women-in-empty-spain/

[4] Laudato Si’, 129.

[5] Ibid., 128.

[6] Let Us Dream, Part 3.

[7] On the day this article was completed for publication on WPI, the official Pilgrim Office announced that the Camino will be fully open from 9th May 2021. Updates at: https://www.fundacionjacobea.org

Images: María on the church roof 1993 from Diario de León; last photo, Foncebadón in the mist 1st May 2021 taken by Spanish pilgrim Andrés Luque; the header and other photos by the author.

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Gareth Thomas lives a solitary life in the mountains in Spain with his donkeys. A former aircraft engineer, Franciscan friar and geography teacher, he is a veteran of the pilgrim routes to Compostela and writes about the Camino de Santiago on his blog Equus Asinus (equusasinus.net).

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