Sodeto is one of about 300 little farming villages that the dictator Francisco Franco built in Spain in the 1950s, in an effort to bring people and agriculture to isolated places. All the towns built during this time look similar, and Sodeto is no exception — there’s a church in the center of town and one bar, which is also the one restaurant, which is also the one place to hang out. The houses are the color of sand, and each has a red-tiled roof. About 200 people live in the town.
-"El Gordo" episode, 99% Invisible podcast from July 25, 2017
In October 1939, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco proudly unveiled a bold new agriculture program to repopulate parts of the country and recover from the devastating civil war that ended just earlier that year: el Instituto Nacional de Colonización y Desarrollo Rural (the National Institute of Rural Development and Colonization). The INC developed more than a hundred small farming communities across the country over the next twenty years, and most of these quirky little towns still remain today. In my last road trip in Spain, I was fortunate enough to visit three towns, Vados de Torralba, Bazán, and Consolación. Seeing these communities firsthand, it reminded me of a larger, better version of the U.S. "greenbelt" towns of the 1930s New Deal program.
I first heard about the Instituto Nacional de Colonización from an episode of one of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible. I happened to be in Spain when the episode aired, so I couldn't resist visiting villages like lucky Sodeto (planned agriculture communities from the 1940s? it's like hitting the urban planning porn jackpot!). So yes, I actually rushed through the Alhambra to visit these modern-day ghost towns on my journey back to Madrid.
There is not much information available online about these rural communities* -- or at least in English -- but the INC's Wikipedia page is decent. It lists 104 of the communities by region, some with links to additional information, so that's what I used to select the towns I visited. According to Wikipedia, despite some success this government program had major flaws, like using unsustainable farming practices of irrigation and wetland draining, and it reeked of propaganda with exaggerated success stories and towns named to honor Franco.
While Vados de Torralba and Bazán were tucked into Spain's beautiful, rugged countryside, Consolación sat on a busy, loud highway. But walking around all three, I felt I had traveled back in time to the days under Franco. The sun shone brightly and a slight breeze invited people outside, but I was the only one on the street. I heard children playing and doors closing in the distance; were people watching me from behind their blinds? With the exception of cars and too many "For Sale" signs, the towns were picturesquely-tidy and looked fresh out of the 1940s. I appreciated the considerate planning that had gone into each community, each compact town with landscaped streets, welcoming town centers, traditional Spanish architecture, and public transportation access; add a few shops and bars and I would have paid more attention to the "Se Vende" signs. And even though the towns felt empty and a bit sad, in a high school football star turned balding Home Depot cashier kind of way, there was life under each village's sleepy facade.
When I first arrived in Vados de Torralba, I parked my rental car on the street and got out. I noticed a few ladies sitting and chatting in the narrow alley behind their home so I walked in the opposite direction, not wanting to bother them or look like a total tourist. But my presence had aroused their curiosity, and they followed me to the town's oddly symmetrical street I recognized from photographs. The two women hovered behind a flowering tree and looked at me curiously; I shyly sputtered out an "hola" and that opened them right up. The ladies, sisters, were soon regaling me with tales about their precious Vados de Torralba, telling me how they arrived in the village when it was first built (one was born there!) and how they were a handful of the original residents that remained. They told me about their parents who worked in the neighboring fields (olives?), and how they could watch them from their back deck. They told me about the movie theater that recently opened in town, well, more like a decade ago, and about how there were very few young families living in town these days. And when they ran out of things to tell me, they invited me into their house for a tour. Wow! A sister showed me the original house that her parents built themselves, as required by the INC program, and the rooms the family added over time. She showed me pictures of her and her siblings that were raised in the small, concrete block house, and I got to see the matchbook-sized bedroom where the three sisters slept as children. Despite the house being expanded and slightly remodeled over the decades, its form remained true to its simple roots and upstairs the original, rustic tile floor remained. After meeting the two sisters in Vados de Torralba and getting an insider's perspective of how these towns functioned, I felt fortunate to experience this interesting segment of Spanish urban planning history.
*Page 81 of this document, a book by the name of Modern Architecture and the Mediterranean: Vernacular Dialogues and Contested Identities, dives into the INC a bit more, in English and with historical photos.
Vados de Torralba