Navarredonda de la Rinconada: The Capital of the World

By Nick Cortina

“At this table you learn a little bit of everything,” my host father Agustín loves to say at mealtimes. And it’s true; now retired but with a nearly 40-year career as a teacher for adults, Agustín imparts lessons of all types to me and my apartment mates at lunch and dinner.

One of his favorite activities is speeding through country capitals. “What’s the capital of Lithuania? Malta? Estonia? Cyprus?” he rattles off. (For those playing at home, the answers: Vilnius, Valletta, Tallin and Nicosia).

I admit that no matter how often he repeats those obscure capitals, geography just does not come very naturally to me and I always struggle to answer. Yet there is one that I will always remember, one that he has taught to us since my first day here in Spain.

“And the capital of the world is…” he says, smiling as he pauses for us to fill in the blank. “Navarredonda de la Rinconada!” we exclaim.

Chances are you haven’t heard of it. It’s both Agustín's and his wife Isabel’s pueblo, their hometown village just an hour away from Salamanca. I recently had the unique experience (dare I say honor—after all, it is the capital of the world) of accompanying them there.

As we drove and the sandstone buildings of Salamanca gave way to the green pastures of the countryside, Isabel mentioned that the pueblo really was a different world. Having just been to Madrid (how fitting as Spain’s capital!) the weekend before, this contrast she mentioned was especially concrete—from alleys lined with bars and cafés to wide expanses of land getting ready to be planted, from crowds of strangers to streets of neighbors who had grown up together, from colorful paintings in the Reina Sofia Museum of Art to the perhaps surpassing beauty of a respite of peace and quiet. And while Madrid certainly gives a nebulous sense of busyness, in Navarredonda work was visible and distinct—collecting firewood, gathering vegetables, planting seeds.

Beyond these descriptive differences, I wanted to see some statistics about the pueblo. Naturally, Agustín has served as an excellent source of information—his deep investment in the pueblo as evidenced by his tenure as its mayor from 1994 to 1999 and more recently by a 250-page book about the town he published in 2012.

Numbers abound among these pages—important dates, climate measurements, heights of the distinctive mountains that define the view of the horizon. But the figures that most stood out to me were the demographics. At its peak in the 1950s, the town had 808 residents, a number that by 2014 had plummeted to 194. This is indicative of a wider-reading trend in many provinces of Spain. Agustín remarks in the book that “now in the twenty-first century the rural towns of Castile and León are practically turning into deserts.”

This rural-urban shift as a social phenomenon makes sense and is nothing new. Throughout history, industrialization and the increasing role of technology around the world have driven population migration from the country to the hustle and bustle of city life and the perceived advantages of more employment and self-advancement opportunities.

But is the city life living up to its promise? The ever-present and pressing issues facing Spain are the persistent effects of the economic crisis of 2008, with many in major cities finding that they cannot make ends meet within the high cost-of-living environment of metropolitan areas. And in a twist on the classic story, it seems that slowly but surely some Spaniards are reversing the country to city shift and turning back to their pueblos for a lower cost lifestyle. In a Spanish Huffington Post article Javier Pérez, the President of the Association Against Rural Depopulation in Spain highlighted a 20 percent increase of the number of résumés sent to his organization for work in rural areas from 2010 to 2013.

Pérez cites not only economic reasons but also personal benefits that life in a pueblo can provide, such as more time with family and closer community bonds. Yet, despite my idyllic impression of their pueblo on my first visit, I am under no pretensions that this potential reverse rural-urban shift is a sustainable solution for all those who venture it. It may be cheaper but is obviously more physically demanding, and the transition could produce somewhat of a culture shock.

But there’s undoubtedly a charm to the life in the pueblo, especially Navarredonda de la Rinconada—charm certainly befitting of the capital of the world.

Link to the original article: http://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/letters/navarredonda-de-la-rinconada-the-capital-of-the-world