What is the price of heaven? How Mallorca’s artists’ haven became a ‘ghost town’ | Spain

High in Majorca’s stunning Tramuntana mountain range, the picturesque village of Deià is a charming Mediterranean enclave that has been a magnet for artists and bohemians for over a century.

No beach to speak of nearby, which kept the crowds away. Its problem now is that only millionaires and billionaires can live there.

“It still attracts creative people but now they have to have the money,” says Chicago-born ceramicist Joanna Kuehne, who has lived in Deià since 1980. I do not know how. their lives elsewhere.”

Ceramics artist Johanna Kuhn in her studio.
Ceramics artist Johanna Kuhn in her studio. Photography: Stephen Burgen

The locals were priced out. It’s not that there’s nowhere to live – the village’s two estate agents have plenty of homes on offer for upwards of €2m (£1.75m) – it’s rather that people in the Balearic Islands, where an average monthly salary of €1,598, have been Accurately priced.

As such, while poverty leads to depopulation from rural areas on the Spanish mainland, Deià and scores of villages like it in the Balearic Islands are evicted by wealth.

The regional government is resisting, applying for European approval of a law banning anyone who is not a resident of the islands from buying property.

This has been interpreted as a ban on foreigners buying property but this is not the case in Deià, where foreigners, mostly from the UK and US, make up about 37% of the population.

“It’s not about the nationality of the people, everyone is welcome. It’s how they plan to use the houses,” says the mayor of Deià, Lluís Apesteguia. “What we want are people who plan to live here. We don’t want people buying second homes, and we don’t want speculators.”

It was English poet and novelist Robert Graves, who settled in Zia in 1929, that put it on the map as a place of pilgrimage for artists and writers.

Robert Graves with his second wife, Beryl, and children outside their home in Zia.
Robert Graves with his second wife, Beryl, and children outside their home in Zia. Photo: Daniel Farson/Getty Images

“Even when my father arrived there was already an artists’ colony of German and Catalan painters,” says his son Thomas. “Actually, it was originally rented from an American woman.”

The coal industry declined, leading to mass emigration. As a result, homes were cheap to buy or rent.

When mass tourism arrived in the 1960s, the colony of foreign residents opposed any kind of tourism development.

“This was the first feud between locals and foreigners,” Graves says. “The foreigners didn’t want any more to build and the locals saw what was happening elsewhere and wanted some for themselves.”

“At that time Mallorca was a paradise,” says Carmen Domenech, who moved to Dia from Barcelona in 1974. “It was a refuge for artists, poets and intellectuals.

There was a good relationship between locals and foreigners. You can sit at the bar and Julio Cortazar [an Argentinian novelist] He will be at the next table. Everything was very normal and it was a proper village with a butcher and a fishmonger.”

Things began to change in 1987 when Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, secured planning permission to build La Residencia, which was originally conceived of as an artists’ haven but is actually a luxury hotel.

La Residencia in Dia.
La Residencia in Dia. Photography: Tyson Sadlow

“The mold started with Branson’s arrival, and that’s when I became an activist,” says Dominic. “The argument went, thanks to Branson, a lot of money would come to the district and everyone would get a job. Almost all the village was against me because I opposed it.”

House prices skyrocketed “once the Residencia started attracting art consumers rather than art producers,” Graves says.

Prices also rose when, by an internal law passed in the 1980s, any new homes in Deià had to be built of stone, making them much more expensive.

Branson sold the hotel in 2002. It is now owned by Bernard Arnault, head of luxury goods company LVMH, and currently the richest man in the world.

Francesca Dia, 63, has lived in the village most of her life. You remember what it was like growing up with such a cosmopolitan crowd in a place that was very conservative and Catholic.

Street in Zia.
Street in Zia. Photo: Alex/Getty Images/iStockphoto

“For the older generation, the people who came here were like aliens and our parents wanted to protect us from all kinds of sex, drugs and rock and roll,” says Deià.

“I feel so rich being able to grow up with all these different nationalities and learn to speak English – and Welsh. The people I grew up with and their kids are still here and they all speak Mallorquin. But nowadays I don’t see it happening as much. There’s less integration.”

Her Welsh partner, Dai Griffiths, says: ‘It’s strange that artists and bohemians often say they feel more free in rural, conservative settings than in the city. It’s as if language and cultural barriers are a plus because they don’t feel the need to engage with the people around them. The village is just a backdrop.”

The EU needs to be flexible and recognize that islands are a special case, says Apesteguia, who describes himself as a “pathological optimist,” “otherwise villages like Deià will cease to exist.”

“The population of Mallorca is growing while here in Deià it is declining,” he says. “A village without a settled community is not a village, it is just a group of houses or a tourist resort.”

Apart from a small supermarket, almost all shops have disappeared and GP services have been reduced from four days a week to two hours.

“It’s a ghost town and a theme park,” says Dominic.

Apesteguia is inclined to agree. “Tourists come here because it’s authentic,” he says. “But that is not the case now.”

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