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Transnational cooperation between rural areas

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Diversification, innovation and
cooperation in Montaña Palentina
(Castile-León, Spain):

Up hill and down rail


Faced with the need to diversify its economy,
the northern part of the Province of Palencia
is working with LEADER to develop quality
tourism based on culture and adventure.
Successful in making “Montaña Palentina” a
commonly used word to designate this side of
the Cantabrian Mountains in Castile, the
local action group would like to see disused
railways in Spain developed for tourism.
For this, the ultimate weapon could very
well be the “cyclerail” which is the theme
of a transnational project with the LEADER
groups of Haut-Allier (France) and
Vogelsberg (Germany).


To the sound of grating metal, the train slowly comes around the bend leading to the small disused station. For a few seconds, it looks like it is going to collide head-on with the cyclists who are riding on the other track, but it ends up overtaking them and disappearing into the distance like a predator who has spared its prey. The scene occurs in a place called Salinas, like the town of John Steinbeck. The only difference is this is not California, even if the place looks like a ghost town. We are in Spain in northern Castile-León and the reporter from LEADER Magazine is in a dismal mood. He has just missed “the” photo symbolising this report, the picture of the old mining train of Barruelo de Santullán overtaking the well-known “cyclerail” of Montaña Palentina.

“These two families have come from Burgos today just to try the cyclerail,” the guide, José Gallego, informs us. He is in charge of the “TAO”(“Turismo, Artesania, Ocio” - Tourism, Crafts, Recreation) cooperative which won the call for tender organised by the LEADER group for the exclusive right to market the cyclerail locally for a period of four years.

The members of this LEADER group were in fact the ones who came up with the idea of the cyclerail and developed it. It is a kind of small rolling platform on top of which sit two bicycles. The back wheel of each bicycle is in contact with a track, enabling people to ride on a railway.”Europe has over 30,000 km of disused railway lines, Spain about 800 km of which a hundred or so in our area; it is a priceless resource for rural tourism,” says Fernando Garcia, coordinator of tourism in the local action group (LAG) and one of the designers of the cyclerail. “The great innovation of our system in comparison with other systems that exist is that technically you can use your own bicycle. But at the moment this is not legally possible, because although disused the railways are still the responsibility of the Spanish Railway Company... The agreement that we have reached with them therefore requires us to have professional guides for the activity.” So for about EUR 9 per person, TAO rents not only cyclerails with bicycles but at designated points along the way - 12 km there and back - the cyclist can find information about the sites.

Fernando takes his reporter to San Cebrian de Mudá to show him a ghost town, a real one this time, with a whole group of buildings that have been abandoned since 1969: the train station, the building for the railwaymen, the shed for the engines, the coal shed, and so on. “We hope that we can restore all of it and make it the headquarters for the cyclerail business in Montaña Palentina, explains Fernando, at the moment we don’t have the right to operate a cyclerail on this section of the railway.”


Technological innovation, political innovation

“We don’t have the right” is a key phrase: the cyclerail is actually just one of the three main parts of the LEADER group’s operation to find new uses for the old railways. In addition to the Salinas-Mudá section used for the cyclerail, the LAG has obtained a 50-year lease for another disused railway 15 km long. The aim here is to combine the cyclerail and a tourist train. The third part of the operation is even more ambitious and would involve running a weekly tourist train on the narrow Bilbao-León line (383 km long of which 174 km are no longer used, particularly in Montaña Palentina). This would be in the context of the “Transcantabrian” project being planned by the narrow railway company (FEVE). Along the 68 km section that runs through Montaña Palentina lie 9 stations that can be rehabilitated for tourism, or even maybe for local public transport. According to the LEADER group, a regular rail service between various villages would in fact be profitable under certain conditions.

But all these projects depend on the attitude of the Railway Company which until recently (spring 1999) was still leaning towards the idea of pulling up the disused tracks as is the case in a lot of countries. Therefore the stakes are high and of national importance, and the Montaña Palentina LEADER group is leading these negotiations: “all the rural development bodies in Spain are awaiting the outcome of the talks,” says Fernando. “If a permit is granted to operate the disused lines, it will in a way set a legal precedent for the entire country. A lot of LAGs will rush to get in on a piece of the action. The cyclerail is a technological innovation but also and especially a ‘political’ innovation!”

The cyclerail has become the driving force behind the LEADER group, something its designers probably never would have imagined. This is true locally and throughout Spain but the effects have also been at the European level, since in 1997 the LAG began working with the groups of Haut-Allier (Auvergne, France) and Vogelsberg (Hesse, Germany) on a similar project of transnational cooperation: the French are developing the “vélorail” while the Germans are promoting the traditional track motorcar (see boxed text). Eventually the aim is to offer the three systems in the three countries, because as Alvaro Carrasco, president of the LAG Montaña Palentina, explains: “each of the three systems has an advantage: our system uses two normal bicycles and is therefore the most flexible and requires the most physical effort; the French system is particularly well suited to families; the German system is the most authentic since it uses a reproduction identical to the traditional track motorcar. The three can form a coherent set of interchangeable products.”

“The French are the most advanced,” says Fernando Garcia. “They have a government expert and already nine ‘vélorail’ sites in operation. Like us the Germans have to engage in tough negotiations with the Railway Company, but they have a collection of over 100 authentic track motorcars... So that is what our cooperation project is all about and what makes it special: with the Germans there for the quality of the product, the French there to organise the supply and we Spaniards there to provide some imagination, we feel like we can move mountains.”


The choice of tourism

Placing the cyclerail in context, the LEADER programme of Montaña Palentina has since 1991 been run by the ADEMPA (“Asociaciones para le DEsarrollo de la Montaña PAlentina” / Associations for the development of Montaña Palentina) Federation, a grouping of four cultural and environmental associations, the People’s University of Palencia, and the provincial chapter of the UPA (“Unión de Pequeños Agricultores” - Union of Small Farmers).

The LEADER area is made up of 21 municipalities encompassing 157 villages, and only five localities have a population of over 1,000 (18 inhabitants/km2). Located in the northern section of the province of Palencia, at an average altitude of 1 056 m, the area comprises the foothills and southern side of the Cantabrian Mountains, “an environment geographically and culturally closer to the mountains and pastures of Cantabria than to the cereal-growing area of Castile,” says Inés Ochandiano, veterinarian of the “Campa” (CArna Montaña PAlentina) association which represents a quality beef sector. Of the working population, 9% are farmers (most of whom raise beef cattle), 60% work in services and 22% in the secondary sector, mainly the biscuit trade and the hydroelectricity business. But a particular feature of the area is that in addition to having to face the classic structural difficulties of mountain areas in the agricultural sector, Montaña Palentina has several coal mines most of which were only shut down relatively recently, creating serious social problems and large-scale emigration.

“But every problem also has its solution,” claims José Manuel Merino, director of the LEADER group. “We were mountains, full of idle natural, cultural and human assets. Tourism appeared as the new source to generate activities and the road to diversification. The only hitch was that in 1991 we didn’t have anything valid to offer for tourism and we especially didn’t have an area image, not even a name: the term Montaña Palentina didn’t exist...”

According to José Manuel, “60% of the funds and 90% of the energy of LEADER I were devoted to tourism.” The local action group first focused its efforts on making the name Montaña Palentina a household word. In this regard, the LAG’s systematic use of the name in its communications, the presence at the trade fairs of Madrid, Valladolid and Bilbao of the network of tour operators set up by the LEADER group, the impact of the national coverage by the media of the cyclerail, etc. mean that today all of Spain or just about has heard of the “Palentine Mountains”, even if not everyone knows where they are.


Romanesque heritage

In addition to a very vast mountain area soon expected to be designated a Regional Natural Park, the area has an important Romanesque heritage, “one of the most impressive in Europe with 235 monuments documented,” notes José Manuel Rodriguez, historian at the Fondación Santa Maria la Real-Centro de Estudios del Romanico.

This Foundation, one of the five founding members of the LEADER group in 1991, is at the forefront in Spain and Europe for its action to promote local development and for its academic work. In 1978, a group of residents of Aguilar de Campoo (population 7,500) created an association devoted to the restoration of the Monasterio de Santa Maria la Real, a superb building showing the transition from the Romanesque to Gothic architectural styles (12th-13th centuries) and which the Civil War turned into a gigantic ruin.

Among these “friends of the monastery” is the famous architect and illustrator of the El Pais newspaper, Peridis (José Maria Perez). He is originally from Aguilar and in 1985 created the first “school- workshop” in Spain (see LEADER Magazine no 10) based on the Italian experience of “young people cooperatives” which combines vocational training and the restoration of heritage. In so doing, he also convinced Spain’s Ministry of Education to finance the reconstruction and restoration work on the monument. The work was to last 12 years and result in the monastery’s reconversion into a magnificent cultural complex with a museum and library.

Meanwhile in 1988, the Association of the Friends of the Monastery became a centre for Romanesque studies, then in 1994 a foundation with various public and private institutional partners, including the Province of Palencia, the University of Valladolid and two financial institutions. The Foundation is currently engaged in a transnational project under the PACTE programme of the Council of Towns and Regions of Europe and is working on the theme of heritage development and the management of voluntary cultural centres. Its partners are similar structures located in Bamberg (Germany), Cashel (Ireland), Conques (France) and Delphi (Greece). The Foundation is also participating in a RAPHAEL project and is helping prepare the Culture 2000 European framework programme.


Scale models

Over the years, la Fondación Santa Maria la Real-Centro Estudios del Romanico has become a genuine “cultural holding” employing 100 people spread over five units: a workshop school (50 pupils), a monument restoration business (15 employees and some forty heritage restoration jobs completed since 1994), a company that manages rural accommodation in old traditional buildings (15 employees), a study group (4 employees) whose mission is to publish an encyclopaedia of Romanesque art in Castile-León, and a company that makes scale models of Spanish and European monuments (20 employees) sold under the trade name of “Euro-Monumenta”.

“This venture was a spin-off of the workshop school and the creation of the museum,” explains Juan Carlos Prieto, director of the Foundation. “To enrich the museum, part of the workshop school became specialised in the production of wooden models on the scale of 1/50th of the Romanesque churches of the Montaña Palentina - just about every village has one. These are painstaking reproductions of extremely high quality very faithful to the original. We had accumulated so much know-how. That is why once the museum had all the models it needed we decided to go further and market our product, launching out into the manufacture of plaster models of national and European monuments, Romanesque of course but also from other periods. There are currently 196 different models listed in the catalogue. Our market is the sale of quality souvenirs, but we also take orders from institutions that want to offer a scale model of their headquarters to their customers and suppliers.”

LEADER has cofinanced the publication of the catalogue and the promotional campaign as well as the manufacture of 8 prototypes of models of national monuments. The Community Initiative has also contributed to the restoration and conversion of the monastery’s stables into a “posada”, a traditional hotel with some thirty rooms, “the first large-scale LEADER I project that served as a model afterwards to show to owners for the conversion by operators of buildings into tourist accommodation,” notes Fernando Garcia. In a way, another kind of model, although life-size here.


Turning poverty around

Creating a supply of quality accommodation was another LEADER I priority, Montaña Palentina only having a few conventional tourist hotels, including a parador (1) at the beginning of the 1990s. “I always say that LEADER is a way to deal with poverty in a positive way,”, says José Manuel Merino. “Our area flourished until the 13th century, then everything stopped and Montaña Palentina remained so poor that the villages have not changed up to this day. The result is that we have an extraordinary building heritage that ranges from very humble homes to medieval castles and is just waiting to be developed...”

Thus some thirty houses (250 beds) were converted into accommodation under LEADER I. “Not to mention the owners of other houses who followed the ‘LEADER model’ in terms of approach and quality although they did not receive any financial aid,” remarks José Manuel. And the director of the LAG explains the selection criteria for the owners of accommodation receiving financial support (50% of the investment): “special attention goes to applicants from sectors in difficulty, meaning miners and farmers as well as women and young people. Now with LEADER II, the geographical criterion is also fundamental, because we want a balanced distribution of quality accommodation throughout the area. Actually, the situation is often the following: we have a worker whose job is threatened, or even someone who is unemployed but whose family has a traditional building that is empty. We then try to convince the parents to restore this heritage for their son or daughter in difficulty. Any project that is concluded is then sooner or later followed by a training course”.

According to the LAG’s officials, LEADER II is also a way to come up with innovative tourist products: in addition to running the cyclerail and the trail, the TAO company makes traditional local musical instruments and regularly organises medieval evenings in the paradores of Castila, giving it work the whole year round; “Taxi de Montaña” operates four-wheel drives to provide taxi services, school transport, transport for the elderly, and transport for excursions on high-mountain trails; the “centre for active tourism Aventuras & Aventuras” which provides accommodation, nature activities, daring sports and new technologies, all “under the same roof”, has a customer base of “trendy environmentally conscious people” throughout the year.

A lot of Montaña Palentina’s operators have customers all year long: not even ten years after the area resolutely launched out into this sector of activity, the number of visitors is high and steadily rising because relatively speaking the tourism is not seasonal. “Only one accommodation centre closes in the winter,” remarks Fernando Garcia, “and not one tourist operator supported by LEADER has yet gone out of business...Better: the traditional tourist facilities - the parador, for example - which were in a state of collapse, have gained renewed dynamism and are again popular... Everyone now knows about Montaña Palentina and we now have the means to capture part of the tourist flows from Madrid, for example, flows which in the past were exclusively directed towards Cantabria and only went through our region without stopping.”


Theme park

“I think we’ve got our priorities right,” approves José Manuel Merino, “getting the process going, creating supply and demand were the major objective of LEADER I. With LEADER II we have consolidated the achievements, put greater emphasis on quality, done some rebalancing, including supporting the development of other sectors like the meat sector, cheese processing or cabinetmaking. For LEADER+, we already have a rough idea what we want to do: ‘Montaña Palentina, Land of Art and History’, meaning we want to make the area a real ‘theme park’ in the global and cultural sense by uniting all of our resources still scattered today: the Romanesque heritage, the railway heritage, the mining heritage, the tourist operators and tourist attractions, the food producers, etc.”



Surface area: 1 771 km2
Population: : 30 390 inhabitants
LEADER II financing: ECU 4 444 000
EU: ECU 2 000 000
Other public funds: ECU 667 000
Private: ECU 1 777

Federación ADEMPA
Asociaciónes para le Desarrollo de la Montaña Palentina

C/ Le Maderao, s/n
E-34840 Cervera de Pisuerga (Palencia)
Tel: +34 979 87 04 81
Fax: +34 979 87 04 81


(1) “Parador”: traditional hotel generally
operating in a restored historic building that is
sometimes in a scenic area. State-owned,
the 85 Spanish paradores form a network
of top-of-the-range accommodation.


source: LEADER Magazine nr.21 - Autumn, 99

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