Ancient Spanish village loses school, fears for its future as population dwindles

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PITARQUE, Spain, July 5 (Reuters) - The tiny village of Pitarque at the foot of a mountain in Aragon in eastern Spain has survived for more than 1,300 years, but if depopulation continues at the current rate, it will be deserted by 2046, its residents warn.

The closure of the local school at the end of term last month, as two of its only four pupils moved away with their parents, may mark the point of no return in the village of 69 residents, which was founded by Muslim conquerors in the 8th century and in its heyday a century back had over 1,000 residents.

Many are retired, and just about half spend the cold winter months in Pitarque, which is situated above a small valley in arugged mountain range and where the local road ends, 340 km (211 miles) east of Madrid.

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Depopulation is a major challenge in Spain, whose 47-million-strong population is 80% urban and occupies just 13% of its territory, compared to France's 68% populated territory, and 60% in Germany.

Villages at risk of depopulation make up 42%, compared to the European Union's average of 10%. The province of Teruel, which includes Pitarque, is one of the EU's least populated.

Alberto Toro, 42-year-old local teacher, fell in love with the picturesque village, its nearby river, dramatic canyons and climbing routes when he first arrived 14 years ago.

With fewer than 10 pupils at a time, he tailored his teaching to each child and used fun, innovative methods such as a rap song explaining how the blood circulatory system works.

"Schools are the engine of change and development. When you close them down, you become stagnant," said Toro, who is still deciding where to go next but plans to keep visiting Pitarque, which he calls his "micro-paradise".

He prefers not to think what he's leaving behind, but a colleague compared him to Robinson Crusoe about to leave his island.

Twelve-year-old Eloy, who will now go to school in another village a few miles away, said he would miss Toro the most, describing him as akin to a second father who taught him about the human body using Lego blocks.

On the last school day, several former pupils joined Toro and the schoolchildren in an art workshop followed by a group hug.

Spain's government has pledged 4.3 billion euros of EU funds to increase public services coverage to fight depopulation, but locals fear it could be too late for Pitarque.

"The school closure means the end of the village itself. We will possibly become - I hope I am wrong - a weekend village that is dead Monday to Friday," said Eloy's mother Pakita Iranzo, 52.

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Reporting by Emma Pinedo, Editing by Andrei Khalip and Raissa Kasolowsky

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