Today just 11 of 45 branches remain, and the catastrophic story behind their demise (very belatedly being probed by anti-corruption investigators) is a parable for the appalling mismanagement and rampant corruption that helped precipitate La Crisis, as the Spanish have dubbed their economic Armageddon.Under arcane regulations, they were run not by experienced independent bankers, but local politicians and their cronies, whose decisions were vetted by ‘depositors’ representatives’: laymen who knew nothing about finance.One understands, too, why many financial experts believe even a proposed £80 million EU bailout may no longer be enough to save Spain’s sandcastle banks from total collapse, bringing the euro down with them.But of course, their hardship pales alongside that of the millions of decent, hard-working Spaniards now being made to suffer for the greed, hubris and criminal dishonesty of those who caused La Crisis: the bankers, developers and politicians running its 17 autonomous regions.Leaving the city of Castellon, the road signs point towards the new international airport, and after 25 miles one duly arrives at a sleek concrete and glass terminal, built on an otherwise barren stretch of land beside the motorway.The grand vision of Carlos Fabra, a charismatic regional politician who promised that the airport would attract 600,000 passengers a year — transforming this underdeveloped stretch of the Costa del Azahar on Spain’s east coast into a holiday Mecca — it was opened amid great fanfare 15 months ago.
In return, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has been forced to bring in an immediate VAT hike as well as cuts in local authority budgets.
Juxtapose this mad extravagance with the many and varied indignities being forced on the Spanish public almost daily, as wages and pensions are slashed, house prices plunge into freefall and the swingeing, EU-enforced cuts package hits public services, schools and hospitals, and you can begin to feel their pain.
Spain's economy is in such dire straits that this week eurozone ministers agreed a series of emergency measures - including a 30billion euro loan and giving the country more time to cut its budget deficit - to try to avert total collapse Two years ago, with her 60th birthday approaching, the sports therapist from London started making plans to swap her holiday home for a smarter, more spacious property where she and her partner would spend their retirement.
My 500-mile journey has taken me from the stifling Costa Blanca, with its endless blocks of unsold holiday apartments, through once-thriving communities where lines of grim- looking men snake around the job-centres, to the mountainous fringes of the Bay of Biscay — scene of an increasingly violent pit strike that, I was warned, could yet light the fuse for a nationwide wave of civil disturbance.
Crossing the vast, burnished wheat plains, and passing ripening vineyards and citrus orchards, Spain often seemed to be meandering along much as always.