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The Spanish region of Valencia was once called the California of Spain for its gorgeous Mediterranean coastline and modern architecture. But now, it epitomizes the worst of Spain's problems. Valencia had the country's most inflated property market and suffered its biggest crash. Its landscape is now littered with empty and half-finished buildings. Valencia has also had an unusually high number of politicians indicted for corruption. Lauren Frayer traveled to the sparkling coastal city to investigate what went wrong.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: In 2007, Valencia spent $730 million on a Formula One street circuit hugging its Mediterranean shores.
Two years later, Valencia's regional president, Francisco Camps, did a victory lap in a $200,000 Ferrari. He just hosted the European Grand Prix and the America's Cup yacht race. Construction was booming. But that infamous Ferrari ride was the beginning of the end. Francisco Camps has resigned from office to defend himself full time against corruption allegations. Thirteen others await trial. And Valencia is Spain's most indebted province now.
VICENTE PALLARDO: Probably we are the main example of every single sin that has been committed in the Spanish economy for the - maybe the last 15 years.
FRAYER: Vicente Pallardo is an economist who raised alarms before the crash. He says cheap credit and EU development funds let Valencia build infrastructure too quickly. The region now has more miles of high-speed train tracks per capita than anywhere else in the world. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood visited in 2009, and Pallardo recalls his reaction.
PALLARDO: He was very surprised. And he said, oh, you are very rich. We are not able to spend so much money building. Come on, it's the U.S. We are not richer. Our per capita income is about 60 percent of that of the U.S.
FRAYER: To understand why Valencia's politicians acted like they were so rich, you have to go back to the 1980s, when this region was relatively poor. Economist Elias Amor worked for Valencia's government back then.
ELIAS AMOR: We hadn't a highway to Madrid until 1996 or 1997. There was a road, a terrible road. The investments of the central government in Valencia were very low, were the lowest in Spain.
FRAYER: So when cheap credit started flowing, politicians set out to right past wrongs and put Valencia on the map.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Valencia's goal is to become one of the most important urban tourism destinations in Europe.
FRAYER: That goal from a 2008 tourist ad for Valencia was achieved. The biggest landmark here is the City of Arts and Sciences, a complex of museums that cost more than $1.5 billion to build. Amor says locals are proud.
AMOR: I remember my father - my father died in 2004 - and he came every morning here to observe the construction of the City of Arts and Sciences. And when we met him in the evening, he used to tell me that this was the most important thing that was done here in Valencia since the time of the Miguelete. You know, the Miguelete?
FRAYER: The Miguelete is a medieval church in Valencia's center. The city hadn't seen a building boom like this since the Middle Ages. But Valencia's citizens will be paying for it for years. Miguel Angel Ferris Gil is a former journalist who runs alternative tours of Valencia to show citizens just what they've paid for. He drives me out to the Formula One track, and I asked him about the regional president's iconic Ferrari ride here.
MIGUEL ANGEL FERRIS GIL: This is our symbol, the luxury and the political corruption. They were enjoying his power in Valencia, their impunity with the media and other things.
FRAYER: An abandoned tramway leads to the fenced-off race track. So there are tracks but no trains?
GIL: Yes, it finishes here. It don't arrive until the neighborhood. It's finished. It's all like that because they have no money to finish.
FRAYER: Valencia still hosts Formula One. But the regional government has run out of funds to repair schools, and some kids have been attending class in trailers for years. Politicians are thinking twice about Ferrari photos these days. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer.
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