Across Europe, small rural towns have been losing population as young people move away to seek opportunity in cities.
In Greece, where the situation has been further complicated by the financial crisis, many formerly thriving Greek villages now lie dormant.
But for one particular small village in Laconia, these five young people have big plans.
Growing up, Tasos Markos, Panagiotis Soulimiotis, Haris Vasilakos, and Anargyros Verdilos spent their summers with family in the mountainous village of Vamvakou. They describe “summers there with grandparents, bike rides, playing in the square, injured knees, ice creams and unforgettable moments.”
Three of them were born and raised half an hour from Vamvakou in the town of Sparta, and all four maintained a strong attachment to the village as they grew older. Eleni Mami did not have a connection to Vamvakou until she met and married Anargyros, who introduced her to it. “She has spent beautiful summers there and found in Vamvakou the village she was missing when she was a child,” the group said.
The five friends have pursued divergent paths in life and have diverse reasons for wanting to return to Vamvakou.
Eleni is pursuing a PhD in Marketing at Athens University of Economics and Business. Tasos is a craftsman specializing in repair of ceramic tile roofs who served two stints as President of the Local Community of Vamvakou, from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2014 to 2018. Haris is a radio producer, a writer, and a teacher. Panagiotis owns an automobile repair shop in Sparta. Anargyros is an instructor at a tutoring center for university students.
From these different situations, each is ready to make the—by no means insignificant—life change of moving to Vamvakou. Yet the decision to move seems to sit lightly with them. “Sometimes, you don’t have to look very deep within you in order to act,” said the group. “You want to be involved in something new, fresh and different.”
Each has a different way of articulating the village’s personal draw. “For each of us of course, Vamvakou has a special place in our hearts,” they said. “Vamvakou means ‘shelter’ for Anargyros, ‘love’ for Eleni, ‘roots’ for Panagiotis, ‘care’ for Tasos, ‘space for expression’ for Haris.”
Located in the Peloponnese a few hour drive from Athens, Vamvakou went from having hundreds of residents a few decades ago to just nine permanent residents today. Yet the area still remains fertile ground for the cultivation of the chestnuts, nuts, potatoes, and herbs for which it was once famous. It remains nestled in an idyllic mountain setting, surrounded by opportunities for outdoor recreation. And its cozy homes remain ready for residents or guests.
Seeing the opportunity to write a new chapter in the storied history of the village, the friends with roots in Vamvakou began to shape a plan for bringing new life to the village. Two years ago, they met with Andreas Dracopoulos, Co-President of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), who suggested that the first stage of the revival focus on bringing new tourist visitors to the village. With support from SNF, a business plan for the project was developed by Deloitte, and a search began for land and buildings in the village that could host vacation rental homes, a restaurant and café, and a guesthouse.
In August 2018, the five friends founded a Social Cooperative Enterprise called Vamvakou Revival, of which Haris serves as president, Eleni as secretary, and Anargyros as treasurer. This first phase of the project is one of thoughtful but energetic planning and preparation.
On the ground in Vamvakou, there are already indications of a sense of renewed liveliness. Two of the team have already moved back to the village. In February, residents and people with a connection to the village gathered to celebrate the feast day of Saint Charalambos, Vamvakou’s patron saint.
Just as it does for the Vamvakou Revival team, the village holds unique meaning for the Foundation. It is where our founder, Stavros Niarchos, had his roots. But it is not unique among Greek villages in being ripe for such a revitalization. The Vamvakou Revival team hopes that the project there can serve as a blueprint for other similar projects all across the country, and also worldwide.
“The departure from our roots is one of the reasons for the economic, social and value crisis that Greece is experiencing. We forgot where we started, we overlooked our starting point and left villages in their fate,” they said. “The purpose is to make Vamvakou an imitation example, a model for the rest of our country.”
This model, like all effective grant making, would depend on the sort of local knowledge, will, and engagement the Vamvakou Revival team has brought to the table. Recognizing the potential for new life in the storied village and seeing a path to make it happen originated in intimate local familiarity; top-down resource sharing enabled local ideas and initiatives to blossom. For rain and sunshine coming down from above to grow anything, there have to be good seeds in the ground.
The Vamvakou Revival team suggests a different metaphor: the village “now is asking our involvement to write a new page in its history. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation gives us the paper and the pen.”
The second stage of the project will kick off in June 2019, when the village aims to welcome its first new visitors. The Vamvakou pioneers have their sights set much further ahead, though. “When children’s voices will be heard, when the first school bell will be heard, only then we will be able to talk about a ‘new’ Vamvakou…. Until then, work, work, work.”