Pretty village, dying village? Rural Greece is using all its ingenuity to combat depopulation

Pretty villages tend to get abandoned pretty quickly. In the last 50 years, superbly sited settlements, once chief population centers of their districts, have turned into places where only old people live. The schools have closed down and the young people have left for good. But in the last few years, things have started changing, albeit slowly. Villages that have exploited their natural advantages and invested in fresh ideas, in new crops or agrotourism, have slowly managed to stem their population drain, exploiting young people’s frustration with the frantic pace of life in the cities. But hundreds more are still trying to find the magic recipe that will breathe life back into their villages. Papingo, Epirus. At the beginning of the 1960s, it seemed that the high mountain village of Papingo would suffer the same fate as hundreds of others across Epirus, as the first signs of abandonment were already clearly visible. But a number of events put the village back on its feet. «A law passed in 1966 declared the area one of exceptional natural beauty, the Vikos [Gorge] was declared a national park in ’73, and in ’75 a pilot program for traditional settlements in Greece was adopted. That turned the situation round,» community head Leonidas Tsoumanis told us. It did help that Papingo was one of the most beautiful stone-built villages in the country. «In the last 10 years, there has been galloping development, and large volumes of tourist traffic, while the 182 permanent residents recorded in 1991 grew to 364 in 2001. At present, 40 percent of the houses have become hostels, and we have four restaurants and five cafes.» Papingo led the way for the other Zagorohoria villages. Megalo and Mikro Horio, Evrytania. Winter tourism is the now the chief source of income for Megalo Horio and Mikro Horio in Evrytania. «Agrotourism has given life to the villages. Old traditional houses have been restored and turned into guesthouses and other forms of accommodation, tavernas have opened, as have small shops selling tourist products, and small units manufacturing the traditional sweets and products of our area,» the mayor of the municipality of Potamias, Yiannis Ivros, said. «It’s been a huge change, since it took place in just 10 years. Mikro Horio and Megalo Horio are now known all over Greece, and young people have a strong incentive to stay.» Vytina, Arcadia. In Arcadia, infrastructure works have helped many mountain villages. For Vytina, the two most important were water supply works and the construction of the Artemisio tunnel. «To give you an idea, 10 years ago, we had two tavernas and 200 rooms, and now we have eight tavernas and 1,000 rooms,» Vytina Mayor Costas Kountanis said. There is no unemployment in the district, since tourism businesses are supplemented by jobs in forestry. «The fir forest of Mt Mainalo is able to produce 30,000 cubic meters of wood every year. People from the area could find jobs in wood-cutting, but instead, we get people from the outside. You know why? Because our people have no appetite for such work. If you have money, you don’t care…» Dimitsana, Arcadia. Tourism has led to the development of Dimitsana, a traditional settlement at an altitude of 960 meters. The village throbs with life, and has been doing so for some years now, as young people now have a future there. «It’s difficult to find a store to rent,» said Mayor Spyros Malevitis. «We have created wonderful hostels, we have the Water Power Museum, the gunpowder mill, beautiful monasteries and the gorge. Of course, we don’t want to become Arachova, but since we don’t have factories, we had to invest in tourism.» Ano Porogia, Kerkini. If winter brings money to the villages above, Ano Porogia has invested in the spring. One of the most picturesque villages in the municipality of Kerkini, it has an idyllic setting at the foot of Mt Kerkini. «Since landholdings are very small, development cannot be based on agriculture,» said the mayor of Kerkini, Iakovos Iakovidis. «In any case, the staple crop is tobacco, and given that subsidies were due to come to an end, we had to do something. So both the previous municipal officials and we made tourism a priority. There are 1,500 permanent residents in the village, as many as in the previous census, but there is a strong influx of young people investing in the area. We don’t want mass tourism. We want visitors with ecological sensibility.» Vamos, Crete. Vamos, in the prefecture of Hania, has its own story to tell. It began with the decision by a group of friends from Athens to return, in the early 1990s, to their place of origin and do what they could to revive the place. They began by restoring 18th and 19th century houses, which were later turned into hostels, and continued with the creation of a cottage industry making traditional products. A taverna and cafe followed. Already, organic farming has begun, trips to the surrounding countryside are organized, and more is to follow. With what results? «We have 3,000 permanent residents. We are one of the very few municipalities to show a population increase over the past few years, and one of 15 percent at that,» the district mayor, Stelios Michelakis, told Kathimerini. «All the surrounding villages have developed activities that keep locals put, like the women’s agricultural cooperative at Gavalohori.» Fanari and Aigeiros, Rhodope. The two biggest villages in the municipality of Aigeiros in the prefecture of Rhodope seem to have also won the battle against drift to the cities. «These are two very different cases,» Mayor Vangelis Litsos explains. «Fanari is a seaside village which has developed tourism parallel to fishing and farming, thus securing a good standard of living. Aigeiros, on the other hand, is near Komotini and thus enjoys the advantages of a nearby urban center. At the same time, there was an attempt to develop tourism, since a third of the municipality lies within the RAMSAR and Natura 2000 zones.» The municipality has grown. Velvendo, Kozani. Velvendo, a large, picturesque village of 3,750 inhabitants at the foot of Mt Pieria, is seeing people return in search of a better life. «Many young people, who over the past few years left in order to study, have returned,» district Mayor Manolis Stergiou explained. «The reason is simple. They lived for a few years in Athens and Thessaloniki, worked from morning till night and received 600 to 700 euros per month. That kind of money doesn’t go far in the city. Here, even if you’re underemployed, you can live normally and have a high standard of living. Moreover, quite a few live in Velvendo and work in Kozani.» Many of the residents are engaged in the cultivation of peaches and apples. A start has been made on organic farming. But the lack of basic infrastructure poses a major problem. «There’s been for six years now a proposal by Swiss (entrepreneurs) to build a ski center in Katafygi. If only the forest road to Katerini was paved…» Stavroupolis, Xanthi. In the municipality of Xanthi, efforts are focused on investment in original ideas. «The issue for small communities is not to carry out infrastructure works, but to persuade inhabitants – and this is the most difficult thing – that not all is lost,» said the mayor of Stravroupolis, Yiannis Tsingelidis. «Basically, we have an agricultural and herding economy, which is slowly dying out. A different approach is needed. That’s why we set up a shooting center at Dafnonas, the only one in Eastern Macedonia and Thrace. And, the last few years, we’ve been trying to boost agrotourism.»

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