Life returns to the village of Nymphaion

Nymphaion, which until just a few years ago was an isolated, abandoned village of 35 elderly inhabitants in northern Greece, has come to life again. The settlement and surrounding area have been transformed into a living museum of national heritage and unspoiled nature. And Nymphaion has become a European model of light tourism that respects the local culture. As such, it was one of the areas highlighted at the Territorial Cultural Systems forum and exhibition held in Seville, Spain, on October 24-25. The forum was run by the DELTA Project, which is implemented by the MEDA-Euromed Heritage program and financed by the European Union. The participants were cultural organizations from Algeria, France, Spain, Israel, Italy, Malta, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority, which exchanged their experiences and initiatives toward promoting their cultural heritages according to an integrated territorial approach. The DELTA Project began in 2002 and ends this year. It is based on the awareness that capitalizing on an area’s cultural heritage – from archaeological sites, architecture and monuments to music, theater, visual arts, local customs and contemporary festivals – does not impede development. On the contrary, in the form of mild tourism, it can provide jobs, economic development and opportunities for social integration which bring prosperity to local communities. The Greek Culture Ministry is a member of the DELTA Consortium and it had two stands at the exhibition, presenting five Greek bodies and their work: the Nymphaion Municipality (local regeneration), the Archaeological Institute of Aegean Studies (uniting archaeological sites with the city of Kos), Rhodes Municipality (restoring and highlighting the architectural heritage and raising local awareness), Cyclades Development Association (three programs promoting ports and sustainable tourism and combating social exclusion), and the Olive Roads Cultural Organization (links between Mediterranean peoples and the olive tree). Oasis of culture and nature in an area that was almost deserted Winter is harsh in the mountain ranges of Florina. It usually lasts five months, with snow as much as 2 meters deep, but the landscape and architecture are beautiful all year round. The place is rich in history, known for its jewelers, traders and scientists who traveled the Balkans, Europe and the East to bring home wealth, build fine stone mansions and cultivate the arts in what was once their inaccessible refuge. Travelers and diplomats in the past two centuries admiringly spoke of Nevesca – the former name of Nymphaion, which means «there’s nobody like us» in Albanian – both for its landscape and for its inhabitants who withstood bandit raids. The population once numbered 3,000 souls, but wars and upheavals plagued Nymphaion in the 19th and 20th centuries, and by 1990 the population had dwindled to 35. But the people who came from Nymphaion had not forgotten their birthplace and many returned. They realized that the only thing that could bring the place back to life, attract visitors from the cities and yield a satisfactory income was tourism. «The community chose mild tourism so as to maintain a balance between the desired influx of visitors and the size of the village and its values,» said Nymphaion Municipality President Nikos Mertzos. «It has preserved, restored and highlighted the cultural heritage as represented by its rare architecture, using modern methods.» Over the past 10 years, with the help of funding from the EU, Greece and patriotic private benefactors, Nymphaion has trebled its population and developed all the necessary infrastructure for the next generation. Creating infrastructure That new infrastructure includes a conference center, museum, outdoor theater, equestrian stables, two municipal guest houses, library, permanent photography exhibits, three car parks, a ring road, a nature and recreation park (180 hectares of forest that has been fenced in and contains deer and other game, cobblestone pathways and scenic viewing areas) as well as dozens of projects that have completely refurbished the traditional fabric of the village. The municipal forest of Nymphaion is home to the European Center for the Protection of Bears, run by Arcturus, and the Thessaloniki YMCA’s mountain campsite. This December, tenders will be called for the construction of an artificial lake and in the spring for a central tourist market. In line with the municipality’s strategic plan, small family businesses have been set up, and now there are 10 hostels, five restaurants and four cafes, while 180 houses have been renovated and 25 new ones built, and 170 new jobs have been created. Local products and delicacies are on sale, and the Nymphaion women’s association produces homemade sweets, drinks made from wild fruit, pasta, handicrafts, wood carvings, souvenirs and silverware. «Now the village is making progress,» said Poppy Kontoyianni, who returned in 1978 to Nymphaion, where she recalled spending her childhood summers. When she and her husband decided to leave Athens and go to the village, everyone said they were mad. But she and others who decided not to abandon the old houses have brought new life to the area. Now her daughter has moved to the village as well to work. The new infrastructure enables the community to host conferences and art exhibitions. More than 60,000 people visit the village every year, and are treated as guests, not as tourists. «The village will have continuity and prospects as long as it keeps up the present form of light tourism, and doesn’t give in to the temptation of seeking easy profits,» said G. Papadopoulos, who moved to Nymphaion with his family from Thessaloniki in 1998. Since then, as he says, he feels as if he is «on permanent vacation.»