A remote mountain village transformed

In the past 15 years, the community of Anavra in Magnesia has undergone a transformation. A remote mountain village of 700 livestock farmers, it used to be decades behind the times. Now, led by Dimitris Tsoukalas, who has been elected president for three consecutive four-year terms, it has become a model village that is ecologically aware and has everything from a wind park to a municipal gym. And all of it has been achieved with funds from European Union programs. In fact, Anavra has one of the highest rates of absorption of EU funds by a local government organization. As we park in the main square of Anavra, a small village on the slopes of Mount Othryos, with low houses and steep roads, a worker is painting a two-story covered car park. «We’re always fixing something here,» says a police officer who shows me the community building. Anavra was a municipality until 1923 and was called Gourna, or «spring,» after its renowned springs. Later it became a community and has remained one because of its isolated site in the mountains, despite the Capodistrian project of amalgamating smaller communities into larger administrative units. Tsoukalas, president of the community and something of a legend in Thessaly, welcomes us to his office. His window looks out over the mountain with the wind turbines that look almost motionless today. «The wind park is already in operation,» he says eagerly, «it’s just that there isn’t any wind today.» Anavra has a wind park with 20 turbines each of 17 megawatts. It also has an ultra-modern slaughterhouse with a line of organic meat, an environment and culture park, a soccer field, an Olympic-sized basketball court, a municipal gym with modern equipment, an all-day nursery and elementary school, a permanent state-employed doctor and its own snow plows. It will soon have a small hydroelectric power station, new drainage, a swimming pool and a free heating program burning biomass. And it has all this in spite of the fact that just 15 years ago Anavra did not even have its own roadworks, people shared space with animals and there were only dirt roads to Almyro and Lamia. Quality of life «I left here at the age of 12. I spent 35 years in Athens and I’d had enough,» Tsoukalas said. «In 1990 a group of friends decided to give our village a hand. It was tough; the village was far behind the times. But I loved it and so did my wife, even though she isn’t from here. We decided to change our lifestyle and see something else, on a different scale There is quality of life here. The people are simple and hospitable.» So Tsoukalas, until then a Public Power Corporation (PPC) inspector, left Athens. He and his wife, an architect who has worked unpaid ever since for the community, began their endeavor. «When I came I found 25,000 animals in the village,» he said. «My first concern was to shift them. You couldn’t move. I said we should set up three livestock parks and housing around the village with electricity and water where each one could keep his flocks. We handed over an expanse of land and it was all sorted in two years. Now we have 15,000 sheep and goats, 7,000 cows, and 7,000 pigs that live wild in the mountains on Anavra’s 13,000 hectares of land. The farmers have got into organic farming and get subsidies for it. «The next step was to set up a slaughterhouse, one of the most modern in Greece, which has an organic line,» he continued. «It is the only public slaughterhouse in Greece that is certified by DIO [one of the organic certification agencies]. All that is left is to finalize a certification mechanism so they can sell their meat as organic. But that’s the easy part.» Everyone except for Tsoukalas and his wife is a livestock farmer, he said. «I get a 2,000-euro pension and I am one of the poorest,» he said. «Anavra is famous for its meat and it makes a good income from it. That has to be our priority.» Anavra is also renowned for its spring water. The locals still wash their clothes in the traditional drystela, a large wooden tank into which spring water falls at high pressure. The clothes are washed without soap, stirred around with a large wooden paddle, then spread out to dry under the gigantic plane trees. Spring water «We have the best water, but there wasn’t a reliable mains service for drinking water. My secretary Olga Lialiou, my wife and I set about fixing the network.» Next came roadworks. «There were no roads,» he said. «In winter the snow was knee-deep in snow and in summer it was full of dust. But people were used to it.» Local residents get personal attention from the village president. Tsoukalas breaks off to reassure an elderly resident who has interrupted out conversation. She wants to know what’s going to be done about a power pole that is leaning at a dangerous angle. «I’m worried it might fall on my house,» she says. «Don’t worry,» he tells her. «The PPC came and we’ll fix it. I guarantee you the job will be done properly. Don’t you trust me?»