At first glance, Vamvakou looks like many other mountain villages in the Peloponnese, with beautiful stone houses and cobbled streets lining a large square. But Vamvakou is not an ordinary village. In fact, it is at the center of an ambitious plan to revive the fortunes of Greek mountain villages, many of which are on the verge of extinction.
In 2016, Eleni Mami and her husband Anargyros Verdilos (who is from Sparta but has roots in the village) were visiting Vamvakou when they decided they wanted to do something to stop the seemingly inevitable death of the village. In the summer, the village was a hive of activity when diaspora Vamvakites descended on their ancestral homes. But over the winter, only nine older residents remained, guardians of a village that, like so many in Greece, was slowly but surely disappearing.
“We didn’t want this to happen, we wanted to resist,” says Eleni, when I meet her in Vamvakou after a three-hour drive from Athens.
The village may have been in decline, but a good fortune was there to aid Helen in her quest. Vamvakou was the birthplace of the parents of Stavros Niarchos, a billionaire Greek shipping magnate, who bequeathed his fortune to his namesake foundation when he died in 1996. Eleni approached the foundation in 2017 with her proposal to transform Vamvakou from a moribund summer retreat sustainable working village that would attract new residents as well as visitors.
The application was a success – and walking down Vamvakou today, you begin to get a sense of the sheer scale of the ambition of the multi-million dollar project coming to life. Old stone mansions have been renovated into both guesthouses and houses. Ruga by Vamvakou Homes consists of three renovated buildings with six rooms that combine traditional architecture with elegant design, while Vamvakou Traditional Guesthouse provides a simple, comfortable base. The village restaurant and cafe were renovated and reopened. Agricultural cooperatives have been formed to support the village’s only existing economy – small-scale farming – and high-speed Wi-Fi has been installed.
“Two years ago, all we had was a church. Now this,” Eleni says as we climb the steep lanes towards the village school. The school, which had closed in 2008 when the last student graduated, was not just renovated, but transformed into a high-tech cultural center and co-working space, complete with state-of-the-art facilities including 3D printers, a science lab and a brand new football and basketball court . The whole thing seems so absurdly out of proportion – this is, after all, a remote village school that hasn’t had a student in 14 years – that I have to laugh.
But Eleni is deadly serious. “We want to make Vamvakou a center for science and technology, as well as a haven for conferences,” he says. “During the lockdown, we had many Cottonians from Athens and the US coming here to work remotely, taking advantage of our rural location and modern facilities.
“We are interested in attracting tourists all year round and have a full program of various events every weekend. We would like people to experience Vamvakou as an authentic village and maybe even stay long-term. Ultimately, our primary goal is to create residents.”
At the newly renovated Voureiko restaurant, we are treated to a rustic lunch of spinach pie, beetroot salad with walnuts roasted in honey, trachanoto (a type of Greek barley pasta), as well as a platter of meats and cheeses. The food is incredibly fresh, a result of the new agro co-op, but served with an unexpected flair here in the Greek boondocks. It turns out that the young chef, Stavros Georgantas, is a returnee. Born in Sparta to Vamvakite parents, he studied at one of the best culinary schools in the country before deciding to return to his ancestral home.
After lunch, Eleni takes me for a walk to explore some of the village’s hiking trails. Even by the standards of rural Greece, there’s something particularly impressive about the Parnon Mountains and its few isolated villages that dot the steep, wooded terrain. Beautiful and unspoilt, much of the area is a Natura 2000 zone, which has restricted any kind of development here and makes it ideal for stargazing.
From Vamvakou, it is only a 40-minute drive to Sparta, with its ancient ruins and archaeological museum, and 50 minutes to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mystras. The beautiful beach towns of Paralio Astros and Gythio are approximately 90 minutes away, while the Mani Peninsula, one of Greece’s most up-and-coming destinations, is close by. All of this means that Vamvakou works well for visitors looking for a mountain getaway, combined with the coast and other historic sites.
In addition to trying to create permanent jobs in the agricultural sector, promote eco-tourism and establish the village as a technological and scientific telecommuting hub, Vamvakou Revival has a broader remit and aims to help other rural areas develop sustainable, regenerative projects. Recently, the group launched a business incubator to encourage young people from the surrounding area to start projects instead of simply moving to Athens or abroad – and individuals and businesses are invited to apply for support from the foundation.
With more people leaving the cities and seeking a simpler, more down-to-earth life in rural areas after the pandemic, the team hopes Wamako can serve as a model to be replicated elsewhere.
It is early and change will take time. Since the project began, the population of Vamvakos has grown from 9 to 21. Eleni and her husband have moved here permanently and have just had their first child – the first birth in the village in 30 years. “One day, he will be a student at the school here,” Eleni says. “And he won’t be alone.”
For more information visit the Vamvakou Revival project