Hill villages the world over are under threat. Subsistence farming is hard, other work non -existent and the temptation to move to the cities in search of an easier way of life almost irresistible. Be it in on the Scottish fells, in the foothills of the Himalyas or on the slopes of the Troodos mountains, if you are young enough and fit enough, you take off to seek your fortune in the wider world leaving only the old people and the cats.
And so it was with Kalopanayiotis, a small village high in the Troodos mountains. Until the Turkish invasion in 1974 the nearby copper mines provided just enough work to keep some people in the village but the mines are in what is now the Turkish north with a bristling border cutting off all access. Effectively, to make a living the villagers had either to go to Nicosia, or to head for the UK, some to go to university, some to make their fortunes, some to do both.
So it was with John Papadouris who left Kalopanayiotis to study civil engineering London. In due course he started a building company in north London and then, in search of new outlets for his skills, moved to Dubai. Perfectly positioned to take full advantage of Dubai’s building boom through 1980s and ’90s, Papadouris is now a very wealthy man with construction interests that span the middle east and further afield.
But while John Papadouris was making his fortune in foreign fields, his village was dying. By the early years of this century its population had shrunk from the 1500 or so who lived there in the 1950s when he was a child, to a few hundred, most of whom were in their seventies. But no more. Through a combination of agro-tourism and investment in the local infrastructure, and with some help from the EU, Papadouris, now mayor of the village, is dragging Kalopanayiotis back to prosperity.
Eco- or agro-tourism is not new (back in 2007 I was tramping the Himalayas checking out another such project) but it is a successful way of enabling dying communities to regenerate and become self sustaining. In the case of Kalopanayiotis, Papadouris has bought around 30 of the village houses and turned them into comfortable, verging on luxurious, ‘hotel’ rooms with large terraces overlooking the very beautiful mountain valley. Currently served by an attractive restaurant and terrace coffee bar, a very comfortable and appealing ‘library’, a sauna and steam room and a conference facility seating up to 120, Casale Panayiotis, as it is known, will soon also benefit from a much larger spa which will harness the local mineral springs to offer a full health treatment option complete with swimming pools.
On the way to creating the Casale, a combination of Papadouris and the EU have also widened some of the village’s tortuous lanes just enough to allow cars through (for some reason Cypriots like to drive large SUVs which seriously struggle on most of their roads), repaved them with their original cobbles, rebuilt and strengthened many of the retaining walls (the village is perched on the side of a near precipice) using the local stone and the lovely local semi-dry stone wall techniques and are building a small funicular to improve access between the upper and lower village.
Admittedly, Kalopanayiotis is fertile territory for agro-tourism. Not only were there suitable houses within the village to create a workable complex, but it is situated in a beautiful valley, already ‘equipped’ with mineral springs and its very own UNESCO World heritage site monastery, Ayios Ioannis Lambadistis – a wonderful higgledy-piggledy 11th to 16th century church covered in stunning (and stunningly preserved) Byzantine frescoes. But the impressive though the Casale may be, project Papadouris does not stop there.
Across the valley he has built a small bottling factory next to a bore hole accessing fine spring water and now supplies water to many of Cyprus’ office blocks and industrial sites. Down the valley the mayor’s own house sits on a fertile strip of land beside a bubbling stream on which grow groves of citrus, olive and soft fruit trees and vegetables to stock the restaurant at the Casale; it also accommodates a small trout pond. And across the valley below the water bottling factory, the whole of the top of one of the hills is being groomed for the planting of a substantial vineyard which should, in about five years time, be producing up to 50,000 bottles of wine per season. (Although most locally grown wine in Cyprus is also locally consumed, the soil and climate are perfect for viticulture so, with the right professional input, there is no reason why they should not have a good exportable product.)
The common thread which runs through all of these enterprises is the principle that underlies all modern social innovation and enterprise: creating projects which can, in time, be self sustaining. Given the level of investment which, once the new pools and spa are finished, will run into tens of millions of euros, there is no way that investors (in this case the mayor himself) could ever expect even a modest return on the investment. But that was never the point. The purpose of the project was to give life back to the village by providing work and a viable source of income for its inhabitants – but without destroying its character – and that it most certainly is doing. Bravo Mr Papadouris! Many are the villages who would love to have so far-sighted and committed a son.
If you are interested in visiting (and I would thoroughly recommend doing so) check out the Casale Panayiotis site. The rooms are very comfortable (and several are due for an upgrade this summer which will take them to the ‘luxury’ level), the terraces and views are spectacular, the weather is delightful, the staff are charming and the food is excellent although, currently, the menu is quite restricted if you are staying for more than a couple of days.
We flew to Larnaca and hired a car (maximum two and a half hours drive to Kalopanayiotis) which then also enables you to explore the mountains (which do sit on the top of the world even though they are not that high) and the many wonderful painted Byzantine churches and monasteries that teeter on the tops of the peaks. Go – and enjoy!