The story of the people of Vamvakou, a village in the Lakonia region in the Peloponnese, is truly fascinating by any measure. But the story of the village’s revival may be an even greater one, as local people are attempting to resurrect the village and bring it back to vibrant life.
Once a picturesque, lively, historic town on the slopes of Mount Parnon, as a result of emigration Vamvakou had turned into a ghost town in the new millennium; as of 2008 there were only nine residents left in town.
In fact, the first school in the entire Lakonia region was established in Vamvakou in 1832, according to the book “The History of Vamvakou,” written by Phaedon Koukoules and published in 1907.
Vamvakou is 36 kilometers (22 miles) from Sparta and 210 kilometers (130 miles) from Athens. It was built in the fifteenth century at an altitude of 900 meters (2,953 feet) on the slopes of beautiful Mt. Parnon. It is the birthplace of the Coumantareas and Exarchos families, who played important roles as fighters in the War of Greek Independence.
It was also the home of shipping tycoon Ioannis Coumantareas, who lived from 1894 to 1981, and modern Greece’s great benefactor, shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos, who was born in 1909 and died in 1996.
The Rebirth of Vamvakou
Two years ago, five friends who hail from Vamvakou made the brave and life-changing decision to take on the revival of the village of their ancestors. Haris Vassilakos, Anargyros Verdilos, Eleni Mami, Tasos Markos and Panagiotis Soulimiotis then set up the “Vamvakou Revival” Social Cooperative Company.
Knowing that shipping tycoon Stavros Niarchos’ origins were in Vamvakou, they began by approaching the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) for support.
The Vamvakou project naturally has a tremendous symbolic and emotional significance for the Niarchos Foundation. SNF President Andreas Drakopoulos embraced the project immediately, and the foundation began providing support to the group.
The Vamvakou Revival team has worked tirelessly since its inception to systematically design and implement a five-year plan, aiming at the sustainable development of the village. The group also is even planning for the return of former residents, and offering incentives to new people to move to Vamvakou and begin a new life there.
The main relocation incentives will be the creation of new job positions and the assurance of modern living conditions in the picturesque village. The ultimate goal is that in a few years, young people and families with children will move to Vamvakou, and the school which was shut down in 2008 can reopen.
“One of the reasons for the crisis in the economy, society and values Greece is facing is the detachment from our roots. We have forgotten where we started, our origins, and left the village to its fate… Our aim is to make Vamvakou an example to be followed, a model for the rest of the country,” the group says.
“When the school bell rings in the village again, that’s when we can talk about a new Vamvakou and a revival plan with a measurable result! Until then, we must work, work, work.” the group members added.
The first steps for the rebirth of Vamvakou are in the process of being realized, taking advantage of the natural wealth of Mount Parnon. The team is preparing to welcome the first visitors to the village this summer. They are already organizing outdoor activities such as trekking, cycling, guided tours, and free creative activities for children, offering visitors, young people or initiates a complete sports experience and recreation.
At the same time, the groundwork for the operation of a restaurant-cafe and a traditional guesthouse is well underway.
A community of former Vamvakou residents in Bangor, Maine, U.S.A.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century dozens of thousands of Greeks emigrated to the United States to escape the poverty of their homeland and build a better life for their families. Vamvakou residents were no exception.
In the historical study “The Greeks of Bangor, Maine,” writer Paul Smitherman, a member of the Bangor Greek Orthodox community, traces Vamvakou immigrants who arrived in the last decade of the 19th century until the early 1920s, when immigration was severely curtailed.
Smitherman points out that the failure of the currant market in the Peloponnese was the main reason people from the region left to seek a better life in America.
According to the study, George N. Brountas was Bangor’s very first Greek immigrant. He was born in Vamvakou and emigrated to Boston in 1892, then moved on to Bangor in 1897. He made his living in his first few years in Bangor by selling fruit from a pushcart.
He was known to push his cart thirty miles each day, but his hard work and his pleasant personality made him a popular figure around town. In 1906, he invited his sister, Georgia, and her fiance Harry Servetis, to immigrate from Vamvakou and join him in Bangor.
In 1907, Brountas opened a candy store with the money he had saved, and the store soon turned into The Brountas Restaurant. By that time, so many more Greeks from the Peloponnese village had arrived in town that in the Boston area, Bangor was known as “Little Vamvakou.”
People from other parts of Greece began arriving in the area as well, starting up businesses and establishing a strong Greek community. Smitherman lists the some of the family names and the businesses owned by Greeks.
The Aloupis, Brountas, Chiaparas, Mourkas-Kesaris, Skoufis, Vafiades, Vomvoris and Zoidis families owned restaurants. The Brountases and Repas families had confectionery shops and restaurants, the Haliotises were produce wholesalers, and Mr. Predaris was a shoe shop owner. The Limberis family owned and operated a movie theater, and the Skoufis family owned a variety store.
In 1926, area Greeks established the St. George Eastern Orthodox Community of Bangor, and construction was completed on St. George Orthodox Church on Sanford Street in 1930. The church continues to hold services to this day, and its congregants are not only the descendants of the very first Greeks from Vamvakou and elsewhere, but immigrants from other Orthodox nations and American converts to Orthodoxy.
One of the church’s treasures is a black and white photo of a group of Vamvakou immigrants and second-generation Greek-Americans on a trip they made back to the old home village in the late 1940’s. The names are handwritten on the back of the photo, and among them there is a “Nikos Niarkos,” who was possibly a member of the wider Niarchos family.
The pledge to make Vamvakou a prototype for the future
“The village was tested by history and was hit by immigration and the financial crisis. It is now asking for our own participation to write a new page,” the five friends of the “Vamvakou Revival” team say.
SNF President Andreas Drakopoulos is backing the group all the way, but he wants to take it a step even further. “The Vamvakou Revival is a very ambitious project which, we believe, it is a collective need today, perhaps more than ever, to return to our roots with respect and hope.
“Our roots happen to be in Vamvakou, as it is the village from where my sister hails as well as our Founder, Stavros Niarchos. Respecting its tradition and history, we are hoping that life will return to Vamvakou and a model village will develop, opening a new path with the expectation that other similar towns will follow in Greece.”