During the first season of the smash-hit HBO fantasy drama, Game of Thrones, Tyrion Lannister – the show’s cunning dwarf and politicking main protagonist – can be seen surveying a stunning landscape of floating rock pillars in a cloud-covered valley, as he ponders escape from his mountain-side cell.
Fans would be forgiven for thinking that this breath-taking backdrop was computer generated, but what we actually see through Tyrion’s eyes, is the real-life rock formations of Meteora.
This UNESCO-listed natural wonder is home to one of the world’s largest and most important complexes of orthodox monasteries, built atop natural sandstone in the Thessaly region of Greece. Already a place of pilgrimage for Christians, it has now become a special point of interest for Game of Thrones aficionados, and an increasing number of international tourists alike.
There’s no doubting that Game of Thrones – a programme renowned for its political wrangling as much as its spectacular cinematography – has helped put Thessaly on the map. But thankfully for Thessaly, beautiful scenery is where the similarities with the show begin and end.
In fact, besides the growing success of its tourism sector, the contemporary narrative of this region is one defined not by disharmony, but by ‘cohesion’ – in most part through a European Union initiative that aims to promote equal development between all domestic provinces of EU member states. Greece is one of the biggest recipients of funds from the EU cohesion policy, and Thessaly has benefited enormously from this.
Thessaly – a traditional geographic and modern administrative region in the north of the country – is today one of Greece’s most important districts, not just because the alluvial soils of the Pineios Basin make it a vital agricultural area, but also due to the strong leadership of a governor who has become a staunch advocate for decentralisation and regionalisation.
“Decentralisation is our motto”, says Kostas Agorastos, who currently serves as the Chairman of the Association of Greek Regions, as well as the Governor of Thessaly. “We strongly believe in this, and de-regionalisation. We have tried to [improve] the decentralisation of Greece, and we now have the opportunity, the strength, the tools, and the creativity to do that.”
Owing to Agorastas’ approach, which is heavily endorsed by his governing colleagues across the country, the Greek regions today profit from a relatively high level of autonomy, with the power to implement their own initiatives in a variety of sectors.
“This is my role”, says Agorastas. “To create jobs, and to create the opportunity for more projects in Greece. Projects in infrastructure, in health, in tourism, for the environment. Through the EU cohesion policy, we now have funds for that, and we have a lot of projects, but we need more. Each project creates more jobs and supports small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Greece.”
“I believe that the cohesion policy is the only way to save Europe and the European dream”, he proclaims boldly.
Fortunately, this is a view that is shared by the EU Regional Policy Commissioner, Corina Cretu, who on a recent visit to Thessaly declared that, although Greece continues to have one of the highest absorption rates of EU funds, “time is pressing, and the Greek real economy needs more investments”.
The Thessaly region currently has EU funding of about 2.7 billion euros, which can support approximately 2,500 SMEs. This is to be added to projects that the region already has scheduled for the next three years, with a value of more than 800 million euros.
While the governor has pushed forward several EU-funded projects of regional significance, within the energy, tourism, and infrastructure sectors; arguably the most significant of these has been the restoration of Lake Karla.
After being drained in 1962 to gain land for agriculture, Thessalians mourned the demise of their unique fishing culture on the 180-square kilometre lake; as well as the loss of a previously significant economic activity. For these reasons, and because agriculture was never successful in the saline soils of the former lake bed, the local population supported an ambitious project to bring Lake Karla back to life. Helping to restore the ecological balance in the area, and at the same time providing better drinking resources for residents, and a boost for local tourism. It has since become one of the most important environmental undertakings in Europe, and the biggest wetland restoration project in the wider Mediterranean.
“This is an example of the good practice of decentralisation and regionalisation, because the state [wouldn’t have been able to achieve] that”, explains Agorastos. “In 2014, we in Thessaly took up the opportunity, and the EU gave us the funds to restore the lake. Today, we have irrigation, we have water for a big city like Volos and the surrounding area, and we also have excursions from all over Greece and, we hope, from all over [the world].”
Alongside the rocks of Meteora, Lake Karla has become a totem of the region’s burgeoning tourism industry, which has experienced a 500 per cent increase in visitors, to its collection of ancient theatres, castles, and other natural and historical attractions, since 2011. It’s owing to this distinct cultural heritage that Thessaly has adopted the slogan “Handcrafted by Time”, to further promote the region in international markets.
“In Thessaly you can see everything”, enthuses the Governor. “You can swim, you climb a mountain, you can ski, and you can visit Meteora. Or, in just a few hours, you can visit the ancient theatre of Larissa or Volos. This is Thessaly.”
And this is precisely why, you’d imagine, that the production companies responsible for bringing the likes of Game of Thrones, keep coming back to Thessaly. In a characteristically forward-thinking, and innovatively-driven step to capitalise on the region’s natural potential, it is Agorastos that has commissioned the creation of a new film office, to ensure the cameras keep on rolling, and maintain Thessaly’s position in the spotlight.
“The Film Commission Office is our dream” he says. “It is the best advertisement for the region. We know that from the Mamma Mia film, and we know that from James Bond, which was also filmed in Meteora. The positive impact of this we cannot calculate. We have the places. And now we have the tool to attract even more films here.”