A locally owned Copșa Mare?
Updated: May 8, 2022
This serious, forward-looking study in English and Romanian ( Română ) by The Sustainable Landscapes Group identifies two critical factors that are affecting the way rural Transylvania evolves over the next three decades: The balance EU and national policymakers choose between economic development and environmental sustainability, and the ability or otherwise of local people to take advantage of the opportunities that tourism and a growing demand for organic produce bring.
The study extrapolates present trends to construct four scenarios or imaginary pictures of villages like Copşa Mare in 30 years' time. "A key finding is that local communities will be better prepared for the future if they are strong and cohesive than if they suffer from a lack of involvement and corruption. Policies favouring economic development can lead to prosperity if local communities are strong - but could also result in foreign exploitation and poverty if local communities are weak."
If you wish to understand what we, at CopşaMare.Life, wish most strenuously to avoid, it is the 'our land, your wealth' scenario, an imagined future of a village like this in which income from agricultural land and tourism is in the hands, not of local people, but of foreigners.
In this dismal scenario, the community is fragmented, and the village reduced to a popular destination for tour operators and holiday makers. It has ceased to be a place where locals can afford to live and raise their children. There are a few old ladies in decorative straw hats, a surfeit of over-renovated 'traditional Saxon farmhouse' albergos, a fancy restaurant and even a 'wellness spa', all owned by foreigners. The guesthouses, like the village, are empty out of season. The magnificent Saxon fortified church, which lost its congregation fifty years earlier with the mass exodus of the German-speaking inhabitants, has been restored with gifts from abroad. Its magnificent bells ring out every 15 minutes, creating an impression of a religious life and purpose for the building. All the young are away in Germany and Spain, with no intention of returning, and much of the farmland around the village has been sold to land grabbers.
In short, the village has become an expensive, open-air museum, or a 'Club Sax' holiday village, a parody of the principles of sustainable tourism on which the excellent 'albergo diffuso' model - the 'scattered hotel' - is built.
Possibly the best example of this kind of bastardisation of the 'albergo diffuso' concept is Castiglion del Bosco, an 800-year-old Tuscan village acquired and up-cycled by the Italian fashion designer Massimo Ferragamo.
"My intention", says Ferragamo, "is to revive Tuscan history." Here is a write-up from Forbes magazine which gives you an idea of what revival means for Ferragamo: "Social life centres on two restaurants, one slightly formal and the other a perfectly relaxed alfresco osteria serving impeccable pasta pomodoro made with six kinds of tomatoes from the organic garden. Beyond that there's a pretty little spa, a Tom Weiskopf-designed golf course—the only private course in Italy, a well-curated boutique, a lovely swimming pool, several two- to five-bedroom villas in historic buildings and a cooking school. (There is even a medieval chapel.)"
A medieval chapel in a medieval village. Just fancy that! One wonders what other parts of Castiglion del Bosco have been put in brackets -its original inhabitants perhaps?
In its authentic version, the albergo diffuso is rather more modest and very much more inclusive. Pioneered by Giancarlo Dall’Ara in the 1980s, it has helped many dying villages escape depression and depopulation (or even transformation into the accessory of a Milanese fashion mogul, which some might consider a ghastlier fate).
Properly conceived, the ownership of the 'scattered hotel' should be scattered as well, among local people, with a central management providing the services of a conventional hotel. To overcome the inevitable shortage of capital and know how, the local commune or council leases the old properties from their owners for a period of 10 or more years, refurbishes them and rents them out to tourists. When the lease expires, the improved properties are returned to the owners. As Dall'Ara explains, "an albergo diffuso is not built from scratch. It is a neglected building which becomes part of a network after being refurbished. It operates as social protection, animating historical centres by stimulating initiatives and involving local producers as key elements in the offer".
We at CopsaMare.Life strive for the scenario the authors of the study call 'balance brings beauty', a future in which policymakers put environmental sustainability before simplistic economic growth, and in which local inhabitants are the owners of the businesses that supply and produce the goods and services popular with visiting tourists and other consumers.
Here is how the authors summarise the 'balance brings beauty' scenario: "Local people work together, and hence are able to capitalise on high national and international demand for organic agricultural products. Sustainable use of resources co-exists with intensified land use via modern organic farming methods. Vibrant cultural tourism and eco-tourism stabilise people’s incomes from the agricultural sector. Although few people are financially wealthy, economic and social inequalities are reduced, and community spirit is high. Cultural and natural capital is valued and actively maintained."
Only one or two types of tomato and no golf course, but a bewildering variety of butterflies, birds and wild flowers. And, we must hope, Fabian Cocoş's children, who may look forward to inheriting the prosperous market gardening business built up by their great grandparents, Marieta and Florin Cocoş in the 2020s.