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We Renovated a Historic Defensive Tower in Greece – Meet the Owners

Architect couple, Kostas Zouvelos and Kassiani Theodorakakou own Tainaron Blue Retreat, an award-winning conversion of a 19th century defensive tower on the Mani peninsula in Greece. Sensitively transforming the property over a period of 5 years from stone ruins into an authentic yet luxurious boutique guesthouse was a passion project for them both. They have now set their sights on converting a large adjacent ruin so they can expand their accommodation offering to the explorers of this unspoilt region of Greece.
We spoke to Kostas and Kassiani about their historic tower. 
When did you purchase your tower?
 In 1994 when we were on holiday visiting the area. We saw a 'For Sale' sign and a contact number, on what was then a derelict ruin, and immediately decided to buy it although we only actually chose what to do with it once we'd completed the purchase. 
How would you describe the tower now? 
 Tainaron Blue Retreat is a defensive tower built in the early 1800s with sweeping views of the Mani Peninsula in the Peloponnese region of South West Greece – towers like ours are synonymous with the area. We operate it as a boutique guesthouse and it's been renovated to a very high standard (including infinity swimming pool) whilst still very much maintaining the architectural features of the property.
When did you open the tower to paying guests? 
 After purchasing the tower we didn't actually do anything with it for a number of years. Once we started the restoration it took approximately 5 years of gradual work and then we opened to guests in 2015.
How many towers or projects did you view before this one?
 We weren't actively looking for a property so this really was something we saw, fell in love with and purchased.
How much work was required on the tower? 
 A lot! As architects we were happy to take on a big project and because it was not a main residence with a pre-agreed moving-in date, we were able to work on it to our own timetable ensuring that the integrity of the architecture and the authenticity of the finish were not compromised. The tower was crumbling when we first saw it – half of the upper floor was missing – so we had to rebuild part of it before even beginning the rest of the restoration. Internally we kept the integrity of the original structure – which consists of a 25 sqm footprint and a room on each level. The stone walls were refurbished but then left exposed for guests to admire, essential facilities such as bathrooms were added, electricity was installed and to provide extra sleeping space we included a mezzanine level in the bedroom on the top floor. Externally we landscaped (including planting olive trees which are over 100 years old and provide shade for guests) and, most obviously, installed an infinity swimming pool with breathtaking views of the sea and surrounding landscape.

Did you encounter any significant problems with the project? 

 Although it was a large project, nothing particularly unexpected – we are architects though so perhaps we went into it with our eyes more open than other buyers of similar projects. Whilst some of the locals did joke about the lengths to which we were going in order to restore the tower (the couple took three attempts to find the right external mortar to make the tower look like it had always been that way), we knew that we wanted to restore it properly as our desire was to offer our guests an authentic stay in the Mani and give them a sense of how people used to live. The unspoiled landscape in this area – partly due to the road here only being built in 1978 – helps with that feeling of being in a timeless location. Next to the tower is a rocky path which, until the road was built, was used by locals to access the rest of the area. For hundreds of years that was their way to communicate with the Mani peninsula.

Your tower is very much a small castle. What are the defensive elements of the property?

 The area was essentially independent from Greece during its Ottoman occupation and much of the architecture in the region was based on defence of family units – from others in the peninsula – rather than protection from large invading/attacking forces. Indeed the many small settlements along the coast in the region reflect the self-contained nature of these family units. Historically each family unit tended to construct a few buildings for their own use e.g a tower, olive press and place of worship rather than there being many larger congregations of people in towns or villages.

The towers therefore were constructed with numerous defensive qualities so that if necessary the family could retreat to the building and protect themselves. Small external doors were commonplace in these towers (and we have kept ours) to force any intruders to stoop and slowly enter – making them vulnerable to the pouring of hot oil or hot water from above. Small strategically placed window openings could be used for protection when shooting and due to the prominent position of the tower on the landscape, were excellent for lookouts – to survey for potential dangers. In order to support the upper floors, and because the area is seismically fragile, the tower was built with very thick stone walls (1.5m on the ground floor) to ensure it was structurally strong. This had the added benefit of making the tower naturally resistant to attack. If an intruder did gain entry to the building, wooden ladders between the ground and first floor were retractable so that any inhabitants still inside could safely retreat up through the floors. Trap doors also exist between levels to shut off each one once the ladder is retracted.

Would you ever take on another project like this? 

Certainly, in fact we have already started the process. A guest house with three rooms is a hobby rather than a profession so we know that to be able to expand we will try for something even better and that entails renovating the large property on the hill just above Tainaron Blue Retreat. That property is in much the same state of disrepair as the tower was when we first saw it. We will renovate the main part of that building for use by all guests and then convert the adjoining smaller buildings into separate bedrooms to provide guests with the privacy they need.

 CLICK HERE for the Tainaron Blue Retreat website

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