Lakeside Charm of a Historic Fur Trade Centre

Despite centuries of regime change, the town boast dozens of Byzantine churches, many a fine 3-floor mansion and Europe's oldest lakeside settlement nearby.

By Diana Farr Louis

Before I set out for Kastoria, one or two old-timer friends shook their heads knowingly and said, "poh, poh, the city's ruined. Nothing but cement wherever you look, and cars… The locals wouldn't walk two blocks if their lives depended on it." Now that I've been there, I beg to differ. This town on a lake in western Macedonia may not be the Venice of the North, but it certainly ranks as one of Greece's most delightful small cities, on par with Nafplio, Corfu, Xanthi and Ermoupolis.

Glimpsed from afar, it could be an artist's rendition of a dreamscape: a gently undulating peninsula, studded with white facades, red roofs and bursts of dark green trees, afloat in shimmering water, with ducks and grebes bobbing in the foreground. The set-ting could hardly be improved upon, and the lake's changing moods infuse Kastoria with a light, open quality unusual in the interior. At this distance, you can almost imagine the sight that greeted the first settlers; a tribe called Orestes, said to have descended from Agamemnon's vengeful son. In their honour, the lake is still called Orestiada. Though they named their own town Keletron, the word Kastoria most probably derives from the lake's even earlier inhabitants, the beavers, or kastores, whose pelts were to launch Kastorians in a profession that would make them rich and famous.

Living in such a cold climate, the locals must have wrapped themselves in fur from the start, but by the 15th century they started to specialize in stitching scraps together into apparently seamless coats and capes. As whole pelts became scarce, it was this talent, which is not practiced in other fur-producing areas, that won them renown and customers first from Vienna to Stockholm, later New York, but always Moscow. The Russian connection is obvious for miles outside town. Signs in Cyrillic direct salesmen to the fur manufacturers, large hotels and exhibition rooms that line the main road. Fur sales tot he West-The US, Scandinavia and Germany -fell in the 1980's when political correctness took precedence over warmth, but in post-perestroika Russia there were no such objections. Sadly for Kastoria, the collapse of the rouble in 1998 put lots of the city's furriers out of work.

But I am getting ahead of myself. By Justinian's time, Kastoria was a jewel in the Byzantine crown, and you can still see sections of the wall he had built to defend it - near the Town Hall. And the stadium - from Slavs pressing southwards. Later invaders toppled the walls, and Kastoria changed hands quickly as a hot potato, as Bulgarians, Normans, Serbs and Albanians challenged Byzantine's rule. In 1385, all competition ceased when the Turks took over what they called Sach Giol or 'Royal Lake'; they stayed in charge until 1912.

Despite centuries of strife and repeated regime change, Kastoria prospered. And its citizens engaged in another of their favorite pastimes: building churches. Depending on which guide-book you read this town of only 18,000 inhabitants' boasts 70 to 80 Byzantine and post-Byzantine churches. Most of them are small, erected as private chapels by prominent families, neighborhoods or guilds, and they are scattered throughout the town, like raisins in a loaf, sometime 4 or 5 on a single street.

What is shocking is that only five of them are visitable. The rest are firmly locked and in dire need of restoration, according to our guide from the Byzantine Museum. The museum itself, near the highest point in town, is another scandal. It houses one of the world's finest collection of icons, comparable with those of Mount Athos and St. Catherine's monastery in \Sinai, and yet only 37 of the 500 in its possession are on display. As our guide said, "there are just no funds for conservation, for the icons, the churches, or even for this building," which is rundown and badly lit, with paint flapping from the walls. "Promises are made every election year, but no money ever comes our way."

Nevertheless, the icons and altar doors radiate from their drab prison and each of the five churches, within 30 minute walk, conceals something unique behind their intricate brickwork. The Panayia Kombelidiki, recognizable by its tall priest's-hat dome, has a fresco above the door of Salome dancing as she balances the platter with St. John the Baptist's head on her own; the Taxiarchis contains the tombs of Macedonian freedom fighter Pavlos Melas and his wife Natalia, while Agios Athanasios, only recently open to the public, is covered with frescoes of the saints wearing elaborate headgear instead of halos.

Even more noticeable than the churches is Kastoria's distinctive architecture. And here again you mourn the lack of funds for restoration. The three story mansion representing hundreds of orders for furcoats and fine jewelry (another Kastorian talent) stands every conceivable state of repair. In the saddest cases, only the thick stone walls of the ground floor remain intact, a receptacle for the wooden beams, hayiatia (enclosed protruding balconies)), plaster and stained glass that have collapsed into them. Other have clearly been abandoned for blocks of fiats, while many that are still occupied cannot be pleasant to live in. No doubt this is what those old timers back in Athens were tu-tutting about.

However, enough masterpieces exist in mint or semi-mint condition to spellbind and utterly charm the visitor. They are concentrated in two neighborhoods, Apozari on the north shore, and Doltso, from the top of the hill down to the lake on the south shore. Doltso, a Vlach word akin to dolce, like it means sweet, and life here must have been sweet indeed one or two centuries ago when the world was clamoring for Kastoria's furs.

Many of the houses near the lake have lawns and gardens, from which roses tumbled in June. As we walked up and down the cobbled streets, littered only by the occasional tuft of fur, we stopped to watch a man in his garden staple together rectangular scraps of mink onto a large plywood boards, as though he were designing a jigsaw puzzle. He told us it might take a good worker only one day to stitch these hundreds of little pieces together into strips with invisible threads into a luxurious coat. Despite the depressed market, the furriers are still hard at work. Peer into a window, and in all probability you'll see a row of sewing machines and men bent over pelts of fur late into the evening. Our new friend invited us to have a look at his house when his wife returned; we lingered but eventually ambled away, not wishing to impose.

Also in Doltso, a few hundred meters from the lake, the Aivazi mansion has been restored as an engaging folklore museum - and satisfies a voyeur's curiosity about what transpires behind those intriguing walls. With Eftyhios Ballis guiding you through every nook and cranny, you come away with a good sense of what Kastoria home life could have been like up to 60 years ago. First of all, you could have fished off the balcony - the lake was higher then - and paddled out into it in your kravi, a gondola-like craft. In winter you would have sat next to the beautiful molded fireplace, sun shining through 17th century stained glass and casting rainbows over the intricate paintings on the paneled walls opposite. If a prospective suitor happened to call, you could have inspected him from behind a screened peephole, and given the word to serve him sugarless coffee if he didn't meet your approval, sweet coffee and tsipouro if you'd decided to accept his attentions. Has Ballis had any state help in maintaining this showplace? The old man laughed. "The state doesn't give me a cent, but they always bring VIPs to admire it."

Another, unexpected, attraction of Kastoria is how much of the peninsula is unbuilt. As abruptly as Dolto's lakeshore tavernas, homes and playgrounds end, thick forest starts, interrupted very infrequently by a chapel. The drive lazes around the coast, past fishermen and women (even at night, in the rain), joggers, kids on bikes and in strollers. How many Greek cities have the restraint and good sense to leave their greenery intact? They have also cleaned up the lake; Ballis said the water was drinkable, not just a sanctuary for dozens of bird species.

Easing the transition between 'country' and city on the north side of the peninsula is a Kastoria landmark, the brilliant white monastery of Panayia tis Mavriotissas and the church of Agios Ioannis o Theologos. More than the grisly depictions of the Last Judgement in the latter's frescoes. I suspect the main allure is sitting in the pleasant lakeside café next door under the huge plane trees and watching the pelicans whirls overhead.

Yes, there is too much cement in the centre of town just minutes away, where traffic comes to a standstill, especially on market day. Yes, more could be done to restore the city's precious icons, churches and houses, but for the moment Kastoria remains the pearl of Macedonia.

Dispilio's ancient huts
Don't leave Kastoria without visiting the ancient site and small museum at Dispilio, at the southern edge of the lake. You will find no temple foundations or marble columns, but rather clay huts, reed roofs and dugout canoes. This was the site of the oldest lake settlement yet discovered around 5500 BC, some 3,000 hunters and fishers and their families lived here on platforms built on chestnut poles sunk into the mud. The poles, which had not rotted in all those millennia, showed up first in 1932, when the water level receded during a great drought, and again in 1965. But excavations only began in 1992. Form the sludge, archaeologist managed to reconstruct an idea of the village, which stretched 4.5 km, and have built a few model dwellings on the basis of their finds. One, with an animal skull above the door, represents the shaman's hut. The settlers were resourceful, fishing with obsidian spearheads and bone hooks, nets made of animal gut, and reed traps. They also had devised a form of writing that looks a bit like Linear A and played tunes on a flute made of a bird's bone - very advanced for their time. They were Pygmy height (1,30m), had a life expectancy of 25 to 30 year, and after a couple of thousands of year they burned their village and moved on. They left no trace . Visitable since April 2000, their reconstructed homes are surely unique among Greece's antiquities. Kastoria does have an airport but we drove there via Lamia, Kardista, Kalambaka and Grevena in about 5 hours plus a stop for a picnic in the beautiful hills before Grevena.

Where to stay
We stayed at the very comfortable B-class 'Kastoria Hotel' , on the north shore peninsula near the yacht club, Tel 24670 29453. Other hotels that come highly recommended are Archontiko tis Venetoulas; B class, 8 rooms in a restored pre-second-world-war house in the Doltso district, Tel 24670 22446; and the new 'Kastor' , at the entrance to town, 36 rooms with views and a lounge with fireplace, Tel 24670 82521/3.

The locals like to eat grilled meat at 'To Tzaki' and 'To Hayiati' in the green village of Ambelokipi, west of town off the road to Kozani. But there are plenty of delightful tavernas along the lakeshore drive. We tried Krondiri, on the south side near Doltso, dining on snail casserole, mushroom soufflé and baked apple, which are only some of their local specialties. The wine is invariably good red Amynteo.

The Byzantine Museum, at Dexameni Sq. near the old Xenia hotel, is open from 8:30am to 3pm. Closed on Mondays and Holidays, Tel 2467 26781. The Dispilio site is open daily from 9am to 1pm.

(Posted originally April 2005; reformatted February 2007)

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