Kastoria. City of bears and Byzantine churches

The road signs along the side of the highway are obvious. The warning signs show a large mother bear with a small one behind her. There are also signs with the text ‘Prosogi perasma arkoudhas’ (‘watch out, bears are walking here’). Now I also finally understand the metal fences that we have seen for miles on both sides of the highway.

Bears on the road.
In the afternoon, we left the airport of Thessaloniki with a rental car, on our way to Kastoria. This city is located 200 kilometers from Thessaloniki, in the northwestern tip of the Macedonia region, not far from the border triangle Greece-Albania-Macedonia.
I’ve never been this far northwest in Greece before. The first hundred kilometers of our journey are still known. A few years ago, I visited the places Naoussa, Vergina and Pella. For the natural beauty, for the archaeological finds from the time of Alexander the Great and for the fantastic Xinomavro wines.

But the last 100 kilometers are new to me. At first I was surprised when I saw those high fences. But now that I see the warning signs with the image of the bears, I understand.
Brown bears still live in this region. Today there are only a few hundred. They usually hide in the forests of the wild mountains of this northwestern corner of the country. But regularly they come close to the villages and towns. This usually happens at the end of winter, when they get hungry and descend from the snowy slopes to lower areas.
Bears are also regularly seen in Kastoria, a city at an altitude of 700 meters at the foot of high mountains. As recently as February 2017, a young bear appeared on the frozen lake near the town, probably looking for fish. And on the idyllic road that goes all the way around the lake, and is a popular walking route for the townspeople, two cubs were spotted a year later.

Faded glory for the fur industry.
When we enter the city at dusk after the three-hour drive, the first thing we notice are the large factory buildings on both sides of the road. Huge warehouses with large parking spaces in front. Meters high billboards with photos of stunning fashion models dressed in fur coats and fur hats draw attention to the shops of Avanti Furs, Mario Furs, Casiani, Polis Furs and Gliagias Furs. The city of Kastoria is the centre of the Greek fur industry, which becomes clear even before you reach the center.

The hotel where we are going to stay this week turns out to be on the edge of town, right on the lake. From our balcony on the 4th floor we have a beautiful view of the lake and the old town center across the bay. But then the sun goes down and we see only the lights of the city and the dark shadows of the high mountains beyond. The hotel receptionist recommends ‘Tavérna To Stéki tis Paréas‘, within walking distance of the hotel. An hour later we are drinking wine and enjoying traditional regional dishes.

The next morning we really see how beautiful it is here. The city is opposite us, built against the hills surrounding Lake Orestiada. Behind the hills we see the 2000 meter high peaks of the Verno (or Vitsi) mountains and to our left – on the west side – the foothills of the wild Grammos mountains can been seen.

That afternoon I drink coffee on a terrace right on the lake, where I strike up a conversation with the waiter. Vangelis started working in the hospitality industry, he says, because he lost his job in one of those big fur shops a few years ago. “The fur industry is in a state of complete collapse. There is nothing left of the thriving fur trade for which we have become so famous. Nothing,” he says.

For centuries, Kastoria was the fur city of Greece, and far beyond. Fur was already traded here in Byzantine times and sewing workshops made garments out of it, often for the Byzantine emperors and their court. The city was also a famous merchant city in the Ottoman period. The inhabitants made coats and hats from the skins of wolves, ferrets, beavers and squirrels from the region, or furs were imported from Russia.
In later times, in the early 20th century, much fur was imported from the United States. This mainly concerned the waste of the American fur industry, no more than shreds, which were bought up by the emigrated Kastorians and shipped to their homeland. Gradually, the employees of the sewing workshops became more and more professional at making jackets from these scraps, a sport that is still the specialty of this city to this day.
“In its heyday, there were about 6,000 companies in and around Kastoria, with a total of more than 15,000 employees”, Vangelis says. “Especially in the 1970s and 1980s, this was one of the richest cities in Greece! After that it went downhill. People no longer wanted to wear fur, only the Russians and people from other Eastern European countries still came here.” He looks at me sadly. “And now, now they don’t even come anymore. Kastoria is over.” I ask him about all those huge factories and big shops. “Do you see customers there? Have you seen any cars or coaches parked there, in those huge parking lots? Almost all of those buildings have been closed, the owners have gone bankrupt and the buildings have now been sold off”.

City of a hundred churches.
Of course I didn’t come here for the fur. There is something else special about this city: its Byzantine art treasures. The wealthy fur traders built beautiful large mansions in the past centuries, so-called archontika. Many families also founded their own church next to the house, with beautiful wood carvings and frescoes with images of saints.

On the second day of my stay I visit the Byzantine Museum on the Platía Dexamenis. Apart from two Greek couples, there are no other visitors, so I pretty much have the collection of ancient icons to myself. From the museum I then explore the streets of the Doltso neighborhood. There are dozens of churches in this district with its small winding streets. Some have been beautifully renovated, others are unfortunately poorly maintained.

When I admire the little church called Panagia Koumpelidiki from a distance, a man suddenly approaches with a huge bunch of keys. je is joined by four Greeks, the two couples I just saw in the museum. I hear that the key man tells something about the particularities of this church, and that it is normally always locked. He opens the door of the church with one of the many keys and the five of them enter. I quickly walk over and ask if I can go inside. The man makes an inviting gesture: “Yes, of course. I work at the Byzantine Museum, have all the keys to all the churches in this city, and will show you the most beautiful items..”

What an opportunity! The man explaines that a lot of these churches used to be private chapels of wealthy families, mostly fur traders. This Koumpelidiki church, dedicated to Mary, dates from the 9th century and still has beautiful frescoes. One of the men says that he is an art historian himself, specializing in early Byzantine art and that he works at the university in Thessaloniki. “For many Greeks, Kastoria is one of the most beautiful cities in the country, also known as ’the city of 100 churches’,” he tells me. “I am always surprised to see how few foreign tourists come here”.

After visiting this beautiful church, the key man leads us through the narrow streets to the Taxiarches church. When our eyes are used to the dark space inside, we see the beautiful frescoes on the walls and ceiling. “This church dates back to the 9th century, it is one of the oldest still intact. It is dedicated to the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. Some frescoes date from the early period, the 9th century, so they are more than 1000 years old!” the enthusiastic museum employee explains.

The rest of the afternoon I wander alone for hours through the old quarters of Doltso and Apozari. Every few meters I come across a beautiful mansion or church. An at the end of the afternoon I settle down again on the terrace at Vangelis for a glass of wine.
He brings me a bowl of fresh figs. “Look, picked over there, by that tree”. A tortoise strolls through the grass next to me. Then I see a fish jump out of the water, only to immediately disappear into the depths again, and than the sun sinks behind the mountains.

More information:

The Byzantine Museum in Kastoria is located in the centre, on Platia Dexamenis.
See for opening hours and temporary exhibitions: http://www.bmk.gr/en/

Taverna To Stéki Tis Paréas is not in the old town, but in the southwest part of the city, at the lake, at Ipolochagou Diakou 10.