Kastoria is a lakeside town in West Macedonia which prospered with the fur trade and today has some handsome mansions, museums and many Byzantine churches.
Visitors to the Greek islands and the mainland holiday resorts may feel they are seeing the most beautiful parts of the country, but the more adventurous travellers who find themselves in towns such as Kastoria may disagree.
It has a magnificent location around a headland that juts into Lake Kastoria, though in typical Greek fashion this also has an alternative name: Lake Orestiada. There are cobbled streets and hidden alleyways, and the geography of the town, with water surrounding it and almost turning it into an island, means that it is very easy to get lost or disorientated.
Getting lost is no bad thing as some of the town’s best features are hidden away, like its numerous Byzantine churches. There are 54 of these, some of them over 1000 years old, such as the 9th century church of Taxiarkhes tís Mitropoleos, which is the oldest in the town. It has some good frescoes, added over the centuries, while in the 10th century church of Agios Stefanos there is an unusual women’s gallery.
Most of the churches are normally locked and to see inside them you will either have to be lucky and be there when there is a service or they are being cleaned, or track down the keys normally held at the Byzantine Museum.
The Byzantine or Archaeological Museum
The Byzantine Museum is only small but is worth seeing as it has some beautifully detailed and coloured examples of icons from Kastoria’s churches. The museum is situated at the top of the town just off the main Platia Dexamenis, but if asking the way bear in mind that many local people refer to it as the Archaeological Museum.
The Folklore Museum
The town also has a Folklore Museum that merits a longer visit, not least for the building that houses it, the Aïvazi Mansion. This is a 17th-century mansion which was lived in until 1972 when it was converted into this fine museum containing household items, costumes, agricultural implements and a restored kitchen and wine cellar. There are also good displays on the fur trade to which Kastoria owed its former wealth.
The very name of the town comes from the Greek word for beavers, kastoria, and it was their fine fur which made Kastoria the centre of the Greek fur trade from the 17th century onwards. Even though these had sadly been hunted to extinction by the 19th century, the furriers continued to import fur, and still do so today. Scraps and offcuts come in from various countries and are turned into coats, gloves, hats and other items which you will see for sale in some of the shops, although a lot of the material is immediately re-exported.
The wealth that was created over the centuries resulted in some very handsome mansions being built, and in addition to seeing inside the one that is now the Folklore Museum, there are other impressive examples around the town, which can be viewed from outside.
Several of these are located in the streets within the vicinity of the Folklore Museum. Look for the Skoutari, Natzi, Basara and Immanouil mansions. They are typically built of stone on the ground floor but with more elaborate upper floors with wooden balconies, sgraffito plasterwork and occasionally stained glass in the windows. The living quarters are on these upper floors, the ground floor being used for storage, as you will see in the Folklore Museum.
If you take a stroll along the lakeshore, which is a very pleasant walk especially in the spring or autumn when the many trees are at their best, you will see the unusually-shaped local boats tied up at the water’s edge. The lake’s waters are rather polluted, but nevertheless still harbour some wildlife, such as frogs and terrapins.
A walk all the way round the headland would take you past another of the town’s attractions, the Monastery of Mavriotíssa. It is no longer a working monastery, only two churches remaining, but these date back to the 11th and the 14th centuries and have well-preserved frescoes that are worth seeking out.