Kastoria, Her Northern Majesty
Kastoria is a city of unique beauty that nature has gifted with everything generously. Amphitheatrically structured, built on the neck of the peninsula that penetrates into the waters of the lake, encircled by the Vitsi and Grammos mountains, the city offers postcard-like images all year long.
Kastoria has an ongoing human presence ever since 5000 BC, while the modern city was founded by Emperor Justinian and probably took its name because it was built as a castle (“kastro” in Greek). From 927 until 1912 (when it was liberated during the Balkan wars), the city fell consecutively into the hands of the Normans, Albanians, Bulgarians and Ottomans, thus acquiring a multicultural character. Today, the city’s population is about 17,000.
The lake of Kastoria (or Lake Orestiada) is the jewel of the city and is a reference point for all activities and discussions on a daily basis. At an altitude of 620 meters above sea level and with a total area of about 28 km2 comes eighth on the list of the largest lakes in Greece. Its maximum depth however does not exceed 9 meters.
This lake is a unique ecosystem (protected by the European Network NATURA 2000), hosting 33 species of fish and a variety of birds such as cranes, pelicans, storks, and of course the city's symbol, the swan.
Almost every winter the lake freezes for about two weeks -a fantastic spectacle that you shouldn’t miss- while during spring it’s not entirely unlikely for a flock of enchanting flamingos to stop here for a few days rest. It is estimated that the lake was created 10 million years ago and today its waters are renewed by 9 streams that flow into it.
A trip in the city
Entering to the city and along the Kiknon avenue, the visitor will meet the Environmental Center (which hosts the city’s Aquarium), furs on display, a host of shops, restaurants, a shopping center and the Olympic Flame Park, where entertainment events take place throughout the year in the amphitheater or around the fountain.
Following the road along the south bank one will find taverns, coffee shops and bars. Nothing compares to having a coffee, drink or meal beside the lake! Continuing our stroll beyond the "Stavros" area, one of the most beautiful parts of the city, the picturesque "Doltso", emerges. Paved alleys, elaborate classical mansions and stone-built houses adorned with all sorts of flowers create the feeling of a journey back in time.
Doltso is one of the traditional districts of Kastoria and is essentially part of the old city. Around the bushes and trees of the square, there are many mansions and Byzantine temples, as well as four museums: Delinanio, the Folklore Museum (with a representation of an old fur workshop), the Costume Museum where you can admire traditional costumes, embroideries and jewelry of Kastoria, and the Macedonian Struggle Museum to see historical documents and reminders of that heroic period.
Directly opposite the Macedonian Struggle Museum, the view is dominated by the Orologopoulos Mansion which welcomes you as a wonderful boutique hotel and is an excellent choice for your stay in Kastoria.
We continue on our way towards the Hospital to make the small round of the lake (or as the locals call it, "girolimnia"). It is a 6km long lakeside path and is probably the best way to enjoy the scenery and the natural environment of Kastoria.
On the way you will find the Dragon’s Cave with its seven underground lakes, as well as the monastery of Panagia Mavriotissa with the evergreen plane tree. Reaching the end of the journey, we find the settlement of the old Jewish community that was an integral part of the religious history of Kastoria.
The northern entrance of the city leads us to "Apozari", the second traditional district of Kastoria. Wonderful mansions, restaurants, and of course the Nautical Hall which for decades has been the breeding ground for numerous rowers (today is also operating as a bar). Having the advantage of the lake has made rowing somewhat of a "brand sport" for Kastoria, and the Rowing clubs of Kastoria and Mavrochori are bringing many medals from European and world events (recent successes include wins by Christos Stergiakas) as well as participations in the Olympic Games (Yiannis Christou and Christina Yazitzidou).
From here, we can climb to the top of the peninsula, to Profitis Elias or even higher to Agios Thanassis for a coffee overlooking Kastoria. Along this route there is also the Mountain Theater, an open-air amphitheater where concerts and theatrical performances are held at times
What to see in Kastoria
Kastoria is not just the city. The Prefecture’s map is dotted with small and big villages worth visiting. To the north, Aposkepos with the stone springs and Sidirochori (where the film of Pantelis Voulgaris “Psyhi vathia” was filmed offer panoramic views of the city and the lake.
The Vitsi Mountain, where the last battles of the Civil War were given, lies on the border of the Prefecture with Florina. At an altitude of 2,126 meters above the ski center stands the Monument to the Civil War Fighters. On the west side of the mountain is Visinia, where the Mushroom Festival is hosted in the end of July, while in the foothills of the mountain spreads the plain of Vitsi where the famous Kastoria apples are grown. To the east of the plain are Polykarpi and Mavrochori (or Mavrovo), with the fish taverns on the coast, and further south Dispilio where the Neolithic Lake Settlement was found, closes the "big" lap of the lake.
From here we can move to the northeast, where at a distance of 20 km lies the martyr village of Kleisoura, or southeast for 10 km, where are the ruins of our other martyr village (Old Kostarazi). 20 km to the south-west is Nostimo with its 27 million years old fossil forest, while in the west expands the plain of Mesopotamia, where the famous beans of Kastoria are grown.
In the south, Grammos, the 4th tallest mountain in the country dominates all. With an altitude of 2,520 meters, is essentially part of the Pindos mountain range that runs through all of Western Greece. Aliakmonas (the longest river in the country) and Sarantaporos have their springs in Grammos. At an altitude of 1,740 meters you will find the alpine lakes Arrenes, where the famous "Drakolimni" with its Alpine newts is located.
Just like Vitsi, Grammos was a communist stronghold during the Civil War. Today you can visit the National Reconciliation Park which functions as a museum, while in a short distance is Pefkofyto with its waterfall. On your way to Grammos you will find Nestorio, famous for the offshoot of the E6 international mountaineering path and of course for the great music festival "River Party" (http://people.gr/riverparty/) which gathers more than 50,000 campers each summer.
Kastoria is a place that lives and breathes every season of the year. Whenever you visit it, you will live experiences that a typical tourist destination does not offer.
In the winter, Ragoutsaria (the local carnival) keeps the city awake for three days, while during the Apokriés, audiences are staying around the “boubounes” (big fires) with wine, traditional music and appetizers.
In spring the whole prefecture blooms and the plain with the apple trees gets a pale pink color. In Easter, the bells of about 80 churches scattered throughout the city, create a unique mystical sense.
In summer, rowing games, local feasts and music festivals will fill the your days and nights.
In the autumn, apple and bean feasts are abound, along with the "kazania", where people boil grapes and extract the “tsipouro”, as well as the great trade fair of Argos Orestiko. If you find yourself in Kastoria on November 11 (the day of the city’s liberation) do not forget to get to the south coast for the parade.
Kastoria is famous for the art of fur making. For decades fur has been the main occupation of the people, so the city is full of shops and workshops selling a huge range of products, from fur and leather jackets and coats to leather carpets and fur blankets. In the latest years, an extroversion effort is being made by opening fur shops around the world (New York, Dubai, etc).
A visitor shouldn’t leave Kastoria without tasting the traditional local dishes, red apples, local organic legumes, fresh fish and fine meats. Do not forget to buy tsipouro and wine, chestnuts and cheese during this trip.
How to visit
The city is about 2 hours away from Thessaloniki (via the Egnatia road) and similarly around 2 hours from the port of Igoumenitsa. There are direct flights from Athens to Kastoria Airport "Aristotelis" (ΚΑΚΤΑ), while there is a road link with Albania and Skopje. As for where to stay you are already in the right place…