At the lake of Kastoria, now and then…

Our long travel tribute to Western and Central Macedonia begins now, and it begins at night! Departure from the center of Athens and the first destination is Kastoria!

In the first article of our travel tribute to Central and Western Macedonia we visit Kastoria, take a night walk in the city during which we meet wild animals, see the dawn on the lake, walk on its shores and the streets of the city where we find the old mansions, some of which house museums, visit the Kastoria Aquarium and drink coffee overlooking the lake and the geese. Then, we find ourselves in the Prehistoric Lakeside Settlement of Dispilio, where we have an interesting discussion with the very important professor of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and archaeologist Mr. Kostas Kotsakis.

Light sign at the entrance of the city

Kastoria is a city in the western tip of Western Macedonia, seat of the Municipality of Kastoria and capital of the Regional Unit of Kastoria. It borders the Prefectures of Ioannina, Kozani, Florina and Grevena, as well as Albania to the west. It is about 500 km from Athens and about 190 km from Thessaloniki.

The city of Kastoria is built amphitheatrically on the peninsula of Lake Orestiada, at an altitude of 620 m above sea level, between the mountains Vitsi and Grammos. The lake of Kastoria has been designated as a Monument of Natural Beauty, is part of the European Network “Natura 2000” and preserves rich fauna and flora.

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We arrived in Kastoria at 4.30 in the morning, in order to spend our whole day there. The first thing we saw, of course, was its large lake, on the surface of which the reflections of the night lights flickered. We left the car near the city center and started a night walk by the lake, heading east. We walked among the lush vegetation on one side and the lake on the other, and had the pleasure of getting to know the wildlife of the area. One of the first animals that welcomed us was a fox, which we managed to take photos and videos of!

A fox on the shores of Lake Orestiada!

On our way we found one of the most important sights of Kastoria, the Cave of the Dragon, which was closed at such a time, as it is logical. Its entrance, on the lakeside road, at a distance of 20 m from the lake, was built of stone, fully integrated in the natural landscape.

The closed entrance to the Cave of the Dragon

We searched some information on its website and read that its existence was probably unknown during the Turkish Occupation, since access was possible only through the lake. It was accidentally discovered by locals in the 1940s and the lakeside road was then opened. Later, in 1954, the Swedish explorer Linberg toured the cave and informed the local community about its rich morphology. However, only in 2009 did the cave open its gates to the public.

The cave extends over a route of 300 m with an impressive landscape of stalactites and stalagmites. It is the only cave in Greece with freshwater lakes, 7 small underground lakes. It has 10 halls, 3 bridges and 5 tunnels. We were very impressed by the descriptions and photos, but unfortunately the planning of the day would not allow us to return when it was open. A reason to come to Kastoria again!

The photos are the intellectual property of Eleni Alexiou (source)

We continued our route to the east, aiming to reach the Byzantine Holy Monastery of Panagia Mavriotissa, a monastery of the 11th century, of the time of Alexios I Komnenos, at a distance of 4 km from the city center. As we have learned, the monastery was named Mavriotissa from the opposite lakeside village of Mavrovo, today’s Mavrochori during the 17th century, since the inhabitants of the village maintained the monastery. It was originally called Panagia Mesonisiotissa and is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

The entrance to the Holy Monastery of Panagia Mavriotissa from the lakeside road of Kastoria

The reason for the construction of the monastery was the landing of the troops of Alexios I Komnenos in 1083 to successfully expel the Norman conquerors of Kastoria. Then, in all phases of the history of the city, the male monastery had a crucial role to play as a spiritual center. Apart from the beautiful monastery, in the city of Kastoria there are 74 temples which date from the 9th to the 14th century. This fact makes Kastoria a very remarkable destination for religious tourism.

On the inside building we see the exterior frescoes of the monastery, which date back to the 13th century.
The frescoes of the 13th century (source)
The outdoor area of the monastery with a stone fountain

Returning to the city center, we also met the geese of the lake. Although it was night they were awake and enjoying their swimming on the surface of the lake. From the beginning we found out that the geese were very familiar with people as they not only let us approach them but also posed for our photos!

With the geese of Lake Orestiada

Thus, the lively geese of the lake kept us company until dawn. The first rays of light made the lake shine with a deep blue color. We walked a little further on its shore and at the end we went up an alley in the direction of Doltso, a picturesque district of Kastoria.

In an informative sign we read that Doltso is the best preserved part of old Kastoria, with narrow cobbled streets, post-Byzantine churches and impressive Macedonian mansions. Dwelling in the district intensified after the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1385 and the displacement of Christian populations further east on the lake peninsula, outside the castle. This is the reason why only post-Byzantine and not Byzantine monuments survive. The existence and maintenance of the mansions, as we learn, is due to the fact that the inhabitants were engaged in fur-making and gained economic and social prosperity. With this information in mind, we took a first walk around the neighborhood.

Our first stop was the Pichionos Mansion, which houses the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle. It was still very early in the morning, so we read a few things about the museum in the city tour guide that we got later in the day. The Museum of the Macedonian Struggle, therefore, is dedicated to the history of Macedonian Hellenism in Kastoria. It is housed in a mansion of the 18th century which was the house of Anastasios Pichion, a traditional house of Macedonian architecture. The exhibits of the museum include relics of the descendants of Macedonian warriors, photographs from the early phase and the period of the Macedonian Struggle, costumes of Macedonian warriors and traditional Kastorian costumes.

From the virtual tour on the website of the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle in Kastoria (source)

Next to the Pichionos Mansion is the central square of the district, Emmanuel Brothers Square, which had just begun to be illuminated by the first light of day. As we learned from the information sign of the area, the traditional triangular square used to host shops. Today, cultural events are often held there. The name of the square and its monument honor the two Kastorian national martyrs, collaborators of Rigas Feraios.

We walked around the square and found the post-Byzantine Church of Agios Andreas Karivis. We had read about this temple that according to the tradition Saint Cosmas of Aetolia had preached there to the people of Kastoria. It is a monument of the 18th century, with some repairs of the 19th century.

Another building of traditional Macedonian architecture that impressed us was the Delinanios Folklore Museum of Kastorian Women, which we came across walking south of the square. About this museum we found that it houses a collection of traditional objects of daily use since 1977, under the care of the Ladies’ Association. The exhibits are objects that the old Kastorians kept in their chests either as heirlooms or as dowries, such as textiles, knits, clothes, underwear and photographs. Unfortunately, this museum was still closed too.

Doltso was beautiful, but we had already missed the morning tranquility of the lake. So, we returned to its shores and relaxed walking in the coolness of the early morning hours.

Small shop on the shores of the lake

As we walked, we saw a sign warning of the passage of an otter. The otter was an animal we did not know and so we were impressed. At Wikipedia we read that it is a nocturnal animal, a relative of the ferret, that lives and breeds in fresh water. Unfortunately we only saw it in photos, where it looked very sweet!

The otter (source)

In the rich ecosystem of the lake, in addition to the predominant geese and ducks, we saw that there are also herons, birds with long legs and beak, which as we read live in shallow water, near rivers, lakes, swamps, deltas and the sea. These together with the geese were our new Kastorian friends!

Heron on the shore of the lake of Kastoria
Goose of the lake of Kastoria gazes at the calm waters

A reasonable morning time had finally arrived and our program called for a visit to the Aquarium of Kastoria, since our article was decided to have the lake as its central axis. So we headed west. Shortly before we reached the Aquarium, we passed an ecological park, the Environmental Park of the Municipality of Kastoria. The park contained structures such as a farmhouse, a windmill, a stable for animals, an outdoor oven, a climbing rock etc. We thought that this park is a nice infrastructure for environmental education programs for children and not only.

The birds of the lake in graffiti in the ecological park
And who could not miss an educational park for children? Rupert of course!
Papatergiou Mansion, donated to the Technical Chamber of Greece in memory of Alexandros Papatergiou, near the Aquarium of Kastoria

Next to the Aquarium of Kastoria we saw the Environmental Education Center of Kastoria. On its website we found that it organizes many educational programs for children of different ages, seminars and workshops for adults, as well as that it has posted educational material related to its educational programs. Note that as we were informed from the website, the week we are going through, 16-22 September 2021, is the European Mobility Week, during which we move with environmentally friendly means.

The Environmental Education Center of Kastoria

And it’s time to finally get into the Aquarium! As we read in its brochure, the Aquarium of Kastoria Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is the largest freshwater aquarium in the Balkans. Its operation began in 2012 and was inaugurated by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, from whom it took its name. It hosts indigenous, endemic as well as a large number of foreign species of fish and other organisms that live in the lakes and rivers of Greece and the Balkans.

The Aquarium of Kastoria

At the Aquarium we were welcomed with joy and they gave us a very detailed tour. All the following rich and interesting information comes from this tour, for which we warmly thank Mr. Zenon. We also thank him for encouraging us to visit afterwards the Prehistoric Lakeside Settlement of Dispilio, the eco-museum of the city, where a very old writing was found, as he told us. Of course we followed his advice!

Mr. Zenon told us that most of the fish we will see exist in all lakes, but there are also unique cases. They bring water from a spring and regulate its temperature, depending on the fish.

The fish that impressed us the most was a prehistoric fish, the Sturgeon, one of the first to appear in the world, from which comes an expensive caviar. This fish also lived during the season when the fish were crawling, so it has low fins and a mouth below. We will see it in more detail later… Let the tour begin!

Representation of the Cave of the Dragon, one of the most important sights of the city
Simulation of the lake of Kastoria with Carp and turtles, but also bigger fish, Wels catfish of 1.5 meter each, which unfortunately are hidden, because they want darkness!
Aliakmonas river system, fish of the river which were fished by the people of the Aquarium themselves
Carp, one of the traditional fish of the lakes. A species of it, which comes from lake of Ioannina, is called Mirror, because it does not show scales all over the body.
Tench from the lake of Kastoria, one of the most resilient fish which lives in places with a low amount of oxygen. It can get itself pushed into the mud and stay there for 1-2 weeks.
The boat with the fisherman’s tools, which was also a means of transportation. Until the 1960s, this was the way of transportation with the opposite village, Mavrochori.
Eel of Amvrakikos and Kastoria. Eels have the peculiarity of giving birth in one place in the world. They leave Kastoria and go to Mexico, where all the eels of the world go. The little ones return to the same place from which the mother left. This is the eel cycle, our guide explained.
Moustakato, a fish that lives only in Macedonia.
Old photo with Wels catfish fishing in the lake, about 6 meters long. Wels catfish exceeds 5 meters, weighs 300 kilos and lives a century. It goes out for an hour at night to eat and is an omnivorous fish. It is a fatty fish, like Salmon. The myths about the lake monster in the old days came out from Wels catfish…
River Flathead mullet of Macedonia. Flathead mullets are found everywhere, in rivers, lakes and the sea.
Freshwater crayfish. Crayfish hide because they fight with each other.
Photo with the Monastery of Panagia Mavriotissa as it used to be and the lake before the lakeside road was built, with boats as a means of transportation.
Pumpkinseed, a fish that has unfortunately done a lot of damage to the lake. It is a newcomer species of North America and it is unknown how it was found in the lake of Kastoria. It eats the eggs from the other fish when they give birth and the small fish, while when it gives birth it makes a nest and keeps its eggs.
Koi Carp, an Asian species that the Chinese and Japanese have as a charm in the house. This is a very expensive fish.
Sturgeon, one of the first fish to appear in the world, which preceded the time when fish were crawling and had their fins low and their mouths below. As soon as it finds the food with its mustache, it pulls its mouth out a little and becomes like a broom, it sucks the food. It reaches 2 meters, 100 kilos and lives 60-80 years. The children are told that it is the Shark’s grandfather.
Nile tilapia, African fish. It is the best mother in fish, because as soon as the egg is fertilized by the male, the female sucks the eggs and keeps them in its mouth for 2 weeks. The fish come out of its mouth and then it gathers them again until they grow a little.
Far Eastern Shark, which does not exist in our lakes. It is omnivorous and reaches 2 meters.
Τhe “lady” of the lake, another strange fish, because its population is only female. It mates with other species of fish, all the males of the lake.
Representation of a hut and a boat from the Prehistoric Lakeside Settlement of Dispilio, which we will see in detail in our next visit.
Artistic photos of the lake

Another very interesting thing that our guide told us is that the lake of Kastoria freezes for a few days every winter. We would love to see this up close! He also told us that there are swans in the lake, but now they have given birth and the young are growing, so they do not approach people, as well as storks which leave on August 5.

The frozen lake of Kastoria, in a photo by Anastasia Liapi (source)

At the end of the tour we stood for a while in the reception area of the Aquarium and talked with its people. They told us about the sights of the city, many of which we had already seen. We were told that in Kastoria they have mainly winter tourism, especially at Christmas, since then, on January 6-8, they have their carnival. The festivities start before Christmas, with grilling, drinks, music with bronze instruments and endless fun in the city streets.

Ragoutsaria, the carnival of Kastoria (source)

We were also told that the top of Psallida Mountain is now called Alexander the Great, because on one side is carved the figure of Alexander the Great. We searched the internet for a while and found the following personal narration: When Alexander the Great passed through here, to go to Grammos, where there were mines that extracted silver, he stood for a while at the top of “Psallida”, to admire the wonderful view that stretched at his feet. And then, overwhelmed by the bigotry that distinguished him, he made his soldiers carve the rock that existed at the top of the mountain and give it his shape! “

The top of Psallida in a photo by Vassilis Konstantinou (source)

In closing, we asked about all the fur shops we saw closed on the streets. We were told that there used to be 2,500 handicrafts in the city. In the 1980s the fur industry was hit by ecology. Fur also went out of fashion in the West and the Russian market was saturated. After the collapse of the fur industry, the only hope of Kastoria was tourism, since it is not an agricultural or livestock area, apart from apple orchards in its villages. We wished tourism to rise more and more, thanked once again Mr. Zenon for the amount of knowledge he offered us and took the road back to the city center.

The brochures they gave us at the Aquarium!

On the way back we decided to make a stop for a coffee by the lake, since the landscape had enchanted us. At that time we also saw people rowing on the lake and we thought that Kastoria is also suitable for sports tourism!

While we were drinking our coffee, a goose came out of the lake and made us feel its presence!

Before getting in the car to head to Dispilio, the last stop of our visit to Kastoria, we took another short walk to Doltso to see some more mansions we had not come by before.

Skoutari Mansion, a traditional Macedonian mansion of the 18th century.
Basara Mansion, one of the oldest mansions in the city

One of the mansions, the Emmanuel Brothers Mansion of 1750, houses the city’s Costume Museum. The museum was unfortunately closed, but we read that traditional local costumes of men and women of the area are preserved inside. The costumes, along with the jewelry that accompanies them, reflect the way of life, the social stratification and the contacts of the inhabitants of the region with Europe and the rest of the world. The operation of the museum is due to the effort of the musicological association “ARMONIA”, which takes care of its enrichment and completion.

The Emmanuel Mansion, which houses the Costume Museum of Kastoria.
Inside the Costume Museum of Kastoria (source)

So we headed for our last destination, the Prehistoric Lakeside Settlement of Dispilio, at a distance of about 7.5 km from the city. Mrs. Sofia Tsolaki, historian-archaeologist and responsible for the information about the lakeside settlement, welcomed us in a friendly way. We warmly thank her for all the excellent knowledge she shared with us about a time so far away from us!

The place we were going to visit is an open-air museum, which was built in the late 1990s. It includes huts, in which one can see how a household was organized. There are even representations of people, to make it more alive. So let’s take a closer look!

The simulation of the Prehistoric Lakeside Settlement of Dispilio

Mrs. Tsolaki started by telling us that we would travel far back in time, to the Neolithic Age, from 5,800 BC to 3,000 BC in Dispilio, on the south shore of the lake of Kastoria. There was a lakeside settlement there, since the inhabitants were building houses on and next to the shallow waters of the lake. They were fishermen, farmers, stockbreeders and hunters, and they had a rich ecosystem around them.

Archaeologists know a lot about the settlement, because 200 meters beyond the eco-museum excavations have been made in which there are many findings. The area we would be touring is a simulation of part of the settlement, which was an entire community, that is estimated to have had thousands of inhabitants. The settlement was discovered in the 1930s, when the water of the lake had receded significantly.

The first element that appeared were pile ruins, which were once the foundations of houses. These prompted the late Professor Keramopoulos to make excavations. In 1966, the late Moutsopoulos, professor of architecture at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, did his own research. In 1992 the Aristotle University undertook systematic excavations, a research which is still ongoing. Leading archaeologist for many years was the late Chourmouziadis and now Mr. Kostas Kotsakis, professor of Prehistoric Archeology. In the excavation laboratory there are some of the original findings. There we later met Mr. Kotsakis and discussed in more detail about the excavation.

Photo of the excavation of the late Professor Moutsopoulos

Mrs. Tsolaki explained to us that inside the huts there are replicas of the excavation findings. Ruins were found from the houses, elements coming from the foundations, the walls, wood, clay. The wood was kept in the mud because it did not come in contact with oxygen. Traces of a boat have also been found, which was essentially a carved tree trunk.

A suggestion on how the inhabitants would build their houses step by step: wooden frame, wall made of branches and cladding made of clay
Representation of a prehistoric boat made from a tree trunk

The tools then were made of stone, bone, horn and clay. Digging tools have been found from the bones of cattle shoulders, which shows that prehistoric humans did not throw anything away. Fishermen made bone hooks. There were even clay weights for a loom. At that time people were also excellent at pottery. They took clay from the edge of the lake or from the surrounding hills.

They had begun to store their crops in large clay jars. The Neolithic man, Mrs. Tsolaki told us, was the first producer in history, as for the first time he cultivated the land, with wheat and barley, but also domesticated animals. Gradually man became self-sufficient, with a permanent place of work, the field, and a permanent place of residence. In fact, the exchanges had begun, as Obsidian shows us, a sharp stone, found in the excavations and originating from Milos and the Carpathian Mountains.

Another very important information that Mrs. Tsolaki gave us is that in the excavation, in the mud, a piece of wood has been preserved, a sign that dates back to around 5,200 BC. There are many carvings on the plate, which are repeated on vases. If we think that the Linear Scriptures A ‘and B’ belong to the 2nd millennium BC, the 6th millennium BC are too old to draw final conclusions. However, it seems like an attempt to communicate and archaeologists hope that at some point in the future they will be able to interpret it.

Boat-shaped utensils, ideal for cooking and offering fish, which we were told that a well-known cook had expressed the desire to have in his restaurant!

Around 3,000. BC we enter the Early Bronze Age and the settlement seems to be declining. It seems that the systematic exploitation of the area damaged it and some people were forced to leave. Others remained in the lake, and it is an area they never completely abandoned, as shown by significant later excavation findings.

After wandering around the houses of the settlement simulation and taking our photos, we headed to the exhibition where we saw old photos from the excavation, as well as photos of some original findings. Then, we visited the excavation workshop, where we saw some of the original findings, and had the honor to talk with the archaeologist in charge of the excavation, Mr. Kostas Kotsakis.

Photos of the original findings of the excavation in Dispilio, utensils, anthropomorphic and animal-shaped clay statuettes, flutes, jewelry and more.
Photos of the excavations in Dispilio

Mr. Kostas Kotsakis is an emeritus professor of Prehistoric Archeology at the Department of History-Archeology of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and coordinator of Teaching Areas in the Interuniversity Postgraduate Program ‘Museology-Culture Management’ of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and the University of Western Macedonia. We already knew his important educational work and so we were very interested to talk to him about the excavation in Dispilio.

With the archaeologist in charge of the excavation in Dispilio and professor of Prehistoric Archeology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki Mr. Kostas Kotsakis at the exhibition site of the original findings of the excavation

Mr. Kotsakis first spoke to us about the representation of the settlement, the “open-air museum” as he calls it, which was created in 1997. The exhibition of the original findings had already preceded and aimed to show something to the local community. All these are works of Mr. Chourmouziadis, who started the excavation in 1992 and had the vision to expose the archaeological site. Today the excavation is continued by the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

The guide for the Dispilio of Mr. Chourmouziadis (source)

The excavation is of great archaeological interest, Mr. Kotsakis told us, as the wooden parts are preserved from 5,600 BC in perfect condition. The Aristotle University of Thessaloniki has a large European program, in which they work with Swiss, who have the experience and know-how for excavations in places near lakes, and the British. This European project aims at the final publication of the settlement, which is necessary for the success of the excavation.

At the excavation there is a large team, which works all year round and studies various categories of materials. A 20-year excavation has a lot of material and a lot of data, infinite pages and photos and countless findings, Mr. Kotsakis pointed out. By 2025, when the program ends, they believe that they will have a very good publication and we wish them all the best!

Then Mr. Kotsakis told us that the archeological site is not yet visitable and told us about how difficult it is to expose the prehistoric sites, since their findings are just a few traces. Another plan they have and hope to implement soon is to make a digital exhibition in a building next to the excavation site with information and scientifically verified digital representations of the settlement, based on the latest findings. It will probably be the only place in Greece that will utilize the technology of three-dimensional representations that one will see on the mobile phone, tablet or 3D glasses. It seemed like a great idea!

Then, Mr. Kotsakis told us that the open-air museum was much nicer in the past, when there were no reeds, which now “choke” it. In 1997, when the settlement was redeveloped, the area was coastal with water, and there were no reeds. Unfortunately, reeds are not allowed to be cut, although in the lake, the reeds are very recent and are a symptom of a disease.

Photo of the representation of the settlement from the past (source)

Another problem is that the lake is full of piles, except for those of the excavation, which reach a depth of 200 meters. They do not know what era they come from, they may even be older than those of the excavation. If the special floating machine that cuts the reeds comes in, it will also cut the piles… So the work will have to be done by hand, something that is very difficult since at the bottom of the lake there is mud from the fallen reeds.

Talking for a while about our next plans of our trip to Western and Central Macedonia, we completed our very interesting conversation. We warmly thank Mr. Kostas Kotsakis for the time he dedicated to us and the valuable knowledge he offered us!

Having made a dynamic start with our visit to Kastoria, we got in the car to continue our large tribute… Next stop, the beautiful Nymfaio of Florina!

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Your posts make me realize I need to do a lot more travelling! Thank you for sharing all your experiences (especially with the wildlife) 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We are very happy that you like them dear Aspasia!! Thank you so much for your kind words!! 🙏🙏🙏😊😊😊

      Liked by 1 person

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