A trip from Old Saint Athanasios to Florina

Our 6th article from our long travel tribute to Western and Central Macedonia finds us for the third day in Old Saint Athanasios, Pella. From there we travel back to the prefecture of Florina, to visit the city and much more!

Our new travel article based in Old Saint Athanasios is full of religion, art, archeology and gastronomy: we visit the Holy Monastery of Agios Markos in Proti, Florina, walk in the city of Florina, see churches, museums and art workshops, spending a lot of time in the Archaeological Museum, and finally try the haute cuisine of the award-winning restaurant Kontosoros in Xino Nero, Florina.

The buildings of Old Saint Athanasios on a cloudy morning

The cloudy morning finds us at the Metohi Ιnn in Old Saint Athanasios. It was a bit chilly and so we decided to have our coffee and our breakfast in the warm interior of its cafe. There we enjoyed fried village eggs together with cold cuts and cheeses, to get energy for the day that will follow. We hoped the weather would open up a bit, since we had a lot of walks to do!

The colorfully decorated café-bar of Metohi Inn
Cold coffee against the weather and breakfast

So we left for the Prefecture of Florina. Our first destination was the Holy Monastery of Agios Markos, which is ten minutes away from the city of Florina and an hour from Old Saint Athanasios, a small excursion that is …

Vast landscapes on the road from Old Saint Athanasios to the Prefecture of Florina

We have read that the monastery was founded in 1864 by the Metropolitan of Moglena Meletios. It is located at an altitude of 959 m. on the Varnounta Mountains, so we suspected that it will have a great view. Historically, during the Macedonian Struggle, it played an important role, acting as a refuge for chiefs. Many times it hosted heroes such as Pavlos Melas, Lakis Pyrzas and others.

In the background is the Holy Monastery of Agios Markos in the Varnounta mountain range

When it was liberated from the Turks, the monastery flourished. However, during World War II and especially during the Civil War, its buildings were completely destroyed by bombing. Then the small fraternity of the nuns left the monastery and the monastery ended up declining completely.

Approaching, we see the beautiful monastery.

Saint Sophia the Younger (1883-1974) practiced asceticism in the Holy Monastery of Agios Markos for a few months before the Virgin Mary led her to the Holy Monastery of the Nativity of Virgin Mary in Kleisoura, Kastoria.

Saint Sophia the Younger (source)

The small church of Agios Markos, however, remained standing. Travellers and nature lovers took refuge in the humble small church. It was surrounded by large shady trees and visitors were refreshed by a spring of cold water.

In the middle of 2000 the Monastery was re-established by the Metropolitan of Florina, Prespes and Eordaia Theoklitos Passalis. A new wing was built, the church was completely renovated and the beautiful outdoor space that we enjoy today was formed. It is now a convent with six nuns and an abbess, Mariam. It is visited by a large number of believers, who worship the relics of Saint Markos and his mother Mary.

As we felt ourselves, the surrounding area of the monastery, with its beautiful buildings and the incredible nature and view, relaxes and brings peace to the soul… We rested, prayed and enjoyed the idyllic environment…

The image of Saint Markos
Inside the chapel of the Assumption of the Virgin

As we were leaving the peaceful monastery, we saw that the mountain had hiking trails, so we tried to walk for a while on one of them, to see where it leads. The visitor can, therefore, combine religious tourism with hiking in nature wonderfully! We passed by places with an amazing view, breathed fresh air and returned to the car to head to the city of Florina that we wanted so much to see.

Marked hiking trails very close to the Holy Monastery of Agios Markos
An easy hiking trail suitable for any visitor of the monastery who wants to enjoy the surrounding nature

Rest and tranquility in the monastery, cool air and endless beauty in nature, and now a more urban destination, the city of Florina, seat of the Municipality of Florina and capital of the Regional Unit of Florina in Western Macedonia. A city at an altitude of 687 m. very close to the borders of the country.

Entering Florina by car, the first thing that struck us was a very large metal sculpture depicting a bear playing a musical instrument. Florina is an artistic city, with its University Department of Fine and Applied Arts, its Museum of Contemporary Art and the various artists’ workshops scattered throughout its streets; one of them we would visit a little later. Therefore, what better way than to be welcomed in the city by a large work of art that can not go unnoticed!

As we have learned, this sculpture is called “Contralto” and depicts a bear with a double bass. Initially, in 2015, it was placed in the Sakuleva river, the river of the city, while since 2017 it adorns the roundabout of Alexander the Great Square at the entrance of the city. It is a work of the Florinian artist George Bardakas and was created in the context of his dissertation in the sculpture workshop of the Department of Fine and Applied Arts. Immediately after the presentation of the artwork, the artist gave it to the Municipality of Florina.

The bear has strength, size and for some time retreats to sleep. The bear without a boss plays its own double bass. In this way it survives in a sterile state and tries to adapt to new places and times. To discover the key to one’s inner existence, the deeper one there is, there is a way: the path of shadows, where the viewer cannot discern his own shadow

George Bardakas, sculptor

The second Florina attraction we saw was where we left the car. The city of Florina is quite noisy, full of life, so it was a little difficult to park, but finally we found a perfect location, next to the Holy Metropolis of Florina. The Metropolitan Church of Florina is dedicated to Agios Panteleimon, is located right next to the river Sakuleva and its pastor is Metropolitan Theoklitos Passalis.

The Holy Metropolitan Church of Agios Panteleimon of Florina
The Metropolitan Palace, next to the Holy Metropolitan Church

So nicely began our long walk in the city. One of its most beautiful elements is undoubtedly the Sakuleva River that flows through it, but first we had to walk the streets of the city. Our first stop was the Museum of Contemporary Art, so we headed there and in five minutes we arrived.

We found the Museum of Contemporary Art closed and we were very disappointed. From its website we were informed that it was closed due to maintenance works. At least we read and saw some things online: the museum was founded by the Florina Artists’ House -as was the Gallery of Florina Artists too- in 1977. The museum’s collection consists of more than 600 paintings, sculptures and engravings by renowned Greek and foreign artists. In addition to its permanent exhibition, the museum also organizes art symposia and exhibitions of visual and applied arts.

The neoclassical building that houses the Museum of Contemporary Art of Florina

As we saw in a poster on the building and on the museum’s Facebook account, the latest periodic exhibition was “Ethiopia: The Tale of Dust,” a photo exhibition by Athena Perka, which took place in August. From the photos we saw it would be really very original and interesting, with a special, close, lively look at life in a distant country!

From the photo exhibition of Athena Perka at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Florina (source)

After not being able to enter the museum, we sat down to have a coffee in a central part of the city. Rupert, who especially loves the cities of the Greek countryside, also appeared there!

After enjoying our coffee, we continued walking in the city streets. We photographed places that caught our interest and headed to one of the artists’ workshops in the city.

The building of the Greek National Bank stands out with its vibrant colors!
Bust of Ioannis Karavitis, Cretan leader of the Macedonian Struggle

We may not have seen the city museum, but we did not miss the art! We entered Christina Papagrigoriou’s painting workshop, Studio 83, talked to the artist and observed her beautiful, colorful and lively paintings.

Mrs. Papagrigoriou told us that until the end of August she participated in the organization Cheap Art 2021, an exhibition of Florinian Artists, students or graduates of schools of fine arts, in the outdoor space of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Florina. It was an exhibition that aimed to showcase the artistic potential of the place. A very nice and substantial initiative!

From the opening of the Cheap Art 2021 exhibition on August 16, 2021 (source)
The workshop also prepares students for the exams of the Department of Fine and Applied Arts of the city

In addition to the beautiful works she showed us, Mrs. Papagrigoriou spoke to us about her city, and directed us to places that may have interested us. She told us that unfortunately many of the city’s museums were closed at that time, but even just a walk on the city river is something unique!

But before we reach the river, we passed the building which houses the Folklore Museum of the Florina Culture Club. Unfortunately we saw the majestic neoclassical building in very poor condition and the museum closed. On the website of the municipality we read that the museum belongs to the Culture Club of Florina and that it houses one of the most important collections in Greece that specializes in beekeeping, with rich exhibits and many photos. It was a real pity that we could not see it…

But it was time to see the city river up close at last! It was really beautiful! We followed its route, aiming to reach the Archaeological Museum of the city. Walking, we saw beautiful buildings, points of interest, ducks, geese and kittens, and of course we took a lot of photos…

A short photoreport from our walk on the Sakuleva river:

Kittens are posing for our camera!
The important painter Sterikas Koulis (source)
Koulis Sterikas, Trees III, Oil Painting, Oil on wood, 1983. Dimensions: 92.5 x 69 cm. Offer of the artist to the Museum of Contemporary Art of Florina (source)

Wherever I would have been born, I would have stayed in my hometown again. I stayed in Florina, so that I could be unaffected by the modern, anarchist, decadent world, but mainly because Florina is a beautiful place, with character, with beautiful autumns and tender springs… The people have a concern for culture, a fact that is also proved by their participation in important cultural associations that exist. All this undoubtedly helps to have a lot of painters, creators who want to live and work here. I personally never wanted to leave here.

Sterikas Koulis (source)
An elementary school in the city with a nice graffiti by the river
“Macedonia is Greek too”
The beautiful Church of the Assumption of the Virgin of Florina

At one point during our beautiful walk on the river of Florina, we pushed back into its streets, on a central boulevard, to find its Archaeological Museum. The Archaeological Museum of Florina is housed in a building from the 60’s that was repaired in 1998. It houses excavation findings and objects from archaeological sites in the prefecture of Florina covering a long period of time, from the Neolithic to the Byzantine times. We read these in its brochure and we entered with impatience to see everything in detail!

Entering the Archaeological Museum of Florina

The first thing we saw in the museum was an outdoor exhibit: a two-story ceramic kiln for baking pottery from the archaeological site of Achlada. As we read in its description, its side walls are made of red clay.

Ceramic kiln from Achlada
Representation of the operation of the kiln

Entering the interior of the museum, on the ground floor, we saw an exhibition organized in 1998 and inaugurated in 1999 that includes three main sections. The first section informs visitors about the geomorphology and history of the area of today’s Prefecture of Florina from the 6th millennium BC until the end of the Roman period.

Bones from a prehistoric mammoth
Human activities in prehistoric times
In the first section of the ground floor exhibition

The two adjacent rooms include samples of sculpture, mainly from Roman times from various areas of the prefecture of Florina.

In the second section of the ground floor exhibition
Embossed tombstones and votive columns

Going to the fourth and last room of the ground floor we were faced with a huge mosaic! It is a mosaic that decorated the floor of a building from Roman times (2nd-3rd century AD) from Kato Kleines.

The impressive mosaic of the fourth room on the ground floor of the museum

Going up to the first floor of the museum, we saw two spaces. The first part includes findings from the Hellenistic period, ceramic, clay and metal objects. These findings come from excavations of archaeological sites in Petres, Amyntaion and on the hill of Panteleimonas in Florina.

In the section of the first floor which is dedicated to the Hellenistic era
Clay pots and gold gifts from the cemetery of Achlada
Bronze and silver women’s jewelry and other metal objects
Bronze shield with inscription

The second and last section of the museum floor is dedicated to the Byzantine Era. It exhibits frescoes, fragments of iconostasis, and finds of temples on the islet of Agios Achilleios in Prespa.

Gospel of the 17th century
Very interesting information on the preservation of the Gospel
Fragments of frescoes from temples on the islet of Agios Achilleios in Prespa

We left the museum having formed several images of the daily life of the inhabitants of the area of ​​the past, their traditions and institutions, but also of the ways in which archaeologists work to preserve and communicate their important findings to visitors. Closing with this very interesting tour of the Archaeological Museum of Florina we felt that we had now got a very good taste of the place, its history and modern life, so we could return to our base. But the day was not over yet; we still had to try the famous cuisine of the Kontosoros restaurant in Xino Nero, Florina!

Xino Nero is one of the main villages of the Prefecture of Florina, built at an altitude of 550 m. From the springs of the area comes Xino Nero, one of the most famous local products of the region, a naturally carbonated water, with acidic taste, without additional carbon dioxide in the bottle. This is a product especially known for its beneficial properties, mainly for the kidneys, but also for the liver. A unique local product!

The Xino Nero of Florina, a naturally carbonated water and natural soft drinks (source)

Another of the main reasons to be in Xino Nero, is undoubtedly to visit the award-winning restaurant Kontosoros! The guesthouse-restaurant Kontosoros is housed in an elegant stone building, which is located next to the paternal home of Mr. Nikos Kontosoros. Mr. Kontosoros, who for 30 years -since 1989- made the restaurant famous for its quality and high cuisine, with traditional recipes made with pure ingredients, together with his wife Petroula, is unfortunately no longer alive; the restaurant has been taken over since 2019 by his daughter, the chef Iliana Kontosorou, who continues her father’s legacy and whom we had the pleasure to meet up close.

Entering the stone building of Kontosoros restaurant

We entered the interior of the restaurant and its warmth immediately made us feel comfy. We were sure that a wonderful tasting experience of the local cuisine was predicted, combined with the special character of the restaurant…

Inside the cozy interior of the restaurant
And outside, where the welcoming atmosphere is maintained

The chefs of our restaurant had prepared for us a special menu to try their creations, which was really something else! The local tradition interpreted with a modern look, with contemporary techniques, rich, full flavors with intensities and a special character in each dish, recipes made with local and seasonal products from their garden, along with minimalist platings… everything that does the restaurant Kontosoros one of the best in Western Macedonia, but also in the whole country! We warmly thank the chef Mrs. Iliana Kontosorou for the wonderful dinner and the detailed explanation of each dish we tried!

Zucchini velvet soup made with vegetables from their garden, which changes depending on the products available in each season, asparagus, zucchini, mushrooms
Makalo, a white porridge of flour and saffron with a beef meatball…
…which is combined with fried feta cheese, aivar -a local product that everyone had in their homes, a “caviar” of mashed, fried Florina peppers (to be preserved)- together with Sauvignon Blanc Estate Alpha white wine
A truly unique tasting experience!
Another local product with pepper, eggplant and tomato
Bean salad with capers, Aegina pistachio, cherry tomatoes and salted egg
Next, a rosé Xinomavro wine from the local Dimopoulos Estate of 2020, PDO Amyntaio; thank you very much Mr. Pavlos for the serving and the description
Trachanas from broken wheat and pork fillet with a cream of cheese, a dish flavored with tsoubrika, as the wild oregano is called in the area
For dessert, patsavouropita with lemon and lemon cream

Everything we tried was so enjoyable that it would definitely be etched in our memory! Of course, we really wanted to get to know the people of the restaurant better, who also took us on a tour of their cellar. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts!

With the people of Kontosoros restaurant, chef Mr. Ilias Giozis, chef Mrs. Iliana Kontosorou and Mr. Pavlos

In the cellar we had the opportunity to discuss a little more in detail about the business. We were told that above the restaurant there is a guesthouse with six rooms, which we are sure will be wonderful! To the restaurant and guesthouse come many visitors from abroad, from all over the world, mainly during the summer season, formerly in groups and now mainly individually in pairs, fours, sixes etc. They come to the area for wine tourism, so they visit the wineries and the good restaurants. The Kontosoros restaurant, in fact, has been included in the Routard guide, so every year French people come who show in the guide what they want to try!

In the cellar of the Kontosoros restaurant with Mrs.
Iliana and Mr. Pavlos

About the restaurant’s cuisine, Mr. Pavlos told us that they use local products, mainly local meat with the exception of only special cuts such as ribeye, which is from Argentina. The meats come from a maximum distance of 10 km. Mrs. Iliana added that the restaurant started somewhat like this, with Greek local cuisine in order to support local producers. They try to maintain this identity, and they do it perfectly!

The area also has very good cabbages, with which they make dishes when it is their season. Depending on the season, they differentiate, for example, the velvet soup that we also tried, or the purées – they have chestnut purée, celery root purée, depending on the season. This is the time when leeks and tomatoes come out, as much as possible from their small garden behind the restaurant. They also have an estate with fruit, peaches, apples, quinces, from which they make spoon sweets and jams to offer at the guesthouse’s breakfast and to accompany some cheeses in the restaurant’s menu.

A lobby for more private tasting and wine tasting events

The cellar is located in the basement for temperature reasons. As Mr. Pavlos explained to us, the wine cellar of Kontosoros restaurant has mainly red wines, some white, rosé and magnum (larger bottles in which the wine matures more slowly). The wines are primarily Greek, but also French, Italian, Argentinean, Chilean, Peruvian, options for someone who has “satiated” Greek wines and wants a different note in his food.

A collection from different years of the Syrah-Merlot-Xinomavro wines of the Alpha Estate, so that they can be aged and tested in various stages

We will say goodbye to you from a cellar this time, since the areas we visited in our last articles are famous for their wines. Now we will leave Old Saint Athanasios and our next articles will find us at the Pozar Thermal Baths, also known as Aridaia Thermal Baths, where we had a wonderful time, you will see!

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