Monday, 21 August 2017

Northern Greece: Every Street Has its Own Zorbas

Text and photographs by Nevena Panayotova   
Away from the tourist crowds and the spots featured in advertisements, Western Macedonia is the perfect place for “diving” in the authentic Greek atmosphere. Noisy, chaotic and at the same time a little sad, this least known part of the country attracts like a magnet. Summer is the most opportune moment for a tour of the region, but during the other three seasons, a special kind of magic is concentrated in the air. Late fall is the ideal time to taste the young wine which has fermented during the summer and retains the sun’s warmth.

The heat and the sea of tourists could be a killjoy and could deter even the biggest enthusiast from ever returning to Greece. Or at least that is what it looks like before one regains consciousness after the initial shock and realizes that he’s missed something. The queue in front of the Acropolis hardly gets close to the idea of an authentic experience. Western Macedonia is perhaps the most contrasting part of the country, not so much with its visible differences, like the hydroelectric power stations or the streets drowned in magnolias, as with the contrast between the past and the present, between make-believe and reality.

Katafygi, Aiani and Siatista

Katafygi’s narrow, cobblestone streets are unlikely to keep the memory of the young man names George Zorbas. Three villages in different parts of Greece compete as the birthplace of the prototype of the protagonist of Nikos Kazantzakis's immortal novel, Zorba the Greek, and each of them has its own version on the case, each more convincing than the rest.

Nowadays, however, it is more important that the story described in the book unfolded somewhere here and its spirit still wanders around here. Each street has its own Zorbas, who jumps up to dance sirtaki with pleasure after an appropriate amount of wine.

In every café, you’ll find somebody who knew the writer and will convince you full well with his memories. The rest of the story is suspiciously vague – ten years after the death of his friend, Nikos Kazantzakis described the story of their acquaintance. As insurance for a clear conscience, he sent the fresh manuscript to Zorbas’s son who was an army officer. He didn’t appreciate the literary masterpiece and threatened to sue Kazantzakis if he dared to publish the book. But Kazantzakis didn’t give up and did some small corrections – he changed the characters’ name and transported them to Crete – then, with a light heart, he went to his publisher. Zorbas Junior followed through on his word and the two met in court, but the son lost the case.

Aiani’s architecture in particular would hardly cause anyone to stop in the village. Its inhabitants number barely 3,600, and the local museum – a source of real pride, exhausts the village’s attractions. In a close proximity of the village is located one of the erstwhile capitals of the Macedonian Kingdom, and the oldest matt-painted (black and white) pottery ever found can be seen in the museum. The museum’s tour guides aren’t very useful – Greek exhausts their language proficiency, but the brochures are multi-lingual and contain comprehensive information.

Siatista’s trade mark are the little stores selling fur coats, the bright stained glass and the paintings on the old houses and the family cellars in which the grapes are left out in the sun to ferment. Most of them offer not just wine tastings but have a separate part functioning as a tavern. The surest way to enjoy the long list of wines is to leave the selection to the hosts. Each wine has its own, accompanying meze – appetizer, meat or dessert and in the end their tastes mix in an intoxicating palette of aromas.

In Siatista, we visited The Two Friends Wine Cellar, where we didn’t manage to see exactly how the grapes are fermenting in the sun, but got to enjoy the end result, along with a rucola and sundried tomatoes salad, flavoured by olive oil. This made concentration the next day a little difficult but we managed to see the old houses that are the town’s pride and the church, in which the frescos looked strikingly similar to those in the Hagios Demetrios church in Thessaloniki. Or at least they seemed that way to us.

The Two Friends Wine Cellar is located on 5 Agiou Nikanora ( tel.: + 30 24650 21421). We stayed at the Siatista Hotel in the centre, where we enjoyed a beautiful view in the morning. However, the price was less romantic (40 euro) and the coffee was straight up disappointing.


The town, on the shore of the Lake Orestiada, is placed like an amphitheatre upon the northern shore’s hills.

On the southern side is located the Dispilio Archaeological Reserve, where Neolithic settlements can be found – but built recently.

The entry fee is 8 euro and, with a little luck, beside the archaeology lecture, once can enjoy the sight of some rare swamp bird, such as a pelican or a cormorant.

In addition to them, the ducks which walk – unperturbed, around the magnolia-covered alleys close the lake, are completely natural, while a tour of the lake in the company of swans during autumn is a must.

It is not clear whether they were round during the time of Emperor Diocletian, who is credited for the town’s existence. But its 72 Byzantine churches, built between the ninth and the nineteenth centuries, are a kind of a time machine, as long as one has the patience to see them all. That is also how many little leather-processing stores there are in the town – a source of pride to local people for centuries. In the time of the Ottoman Empire, the town was one of the major centres of the leather industry and although its fame nowadays rests on old glory, it still has a few surprises up its sleeve.

About an hour’s drive from Kastoria is the town of Grevena and the little villages scattered in the surroundings are a good alternative to the expensive hotels in the two cities. For 25 euro, one can spent the night in quite a decent guest room, and breakfast, especially coffee, is many times better than in the hotels. A kilometre away from the village of Nimpheon is the Arcturos Reserve, which is the first centre on the Balkans dedicated to the protection of brown bears. Because of its inhabitants’ biological clock, it closes down in the winter but it is a mandatory stop during the rest of the year. The entrance fee is 7 euro, which without a doubt go towards the rightful purposes. It is also hard to withstand the temptation of buying a t-shirt with a bear’s paw print (15 euro) or a cup (10 euro).

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