Richard Hodges writes his postcard from the idyllic setting of Byzantine Kastoria in Greece.
The Byzantine emperors, it is said, regularly exiled dissident members of their court to Kastoria. Like Ochrid to the north, half-way across the breadth of the Balkans on an artery reaching from Constantinople to the Adriatic Sea, evidently exile in this little Greek lakeside resort was meant to be a chastening punishment. Today, such punishment is a rare pleasure. Kastoria boasts a Byzantine heritage that seems second to Constantinople. But, unlike Istanbul, this little town in summertime enjoys a captivating serenity. In wintertime, I should add, it is entirely different, so they say. For this is the fur capital of Greece, a status it owes to its ancient heritage of trapping beaver (beaver in Greek being kastori, with the plural being kastoria) in Lake Orestiadha. An inexplicable number of shops fit out Greece’s best-dressed women in bulky coats as well as tight leather, risking political incorrectness in most other European countries.
Lake Orestiadha is graced by pelicans. These bewitchingly beautiful birds circle around the lakeside like jumbo jets before effortlessly descending, twisting then gliding to plop onto the water close to shore alongside the ungainly but distinctive watercraft here. The restless pelicans catch your eye as you enter the town, which has colonised the isthmus of a steep and bulbous promontory reaching out into the northern part of the lake. Refurbished Roman fortifications belonging to ancient Celetrum were probably first renovated in the 6th century AD when this had become Justinianopolis. These were strengthened again with 13th century bastions by the Epirot Despots. The unevenly restored walls extend across the narrow neck, in front of which is the daily market of local farmers, men and women from the slopes of the Grammos mountains, wizened by long summers. Rising steeply behind the walls is the modern town with its roots in Byzantium and the Ottoman age. Along the west-facing shoreline is a string of bright cafÃ©s; this is the heart of the present city. By contrast, the east-facing shoreline, tracked by a promenade, is shaded by planes and has an elegiac air. Here the discrete sense of serenity is profound as the trees drift past the excellent Kastoria Hotel into the thicker woodland that shrouds the narrow sylvan track that winds around the promontory a distance of some six miles.
A rose with thorns
Many consider Kastoria the most beautiful town of mainland Greece. Being unaffected in its natural setting with so many monuments, it certainly ranks alongside Napthion, for example. In common with most Greek towns, being on a passage from East to West, it has had many occupants since Roman times. Apart from the Byzantine community, there were Franks, the Epirot Despots, Bulgars and Serbs before it was seized by the Turks in 1385. It remained in Ottoman hands until the first Balkan war in 1912 when it became one of the northern reaches of the new Greece. Its mid 20th century history was bitter. A plaque records the round-up of Jews, merchants famed since Ottoman times in the furrier business, during the Second World War. No sooner had this anguished period ended, than the city was caught in the grip of the Greek Civil War of 1947-1949 when the Communist army retreated with huge losses across the nearby Grammos mountains and through the passes immediately to the north of Kastoria before evaporating into Albania. Today, a statue to the American commander who assisted the Greek government, General James Van Fleet (1892-1992), commands the undistinguished square immediately behind the fortifications, bearing witness to this bitter period.
Kastoria, though, is known not for its conquerors, exiles or bitter episodes but for its 50 or so frescoed churches. The churches are ubiquitous, dotted within the web of streets criss-crossing the steep flanks and long saddle-back that form the town occupying the isthmus. It is best to get guidance on keys from the Byzantine Museum on the Platisa Dhexamenis, an uncomfortable modern edifice in the centre, otherwise it is pot-luck to gain entry.
All the churches appear curiously tightly built, as though they were squeezed by inventive architects into a packed townscape. So they tend to be tall, with distinctively high elevations as well as curiously narrow. The Greek ministry of culture has worked energetically to restore all the churches — indeed, some are rather over-restored. But ambling around the maze of quiet lanes my favourite was Aghios Stephanos, now occupying its own little square around which local children were noisily playing football. This church is said to date from the 9th century. Inside, its dark frescoes at first are rather off-putting. But stare hard and the high level of iconographic attainment soon becomes clear. The deep colours in the geometric compositions are subtle and challenging to the viewer. As for the building, it has a high entrance hall — narthex — that seems to be tacked onto the high nave that rises exaggeratedly above its side chapels. It is almost as though it was designed as a first floor palace with a little apsed church below. Robust and strong in construction, its proportions are the work of a great architect. By contrast, the near contemporary church of Panayia Koumbelidiki, a stone’s throw from Aghios Stephanos, appears more shuffling in its construction. It has a tall cylindrical domed tower, a cross between a dome and an East Anglian round tower, that stands like a funnel above the nave, itself a confection of different forms and ideas.
Then, too, there is the glorious church of the Taxiarchis of the Metropolis. Set a little off a busy cross street, at an angle in its own garden, it is the apogee of a haven. This Middle Byzantine church has a long, side porch within which today is its main door. I ventured in timidly, knowing that it was off-limits as conservators were at work. The masked conservators were lovingly tending to the high frescoes that reach high up into its elevated nave. At first there was the inevitable polyglot cacophony of ‘closed’, as I threatened ‘health and safety’ no doubt. But then seeing my eagerness and evidently proud of their temporary home and its treasures they beckoned me to the far end where an original tight staircase provided a rewarding new view of the church. The staircase twisted to a virtual level of a first floor, from where the 10th century frescoes may be viewed with ease and awe. These are as haunting as any in Istanbul. Their strange iconography is another story altogether – for another postcard. Suffice it to say that the raking light from the slit-like clerestory windows ravished the newly restored painted panels and made me think long and hard about the tiny fragments of fresco I have found in my excavations of churches at Butrint, far to the west. But this is more than a testament to one almost forgotten era; tracts of the painting belong to the 14th century as even provincial Byzantine artists toyed with the near Renaissance concepts of humanist figural painting.
Church after church in Kastoria is a jewel. Dozens of them, each reminding the visitor that every major household — e
ach aristocrat here – needed somewhere sacred to pray. So, it seems, a heady competition emerged between these households, as their chapels became miniature sacred palaces.Almost as captivating are the ‘Ottoman’ period houses. Several rows of these majestic, jettied monuments occupy the steep eastward-looking slope. Many are in a perilous condition, close to collapse. All are of factory-sized proportions (the so-called Macedonian style), recalling an age extending from the 17th to 19th centuries, mostly, when Kastoria boasted rich families whose wealth stemmed from the famed fur trade. This Ottoman quarter is as fine an example as any in the region — at Ioannina, Gjirokastra (in Albania), Bitola (in Macedonia) and Prizren in Kosovo. Like these latter places, it marks a benign moment when the culture of Constantinople contributed greatly to the vernacular tradition of European architecture.
Though the urban churches are little jewels, the monastery of Panaghia Mavriotissa must not be missed. This lakeside monastery lies on the far southern tip of the peninsula, cloaked by lush, glorious trees. Twin churches grace this Macedonian style monastery: the most memorable is the single-aisled church of the Virgin (Panaghia), allegedly dating to about AD 1000, with 13th-century frescoes. These include a panel dedicated to the Tree of Jesse, branches surrounding the Virgin, and a figure who is supposedly the ill-fated late 11th century Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Palaeogos and his brother John. Other panels include a vivid, if dark and violent, depiction of the last judgement with two wretched groups of the damned (some with evil long teeth), being reprimanded by angels. Beside it is the chapel of Aghios Ioannis Theologos, a church with wall-paintings executed in 1552 by the artist Eustathios Iakovou. This, to be honest, is a timeless place to pause and eat at one of the makeshift tavernas beside the monastery. In its shadow, there is a blissful spiritual serenity that encapsulates the sublime pleasure of Kastoria. This is definitely the place to consume a fine Greek wine from the Peloponnese with grilled brown trout from the lake, punctuated, of course, by a bustling interruption as a pelican glides inshore.
From CWA 34