The other Greece:
Greek Macedonia is different from the rest of Greece. Cooler and less dusty. Picture mountain roads, abandoned villages, deep lakes and cool woodland as we discover the beauty of Northern Greece.
Skotina is scattered across a mountain covered in dark, deciduous trees. The inhabitants are friendly, happy and have a lot of time for you. Kaliméra, Greek for “good morning”, and then the conversation begins. Herders are herding their sheep and pigs. The smell of coffee hits us; someone beckons us over and gives us a cup! Our new Greek friends used to work in the forests as woodcutters and truck drivers, but as more and more wood from low-wage countries began to be imported their houses were transformed into holiday homes and they themselves moved to nearby Fortina, a less harsh location a few. Not that it’s a tropical paradise however; last winter temperatures plummeted to -20⁰C degrees.
Let’s have another glass of wine. The radio plays bouzouki music louder and louder. Shall we sing?
Agios Dimitros | Swimming by moonlight
Agios Dimitros is an excellent base for trips to Mount Olympus. This mountain range (known as the Home of the Gods in Greek) has 54 peaks, the highest being Mytikas at 2917m. We are staying with Panaderayota, an energetic woman who runs a small hotel with her family and likes nothing better than to make liqueurs and jams from the fruit in her garden. A little further up the mountain, past a few hundred almond trees, is another nice spot, built in “typical Ottoman style” according to the hostess Afroditi Bellou. On the bed you find aromatic herbs, you can go swimming by moonlight and the strawberries are 100% organic.
Kastoria | Bears, beavers and fur coats
Towards the north are the charming Servia-Kozani lakes. Over an enormous bridge, we skim over the water. Here you can see pelicans and cormorants, but what we want to see is a bear, or even a beaver. “We won’t have much luck,” says Frits. The bears here are kept away using high fences, the beavers skinned and turned into fur coats, a product that the village of Kastoria is famous for. The village itself mainly consists of trappers’ houses and is built against the side of a hill. A cool breeze is blowing, and cyclists are doing a loop of the lake whilst we enjoy a salad with the locals.
Ghost towns | Korestia, Mavrokampos, Gavros
The abandoned village listed as Korestia is just a dot on the map. Nothing more than earth-coloured houses, windows and doors are missing. More abandoned villages appear; Mavrokampos, Gavros. We drive through overgrown streets. Behind the cracks of the ruins, we see the beauty of yesteryear, the failings, the balconies and the staircases. Why were they abandoned? We discover the story later: it has to do with power, territorial shifts and ethnic cleansing. As Allied support disappeared and the situation grew more and more hopeless, in1923 it was decided to conduct an exchange of peoples between Turkey and Greece, with Turkish Muslims going to Anatolia and Greek Christians to Greece.
Prespa Lakes: something bubbles up
On the top of a 1400m mountain stands a church. At the foot of the mountains are the Prespa lakes, which have dark green and jet-black waters in the evening light. From the porous bottom, water flows underground to neighbouring FYROM (Macedonia), where it bubbles up into Lake Ohrid, as told to us by our friends from Agios Germanos. “Look,” says Thanos, “in the smaller lake there is an island, Agios Achilis, with a 10th-century Byzantine monastery.” What’s odd is how the borders of Greece, the FYROM AND Albania all meet in the larger lake. You can only sail around the edges of the lake, to see the caves where the monks once hid. Sevi finds it ridiculous. “How can we set borders in nature?”
Agios Germanos | Why Tsipras slept in my bed
We sit with Maria and Thanos around the table of their Guest-Inn in Agios Germanos. “You just missed our Prime Minister Tsipras”, says Thanos. “He was here and slept in your bed last week.” All his friends laugh, even the mayor. Agios Germanos is a welcoming village, with a pleasant square surrounded by houses made from rough stones. Today it is only inhabited by 50 families. “Lots of people left after the civil war,” Thanos tells us. With eyes towards the future however, there is now talk of a cross-border natural park, hence the reason for Tsipras’ visit. Spirits are high and the table is full of food: fried potatoes, olives, feta and gallons of good wine. Someone explains what ‘ksilofenos’ means: welcome stranger, have another glass of wine! The radio plays bouzouki music, which steadily grows more intense. Are we going to start singing?
To Loutrakiou via Edessa | Souvenir shops and hot springs
On the road to Edessa, the mountains are brown, not the warm yellow of Agio Germanos. Edessa is a tourist town with shops full of souvenirs. The waterfall that falls into the depths below behind the screen of plants is truly eye-catching. We spend the night in Loutriaki, a couple of villages further on, and at dusk we drive down into the valley. Waterfalls crash down from the mountains, forming a river which divides into natural pools from which warm water bubbles up from the earth. “Time to head to the car wash,” says Frits. We refuel and we are ready to head back to Thessaloniki.
Pearls of Paradise
Wideoyster’s six-day trip through Greek Macedonia starts and ends in Thessaloniki with stops in Agios Dimitrios (Olympus), Agios Germanos (Prespa Lakes) and Loutra Loutriakiou (spas and mineral baths).
We stayed in properties owned by Guest-Inn, which are all rural, small-scale and welcoming locations, often serving dishes made with produce grown locally or from their own garden.