A picturesque Greek village is always more than just that, and this is certainly the case for Nymfaio in Florina. It is not just a beautiful traditional village at 1,350 meters altitude on Mount Vitsi; to reach it the visitor must drive the last 15 minutes uphill on a bendy road, keeping an eye out for packs of saddled equines, which claim a large part of the road.
The village of Nymfaio is surrounded by thick birch forest, with paved donkey tracks and refurbished stone mansions with corrugated tin roofing, replacing the old slate roofs to better allow the snow to slide off. It is also a sparsely populated place where the permanent inhabitants, who number around 40, complain about the loneliness on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday – the days when visitors are less frequent.
Nymfaio is not just one the top destinations in northern Greece, despite its remoteness. It is also a place which, before being revived by architectural renovations and tourism in the 1990s, had all but withered away. One thing is for sure, this is not a sterile place fixed in time, but a village where quinces lie fallen from the trees and noisy dogs roam with bells around their necks.
Up until 1926, when the village was officially renamed in the government gazette, the place was known as Neveska, and before that Niveasta, which means “bride” in the Vlach language. Nymfaio is a Vach village, with special privileges dating back to the Ottoman era, with a strong silversmithing tradition and a community of merchants who travelled widely.
Its solid architectural identity, at least to the untrained eye, creates the impression of a preindustrial mountain town rather than a simple village. The church of St Nicholas – a three-aisled basilica dating to 1867 – is its best known church, but St Basil, a stone chapel in a natural setting, is worth a trek to the top of the village, and is an ideal spot for a picnic.
Eclecticism and bears
The most distinctive building in Nymfaio is the Nikeios school, built in an eclectic style with baroque elements in 1927-1928 to house the village’s kindergarten, elementary school, and for some years its junior high school, up until the 1980s when the schools were closed.
The Nikeios now hosts the information center for the Arcturos Brown Bear Sanctuary, an NGO which has been operating for 29 years and is a great asset for the area. How could a visitor not value a place which protects wild fauna, a destination where bears are treated more like members of the ecosystem than like fruit thieves?
The information center at the Nikeios school introduces the public to one of the most beloved members of the animal kingdom, which humans have come to adore, judging from their representations in pop culture. Teddy bears, Paddington and Winnie-the-Pooh stories, and Teddy Bear biscuits are just some of the positive images of bears which we humans enjoy from a young age. But there is a darker side to Greeks’ relationship with the bear, as up until the 1990s there were still dancing bears in the country, animals that were cruelly abused, and made to walk on hot metal plates to learn to stand upright.
In a photograph by Voula Papaïoannou displayed at the center, we see two “bear-men” beating tambourines for the chained animals to “dance” – a barbaric image, which is followed by contrasting information on bears’ winter hibernation, the constellations of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (big bear and little bear), and the young girls dressed as bears at the sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron, as part of a coming-of-age ritual preparing them for adult life.
The exhibition is superb, presenting a comprehensive and unvarnished and not at all sentimentalized view on a complex subject. After filling up on information, there can be only one destination: the Brown Bear Sanctuary, a little outside Nymfaio. We were unfortunate in not being able to visit, due to damage from snowstorms, however the damage has since been restored. It is a large enclosed space in a birch forest hosting nineteen bears, including veteran Giorgakis, who was rescued from bear-men in Imathia, but also bears that have been orphaned, re-homed from zoos or confiscated from individuals who had been holding them illegally.
Lynxes and Pindos horses
Next on the itinerary is the Wolf Sanctuary, located outside the village of Agrapidia. This is a different story: the wolf has been slandered and stigmatised, embedded in popular consciousness as a threat. The biggest culprit in this are children’s fairy tales, first and foremost Little Red Riding Hood. But despite the myth which surrounds it, the wolves at Arcturos are themselves victims, animals taken from private “collections,” from building sites where they were kept as “guards” and other tragic circumstances.
The Arcturos sanctuary hosts thirteen wolves, including ten grey wolves and three arctic wolves. We glimpsed the latter fleetingly, as they appeared as a pack, disappeared, reappeared and vanished again as if playing hide-and-seek among the foliage.
Nearby is the lynx sanctuary, where three Eurasian lynxes (Lynx lynx) are housed since a few months ago when they were moved here from a zoo in Andorra. In Greece, the lynx is considered extinct, so coming face to face with one, seeing its slender legs, pricked up ears and elegant gait is a unique experience. The Agrapidia sanctuary is also host to Greek sheepdogs, a heritage breed, which are bred and given to shepherds. When a flock is guarded by sheepdogs, humans don’t have to resort to violence. This makes it safer for him and for the wildlife.
If the wildlife at Arcturos open windows to new worlds, the same is true of the horses kept by the Voglidis family, which owns the Artemis outdoor activity center at the village of Sklithro, a little way beyond Agrapdia. Twenty certified Pindos breed horses live an enviable life here, roaming free on 2.5 hectares of land. We took a riding lesson with Takis, the father of the family (3.5 kilometers, half an hour), an experience which surpassed all our expectations. After a brief tour of the facilities, Takis encouraged me, despite being a total novice, to take a ride bareback, to get to used to the horse. After that, we rode, this time with saddles, through a forest of linden and alder. We passed through fields of corn (a trial, where the rider must not allow the horse to stop and eat), then tried a trot and a gallop – a unique way to get to know the Pindos breed.
Hiking and lake fishing
Another great outdoor activity is the hike from the Wolf Sanctuary to lake Zazari. Holding a shepherd’s crook made out of local hardwood, Takis guided us to a landscape strewn with cyclamen and lemon thyme, wild crocus and mullein, hornbeam – where hedgehogs nest – and oak, where squirrels hop about, like the one we spotted for a few seconds before it hid in the leaves. Our guide, a great connoisseur of mushrooms, showed us the Macrolepta procera, a light brown mushroom with an almond scent, which is found widely in the woods.
Around the foothills of Vitsi, the hillock of Lykavittos, the stream of Sklithro, and finally lake Zazari where we turned back. Small, calm and charming, Zazari gives our trip an exotic flavor, as a lake is a rare sight in Greece and very exciting. There is also a village on the lake, called Limnochori, with a large yellow building on the lakefront which was built as a fish market but never functioned as such. Today it is taken over by geese, which will go into a hissing frenzy if you approach. When they no longer feel threatened, they settle by the roadside and sun themselves, basking like dogs.
While Zazari stuck in our minds thanks to a flock of angry geese, the neighboring lake of Cheimaditida (named after the wintering grounds which used to be used by flocks here) was made memorable by the 380 black goats, which are not a frequent site at tourist destinations. We also met some of the local fishers, like amateur Giannis, with his four rods baited with corn or fly, and professional Sakis, who sets out in his boat at dawn to cast his nets for pike.
Animal life everywhere on this trip – sheepdogs, wolves, bears and lynxes, squirrels, horses, geese and goats – co-exist with humans, acting as the best ambassadors for the destination.
There are some businesses which break through the narrow boundaries of their field, which don’t just offer a service but add value to a place. Two such businesses are the Archontiko Athina guesthouse in Nymfaio and the Thomas restaurant in Sklithro.
The building housing Archontiko Athina was officially characterised as a work of art by a ministerial decision in 1992, “because it is a representative example of the mansions built in Nymfaio at the end of the 19th century.” As a visitor, you don’t require a ministerial decision to appreciate its beauty.
After being closed for several years, the guesthouse reopened a few months ago, renovated and under new management. It boasts wooden ceilings, chandeliers, ornamental china with something of a Tsarist Russian accent, and a beautiful chalet in the garden where you can enjoy a morning coffee or evening drink. But its soul are two amazing ladies, Varvara and Elisabeth, which make you feel like a resident rather than a guest in the house. This makes the most of the old house, making guests feel truly at home.
If Archontiko Athina gives Nymfaio a good name, the same is true of Thomas’ restaurant in the village of Sklithro, one of the most notable eateries in the Florina district. At the helm of the restaurant, which serves creative Greek cuisine, are the second and third generation of the Paspalis family.
With a cellar which is open to visitors and three wine lists – one of which includes 365 Greek wines, one for each day of the year – Thomas serves mutton and tomato stew on eggplant puree, wild boar in red wine with xinohontro (handmade dried dairy pasta), orzo with snails, nettles and grated mizithra cheese, florinela ewe’s milk cheese with red pepper marmalade. The menu is designed and executed by a team comprising Vaggelis and his parents in the kitchen, and his brother Thomas in front of house. All but one of the staff are from the village, so the business helps to sustain the local economy.