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Nymphaio > perhaps the most beautiful village October 5, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Mainland.
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Everything you’ve heard about Nymphaio is true. It really is the most beautiful village in northern Greece. But even if you’ve seen photos, nothing prepares you for the surprise of actually being there.

For one thing, its founders hid it so skillfully from prying eyes that there are no tantalizing glimpses from afar. Instead you ascend a seemingly interminable corkscrew of a road, practically straight up from the valley between Mts. Vermio and Verno, with the smokestacks of Ptolemaida belching in the distance and not a trace of habitation in sight. Even when you arrive at the gates of Nymphaio, there is only a large parking lot to greet you along with one elegant grey-stone building, Ta Linouria hotel/restaurant enclosed by a green lawn, a hint of what’s to come.

Unless you’ve booked at one of Nymphaio’s six small pensions, you must leave your car behind and walk up the hill to the village proper, for most of Nymphaio’s streets are off limits to the motor vehicle. Now you’ve reached the main square, fronted by the Neveska hotel/restaurant and flanked by a café, a shop selling traditional foods made by the local Women’s Organization, a psilikatsidiko (old-fashioned notions hole-in-the-wall), and a grassy area where horses may be grazing. The horse is to Nymphaio what the cow is to Delhi, and they roam at will, unfettered, and unnoticed, by the locals at least. Less blasé, visitors pursue them with their cameras.

Pleasant though it is, the square cannot compare to the houses surrounding it, every one a work of art, a poem in stone. Rising above them all, Nymphaio’s largest building, the Nikeos School with its clock tower, looks as though it has been lifted out of Basle. Lovely villages abound in Greece’s mountains, think of the Zagorohoria in Epirus, Metsovo, Pelion, all built by the master stone masons from the so-called Mastorohoria in western Macedonia and north of Konitsa.

But in none of those places are the homes so impeccably cared for, the cobbled streets so litter-free, the gardens so lush, the atmosphere so, well, unGreek. This is the kind of village you might expect to find in Switzerland, Austria, Germany or France, up in the Alps, right up to its tin-lined roofs, designed to encourage the snow to slide off.

Nymphaio is all the more remarkable because only twenty years ago two-thirds of its houses lay in ruins; only sixty inhabitants, mostly elderly, eked out a living there. For almost six hundred years it had prospered, as its Vlach citizens were among the most dynamic people in the Hellenic world. Whether as peddlers of meat, cheese, hides and weavings around the Balkans or later as jewellers and ultimately as tobacco and cotton tycoons in the Ottoman Empire and beyond, they seemed to have a Midas touch. They called their village, hidden but not immune to Turkish attacks, Niveasta, which in Vlach has three possible meanings: Nymph because of the sylvan setting; Invisible (Ni Vista); and Snow-covered (Nives Ska). It was renamed Nymphaio in 1928.

World War II, the Civil War and the flight to the cities that subsequently robbed so many Greek rural areas of their population also crippled Nymphaio. It might have remained a ruined relic were it not for the determination of a few visionary native sons, led by writer Nikos Mertzos and winemaker Yannis Boutaris, or as they dubbed themselves, “The Last of the Mohicans.” They energized the drive to restore collapsed buildings, repave the streets, and install vital public utilities.

But a pretty face is not enough to bring a village back to life, and Boutaris, with his experience in the wine industry, knew that Nymphaio needed to attract the new leisure class of weekenders in order to survive. With them in mind, he created a dream place called La Moara (Watermill in Vlach) just outside the village limits, close to the forest that cloaks the steep hills above it. Though it has only eight rooms, La Moara has acquired renown as one of the finest small hotels in this country. It was closed when I visited in early June, but luckier friends extoll its comfortable (but not glitsy) rooms, superb restaurant and warm, welcoming staff. It also has its own stable, and I’ve heard that riding through the woods around Nymphaio is another of the joys of staying there.

But it does shut on Mondays and Tuesdays, so we consoled ourselves in another traditional inn, Athina, 5 rooms in a lovely home new in 1900, with furnishings and décor as it was then plus all mod cons discreetly integrated. Its owner, Yannis Papadopoulos, told us to book way ahead on fall and winter weekends, Nymphaio is so popular with city dwellers bent on admiring autumn leaves or snowy landscapes.

But Nymphaio is not just a wonderfully executed reconstruction of a fascinating era, it is also actively fighting for two vanishing species. The Arcturos refuge for bears has nothing to do with wine and yet it too owes its existence to Boutari family. From its headquarters in Thessaloniki, Arcturos set up a sanctuary for dancing bears just outside Nymphaio in 1993, and another one for wolves at Agrapidia off the main road to Kastoria in 1998. They also run an environmental information centre/veterinary clinic at Aetos between the two. Not all the farmers in the area sympathize with their efforts; some even accuse Arcturos of releasing their bears and wolves into the wild to savage their livestock.

So, when you go to Nymphaio, make a point of visiting and supporting these important refuges. It is not often you can lend a helping hand while indulging all your senses so magnificently.

How to get there
Nymphaio lies 610 km north of Athens, west of Veria, east of Kastoria. The most direct route from Athens is via Larissa and Kozani; from Thessaloniki drive west through Yiannitsa and Edessa.

Where to stay
There are six small pensions in Nymphaio, none larger than 10 rooms. La Moara, 8 rooms, tel. 2310 287626; price includes breakfast and dinner; Ta Linouria, 10 rooms, tel. 23860 31133; Athina, 5 rooms, tel. 23860 31141. La Betlou tel. 23860 41282, Enterne tel. 23860 31230 and La Galba tel. 23860 31314 are other, slightly more economical possibilities. La Moara has its own stables but the other pensions can also arrange for horses and guides if you’d like to ride.

Where to eat
Besides Neveska and Ta Linouria, La Betlou has its own taverna, and the  Archondiko serves traditional dishes, too. But for a special meal, try Thomas’s Taverna at Sklithrou, on the main road to Kastoria. It’s known for miles around for its cava which lists almost 300 different Greek wines.

Related Links > http://www.yadeshotels.gr/en/hotels.htm

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