Located in the north-western corner of Greece at 850 metres above sea level and surrounded by mountains, the Prespa Lakes region is a natural park of great significance due to its biodiversity and endemic species. Prespa is a transboundary park shared between Greece, Albania and Republic of Macedonia. The main features of the region are the two lakes, that also gives the name to the area: Macro Prespa (259.4 km2 and Micro Prespa (47.4 km2) , which lap the shores of the three countries and connect them in this way symbolically.
Prespa is well known for its natural beauty and its high biodiversity with unique characteristics. It hosts more than 1,500 species of plants, 40 species of mammals, 260 of birds, 32 reptiles and amphibians, and 17 species of fish including a number of species found only here. The mountains are one of the last European homes of brown bears, wolves, chamois and wild boar whilst the lake host breeding colonies of Dalmatian and White Pelicans as well as pygmy cormorants.
In addition, is a place where a unique natural environment coexists with notable Byzantine monuments like churches, monasteries, hermitages and rock paintings dating from the 10th century onwards.
The three main traditional occupations in the region are fishing, animal husbandry and a small agricultural community which over the centuries has shaped and preserved a wealth of natural and cultural values that account for the area’s international importance.
Prespa has always been a place where people and culture have met. It’s story has seen the rule of Bulgars, Serbs, Franks, Byzantians and Ottomans, giving the area a rich and interesting cultural heritage. Prespa has many Byzantine and post-Byzantine monuments. The most famous is certainly the Basilica of Agios Achillios, on the island of same name, built by Samuel, Czar of the Bulgarians in the late 10th century. However many other churches are interesting to visit too: the 11th century church of Agios Germanos with its beautiful frescoes, the recently restored 15th century church of Agios Nikolaos on the edge of Pili village, or the church of the Virgin of the Porphyra on the island of Agios Achillios. After the collapse of the Byzantine Empire in the mid 14th century, came five centuries of Ottoman rule. However, Prespa being so remote, the Turkish presence was relatively light. This period then saw a flourishing Christian presence, with the building of churches, monasteries and hermitages. On the shore of lake Megali Prespa one can find the remains of numerous hermitages, still decorated with impressive frescoes dating up to the 14th century. These are easily accessible by boat, but a bit more difficult is the walk to them. However a lucky trekker will be granted an amazing view over the lake.
The XXth Century was incredibly eventful. The Macedonian Struggle and the Balkan wars saw fights for regional identities and the division into tree countries. The First World War brought the occupation by the French army, and the subsequent debacle of the Greek army and forced population exchanges emptied the region of all the Muslims, who had to move to Turkey in exchange for Asia Minor Greeks. However, the most painful part of the century was the Greek civil war, Prespa being under Communist partisan control. There are still remains of their headquarters and a field hospital to be found in cave. At the end of the war, most of the inhabitants were forced to flee the area. Later few ever returned, and some villages disappeared. In the 50s, the Greek government settled Vlach communities and immigrants from Asia Minor in Prespa to resettle the Macedonians of that region. However, like most of the Greek countryside, Prespa suffered strong rural desertification in the 70s, people leaving for the city or abroad. Unfortunately, the population of Prespa has never returned to its pre-war level.
Flora and fauna
Due to the extraordinary beauty of the lakes and the surrounding mountains, the high biodiversity and the rich plant and animal life, in this region three national parks have been declared, one in each of the neighbouring countries. In Greece and Albania have the same name called the National Park Prespa and in Macedonia the National Park Galichitsa.. In the year 2000 it was declared the trasboundery park Prespa which includes the whole watershed area of bolth Prespa Lakes and has a surface of aprox 2000km2.
Prespa is protected under the Ramsar convention as a wetland of international importance and a European Importand Bird Area as well as being include in Natura 2000, a network of the EU most precious natural areas. Prepa contains the largest breeding colony of Dalmatian pelicans in the world, a mixed colony of pelicans and the largest colony of Pygmy cormorants in Europe. It provides shelter to over 200 species of birds, many of which belong to rare or declining populations within Europe. That´s why Prespa is something of a paradise for bird lovers as it contain so many species reflecting such different habitats in close proximity.
It is worth mentioning the presence of rare mammal species, endangered throughtout Europe, such as the Brown Bear, the Grey Wolf, the European Otter and the Chamois.
The botanists will delight in the many species of Orchids to be found here as well as the endemic species Centurea Prespana. Indeed amateur lovers of all plants can find something for themselves in Prespa strolling through the plains by the like, exploring the beach, oak and juniper forests of striding across the open alpine spaces of the mountain tops
Prespa is a small microclimate found in a mountainous region. The lakes are approximately 850m above the sea level and the higher mountain around the lake are above 2100m. Generally speaking the climate and biology of the area reflect that of the Balkans rather than Mediterranean that many people expects of Greece. Prespa can be very hot in summer reaching 35 degrees in August, however it have cool nights. In winter there will be snow and temperatures can fall lover than -15 degrees although generally will be around -5 degrees.
By air: Thessaloniki airport is the nearest international airport and is approximately 3 hours drive east of Prespa.
The closest city to Prespa is Florina.
By train:There is a train service from Thessaloniki, which will take you as far as Florina, one hours drive from Prespa. For schedules and prices contact the train company OSE.
By bus: KTEL runs services twice from Athens to Florina (8hours). There are also five buses daily from Thessaloniki (3hours). There is no public transport from Kastoria to Prespa. The local bus service from Florina runs Monday, Wednesday and Friday: From Florina to Prespa at 7.00am and 15.00 am (Mo,We,Fri). From Prespa to Florina at 8.30am and 4.30pm (Mo, We, Fr).
The municipality of Prespa includes 15 villages, each village has between 1 and 200 inhabitants. The distance between the villages is quite large: there is not local public transport between them, only to Florina, the closest city, a distance of 50 km. Most of the villages have a local shop with a small selection of goods and also a traditional coffee bar (mostly visited just by men). There are a number of hotels, tavernas and bars in the municipality although these are spread over quite a large area. Other facilities include a couple of supermarkets and petrol stations accessible by car.
Historically the villages split into those of Upper Prespa (Psarades, Vrondero, Pili and Agios Achilios and Lower Prespa (Agios Germanos, Laimos, Plati, Kallithea, Lefkona, Karies, Oxia and MIkrolimni) At the furthest end of Prespa is Vrondero, the only village in Prespa without a view of the lake.
Ruins of abandoned villages
The ruins of abandoned villages are a good opportunity for visitors to walk and discover the lesser-known and more peaceful places in Prespa, hidden in the mountains.
The easiest to reach is Daseri, near Pili. The only remains are the wall of the school and the stone bases of the houses. In Agathoto you can find the remains of a small church, hidden behind rocks and trees.
Almost nothing remains of the Latsista settlement, situated amongst the small hills behind Mikrolimni. It is an ideal place for bird watching, due to the wetlands found there.
Krania, where only a few houses remain, is situated a few kilometres further on. On the way there you can enjoy a unique view of the lake.
Sfika, in the mountains above Oxia was once quite a large village as can be seen from the size of the church, where only one fresco remains. The church is hidden in the forest and it is a delightful surprise to discover it so far from any inhabited area.
Most of the churches, basilicas and monasteries found in Prespa correspond to Byzantine and post-Byzantine styles. Even though some churches are not open to the public, you can still admire their external architecture.
- Church of Agios Germanos (11th c.)
- Church of Agios Athanasios (end of the 18th c.) Both located in the village of Agios Germanos. They are known especially for their well-preserved frescoes.
- Basilica of Agios Achilleios (976-1014 AD) Located on the island of Agios Achilleios in the Small Prespa lake. It is an example of the survival of Early Christian architectural style in the Byzantine period.
- Ruins of the Church of the 12 Apostles (11th c.- 12th c), Church of Agios Georgios (End of the 15th c), Church of Agios Dimitrios, ruined Monastery of Panagia Porphyra (mid 16th c.) - All located on the island of Agios Achilleios. Frescoes can be found in Prespa either inside churches and hermitages or on the cliffs near the hermitages. These last ones can easily be seen during a boat trip on Great Prespa Lake, which can be arranged in the village of Psarades.
- Hermitage of Panagia Eleousa (Beginning of the 15th c.). It is the largest hermitage, which housed the largest number of monks. Frescoes in its interior are a particular example of the painting produced in this corner of the Great Prespa Lake. - Hermitage of the Metamorphosis (13th c.). Leaving Psarades in a boat for the hermitage of Panagia Eleousa, we pass a small stretch of shore with a bay where the hermitage of the Metamorphosis stands, protected by the rocks.
- Hermitage of the Mikri Analipsis (15th c.). The second hermitage we meet along the lakeshore after the frescoes on the rocks is that of the Mikri Analipsis. It is high up in a small cavity in the rock and it is difficult to approach.
Museum of fossils and coins in Vrondero
Ask in the restaurant-bar of the village to visit the museum. Ioannis Nonas founded this museum in April 2005. There is a large collection of fossils that were found in the surrounding area, as well as a collection of old coins and stamps.
Exhibition of old Prespa artefacts and tools in Plati
Located in the hotel Platithea in the village of Plati, where the owner of the hotel has gathered many old artefacts from the region. There are artefacts from the two world wars as well as various objects used in everyday life
The rich land provides excellent quality of fruit and vegetables, which local people prepare using old recipes. The two main products in the area are peppers and beans. The peppers of the shore of Prespa, are rich flesh and taste and the residents of the area really understand a little secret about peppers: red, green, yellow, blazing and aromatic; they need to be roasted or fried to truly reveal their sumptuous flavour. All over the Greek Prespa area people grow beans on fields and in the back garden. Smalls beans “plake” and big beans “yigandes” are the two kinds. The bean soup “fasolada” as well as the baked gigant beans “yigandes sto fourno” are skillfully prepared here.
Very often the table is enriched with various types of fish from the lakes, cooked in different styles, depending on the type and season. The taste of the Prespa carp and the small, tasty fish called "tsironi" is a unique experience, especially because these fish are endemic forms and can only be found here.
The traditional cuisine would not be completed without the presence of the traditional drop. There is hardly a household in the region without a barrel full of wine and “tsipouro”, destilled according to old recipes. Very often anis, mastika, peppermint or other herbs are added to the spirit, contributing not only to the aroma of the drink, but also to its healing powers, of course if drunk in reasonable amounts.