History, food & drink
Ancient monuments, gentle walks & great food
(For private groups, lovely in any season, best when it's warm)
3 - 8
The southern Balkans have been home to many different tribes and religions. They still are. A short list includes Zeus and friends, Byzantium, Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Ottomans, Judaism... all have left their tracks behind. Indeed, the city of Ohrid has for centuries been referred to as the Jerusalem of Europe, such was its position as a centre of religion. So it is fitting that this tour begins there.
The next days are spent in the towns, villages and mountains that surround the Ohrid and Prespa lakes, which are today shared between three countries. You'll meet local people in each who will show you ancient ruins and monasteries hidden on islands and nestled amongst forests. Everything is set in incredible national parks, where the natural wealth competes with the cultural.
This is a relaxed tour, where slow food and long chats are equally important. The breakfasts, lunches and dinners provide the opportunity to taste the best of each of the three country's cuisine. And evenings all have a cultural flavour, as our local guides introduce you to their homes, songs and dances. Each day there is some walking, but no more than 3 miles (2km).
City of Ohrid
Find out more
Day One - UNESCO Ohrid and St John the Forerunner
Arrive in Ohrid, the "Jerusalem of the Balkans". Quick coffee before visiting a working monastery. Dinner and overnight in Ohrid.
Day Two - Two lakes and a floating lunch
A morning stroll around the UNESCO city of Ohrid, followed by lunch on a floatilla over the springs of a lakeside monastery. A late afternoon stroll in Galicica National Park and Lake Prespa.
Dinner and overnight on the shores of Lake Prespa.
Day Three - Islands, Holy Water & Mountain villages
The day starts with a boat ride to ancient ruins on a protected island. In the afternoon a visit to a folk museum, then a walk along the Holy Water trail, of monasteries and preserved mountain villages. Overnight on the shores of Lake Prespa.
Day Four - Virgin pines, World War trenches & the ancient city of Heraclea
A gentle stroll in Pelister National park, amongst pine trees and a World War One frontline. Lunch in the old town before a visit to the ancient city of Heraclea. Dinner and overnight in a mountain village.
Day Five - Boat rides, hermitages and Samuel's Basillica
Far away from Ottoman eyes, monks built beautiful chapels that are still accessible only by boat. In the afternoon, a gentle walk around the 11th century island capital of Tsar Samual, which now overlooks the world's largest breeding colony of Dalmatian pelicans. Dinner with Greek shepherds.
Day Six - Architecture, water mills and the Pontic Greeks
A walking tour of Ottomans, wars and exodus through the architecture of a farming village. Lunch by the lake, a rest and then dinner with Pontic Greeks, honey tasting and medicinal plants.
Day Seven - Lake Kastoria and its Neolithic Village
We spend the morning exploring the many abandoned villages of the unvisited yet beautiful valley of the Lathopotamos river. Lunch is spent by Lake Kastoria, where there's time for a spot of souvenir shopping in the old town before we visit a neolithic village. We overnight in Kastoria.
Day Eight - Albanian churches and mosques
Crossing the border to Albania we spend the morning in a tiny village, once a rich town and home to the first printing press outside Constantinople. The afternoon takes us to the churches and mosques of Korce, where we have dinner and overnight.
Day Nine - Europe Past
Albanian Prespa shares the Lesser and Great Prespa lakes with Greece. A local eco-guide shows us her home and farming community, discussing the intertaction beteen man and nature through decades of Communism and the increasing shadow of unchecked modern development.
Day Ten - Ohrid and Departure
Return to Ohrid airport through the apple orchards of Resen.
Day One - UNESCO Ohrid and St John the Forerunner
Arrive in Ohrid
Afternoon spent at the working monastery of St John, built in 1020, destroyed in the 16th century, restored in the 18th century and then devastated by a fire in 2009. The monastery has been completely restored and is home to a monastic community. Of it’s many relics, the highlight is a part of the Holy Cross.
Dinner by the lake in Ohrid, a city notable for once having 365 churches, leading to its old nickname as the Jerusalem of the Balkans. Today it is one of only 28 sites globally that are UNESCO World Heritage sites for Culture as well as Nature. Whilst it’s history stretches back to ancient times, it became especially important as a cultural centre at the end of the 10th century, and it’s importance as a religious centre continued until the rise of the Ottoman empire. As well as it’s churches, other must-see sites are its amphitheatre, hill-top castle and distinctive residential architecture. Our hotel is in one of the many characteristic mansions now converted into rooms.
Day Two - Two lakes and a floating lunch
We’ll take a gentle walk around all of Ohrid’s key cultural sites before driving in the foothills of the Galičica National Park to the southern tip of Lake Ohrid. Here the waters of neighbouring Lake Prespa bubble under the mountain and feed Ohrid in a large lagoon spring. On this site is a beautiful monastery, complete with very brave peacocks. We lunch on a boat on the lagoon.
Lakes Prespa and Ohrid are divided by the colossal Galičica mountain range. At 2,500m high it is a dry, limestone expanse that stretches south through Albania and Greece. A well surfaced asphalt road connects the two lakes, crossing the mountain at its lowest point. Here we’ll take a break and a short walk to look for butterflies, something the area is very famous for. The UK has 55 species of butterfly, of which only 20 are commonly seen. Galičica has over 100 species.
Our home for the next two nights is a family run hotel on the shores of Lake Prespa, where we’ll also dine. The hotel was constructed during Communist times in Yugoslavia, as a private resort for Tito and senior members of the party. There’s even a hidden bunker to explore.
Day Three - Islands, Holy Water and Mountain villages
We take a boat ride to the largest of the two islands in the Prespa lake, which is a strictly protected zone because of its importance for nature, especially its colony of Pygmy cormorants. Given its protected status we’ll be guided by a National Park ranger, who will also take us to the 4th century Roman ruins and 15th century chapel.
A packed lunch on the island
Next we'll take a drive to the former monastery of the Virgin Mary, where it's water fountain gives the Holy Water Trail its name. The views of the lake and the walking up here are quite something. We'll follow a relatively easy, marked trail that crosses the mountain between this monastery and St George. There's little ascent or descent as it stays more or less at 1.500m.
We’ll end the day in the incredibly well preserved mountain villages on this eastern side of the lake, staying in a converted farmhouse with a fish pond for dinner and beekeeper for a host.
Day Four - Stone rivers, World War Trenches and Ancient Heraclea
The Pelister mountain range of Pelister, which continues through the Greek side, has an obvious difference to the Galičica side. Its granite rock is covered in forests, with the eastern side overlooking Prespa, and the western side overlooking the Pelagonia plain. Rangers from the park will show us the fantastic Molika pines (Pinus peuce), enormous stone rivers and we’ll follow part of the World War One trail. The mountain was a frontline in WWI, with French troops spending three exceptionally harsh winters at altitude. It can be minus 15 in the mountain villages at 1,000m, so it’s hard to imagine life in a trench in 1915 at over 1,500m.
We’ll eat and stroll around the historic city of Bitola (stemming from an old Slavic word for monastery, it can be seen as Monastir on old maps, from the Greek for monastery). Bitola is a lovely little city, with a pedestrian-only high street, connecting the park with the Yeni mosque. Around the pedestrian area architecture of the Ottoman period remains and it is very easy to imagine yourself back in the bustling heart of an Ottoman city. From a historical and architectural point, the city is then surrounded by the Brutalist architecture and (rather admirable) city planning of Tito’s Yugoslavia. All in all, a very interesting city.
Founded by Philip II of Macedon in the 4th century BC, it was named in honor of the mythological Greek hero Heracles, or Hercules as the Romans called him. Hadrian built a theatre here, which exists today in a fairly good state. By the 4th century the whole region had become an important episcopal centre, and Heraclea was near the centre of that. Two basilica were built on the site, who’s columns and fine floor mosaics remain.
After Heraclea we’ll cross the border to Greece and drive up through a gorgeous mountain valley to our hotel.
Dinner and the night’s accommodation will be by the side of a ski resort. Not many people associate Greece with skiing, but the country has in fact about a dozen small ski stations, and Prespa has one of them.
Day Five - Boat rides, Hermitages and Samual's Basillica
Our first morning in Greece starts in an old fishing village of no more than 50 people, and centuries ago it’s natural harbour and cliffs were home to cells of monks. During the 14th and 15th century the Ottoman Empire grew and grew. Monks and hermits were drawn to the caves in the cliffs along the Great Prespa Lake; caves that could only be accessed by boat. The ruins of these hermitages, with their well preserved wall paintings, can still only be seen by boat. We take a 90 minute tour with local fishermen, who tell us about the caves, hermits and also the lives of fishermen. On top of this, we get great views from the boats of pelicans and other waterbirds fishing in the lake.
A fish lunch in the same village. The fish of course come straight from the lake, so long as the fish are in season and the lake isn’t closed for the reproduction period.
We’ll take a quick stop for a spot of birdwatching over the incredibly important pelican colonies. The reedbeds to the north of Lake Lesser Prespa have for many years been home to large breeding colonies of Dalmatian and Great White pelican. The numbers had decreased during the 1960s to 1990s, but since 1991 the Society for the Protection of Prespa has been working to restore the wet meadows and regulate the water level, which, amongst other things, are so important for the lake's fish population. Due to this conservation success story, Lesser Prespa is home to the world's largest breeding colony of Dalmatian pelicans (≈1,200 breeding pairs) and ≈350 pairs of Great white pelican. With juveniles, newborns and non-breeders, that's some thousands of pelicans every spring.
The island of Ayios Achillios, named after Saint Achillios, has been inhabited for centuries, but until 2000 was only accessible by boat, when a footbridge was built. It's a beautiful place and in the 10th century became the capital of the empire of Tsar Samuel. Unsurprsingly, for a palace and capital, it gives commanding views of the mountains all around the Prespa lake basin. The island itself is surrounded by wet meadows and reedbeds, kept in control by a herd of Prespa dwarf cows, an indigenous breed found only in Greek and Albanian Prespa. If we dare put nature to the side for an hour, the island is most famous for being a shortlived capital of Tsar Samuel in the 10th century and his now ruined, but still magnificant cathedral.
Note: for anyone who would prefer not to walk the 5km, an shorter circuit can be designed, or the group can split and some spend more time on the taverna's veranda, birdwatching over the lake shore.
Today's dinner is quite special. Some shepherd friend's will organise a traditional "gledi" on the hillside overlooking their village. Lambs will be roasted on the spit, served with roasted potatoes and fresh salads. Better still, before dinner we have the chance to walk around the village accompanied by one of the shepherds and visit his herd of adorable mules. As with many residents in Greek Prespa, the villagers belong to the Aromanian ethnicity, or "Vlach" as people in the Balkan say. The Vlachs were a semi-nomadic people, moving great distances throughout the Byzantine and Ottoman empires as they moved their herds from summer to winter pasture. After dinner we'll be serenaded with Vlach music by a young clarinet player from the village. and maybe a spot of singing and dancing too.
Day Six - Architecture, water mills and the Pontic Greeks
A resident gives us an architecture tour with a difference. Many of the villages in the region had one or two thousand residents before the Second World War. Now, many have under 200 inhabitants and some beautiful buildings have become ruins. Sad as this is, the ruins allow us to see inside the houses, like a cross-section diagram. We’ll have a walking tour around a village, learning how the inhabitants used local materials to build their homes and designed them to best serve their farming and fishing needs (vernacular architecture). Our guide and her family live in the village and have real experience of being farmers in the region, so we’ll mix the architecture with stories from the past. At the end of the tour we finish at a recently restored watermill, which in 2016 won the EU’s highest cultural accolade, the Europa Nostra. A volunteer miller who has been trained to operate the machinery will give us a guided tour of the mill, talking about its past, restoration and its future.
In the south of Prespa lies a small tavern that was closed until recently. The owners niece and her husband have left the rat race in Athens, where they worked in TV production for cookery programmes, and re-opened the tavern with a bit of cosmopolitan flair from their time in the city. With a terrace over the lake, it’s the perfect place for a relaxing lunch, and many times the pelicans, cormorants, herons and grebes sit on the village’s boat jetty outside the tavern.
A gentle walk after lunch to see a recently discovered church. Nothing too strenuous as we use this afternoon as a chance to relax back at the hotel for a couple hours. If the group doesn’t want to relax though, we’ll extend the walk.
Dinner, drinks and maybe even some dancing in a traditional coffee shop, "To Kazani tou Pappou", in Lefkonas. Since the 1920s the village has largely been inhabited by Pondic Greeks, who originate from the area around the Pondus river delta in what is now northern Turkey. Little known outside Greece and Turkey are the devasting Population Exchanges of the 1920s. Following the break-up of the Ottoman Empire and re-drawing of maps after the Balkan Wars, the two countries 'exchanged' some 2 million Christians and Muslims against their will. Some of these Anatolian Greeks settled in Prespa, and we'll hear about their folklore and history from a local beekeeper and mushroom collector, who'll also bring some of his organic produce to sample.
(Read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_exchange_between_Greece_and_Turkey and Louis de Bernieres's brilliant book on the exchanges, Birds Without Wings https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birds_Without_Wings
Day Seven - Albanian churches and mosques
The Lathopotamos river valley is little known by tourists (if at all). As well as being exceptionally beautiful, it played a significant role in the wars of the 19th and 20th Century. We'll visit some of those sites and the remains of it's villages.
We'll drive into Kastoria for lunch and eat near the shores of its lake. Afterwards we'll have time to explore the peninsula and old town before visiting an open-air museum of a Neolithic lake shore community.
Before it gets dark we'll make the drive over the border into Albania, so that you can enjoy the scenery as the light fades.
Day Eight - Albanian churches and mosques
Morning and afternoon
In ancient, Byzantine and Ottoman times, the whole region was important as a seat of education and religion, not just Ohrid. The churches in the villages around the Korce plains are equally important and are situated in places that once had thousands of inhabitants, but through wars and bandits and empires, they’ve lost their population. We’ll spend our day touring these churches, monasteries and mountain villages, before arriving in the modern city of Korce, the “Cultural Capital of Albania”, for lunch. Home to the modern republic’s first school, a small French-speaking quarter, a 14th century mosque, market bazaar and the country’s best beer factory!
After eating in the city we’ll stay in a comfy villa just outside the city.
Day Nine - Europe past
Leaving the city behind we cross back into the Prespa basin. In the morning we visit the tiny villages on the equally tiny strip of Lesser Prespa Lake that lies in Albania. Albanian Prespa is a world apart from Greek Prespa, and was described by one resident to local author, Julian Hoffman, as the a place "that even God has forgotten. You can read Julian's blog post about it here. Our local guide is Florian, a shepherd who has worked with the SAVE Foundation and Society for the Protection of Prespa to breed and conserve the unique Prespa dwarf cows. Together they have a built a new stable for his herd, fitted out with huge roosts for the equally important bats of Prespa. We'll learn about the work from Florian as we wonder through the fields and reed beds.
Pies, salads and juice with Florian’s wife.
After a stroll around the village, we'll visit a tiny folklore museum for an educational break and drink stop. Then it's a short drive to hermitages built into the cliffs, similar to those in Greece. We’re joined for the afternoon by Valentina, a local teacher and eco-guide, who lives in the village of Gorice. She vividly remembers growing up in this ‘forgotten’place under the Communist regime of Enver Hoxha, which only ended in the late 1980s. Whilst Albanian cities are developing at a great pace, life is very different for those in Albanian Prespa. Not through choice, but here there is a more traditional connection between man and nature.
We’ll cross the border back to our lakeside hotel, ready for an early start back to Ohrid for return flights.
Day Ten - Return to Ohrid and Depart
Depending on flight times, we’ll enjoy once more the lake shore and city of Ohrid. The airport is a ten minute journey outside the city.
At this stage, groups may want to request a departure from a different city. Why not have a day or two in Skopje or Tirana? Given the flexibility of our group trips, we can easily add on a few extra days for you using our contacts in both countries.
For us, responsible tourism doesn't work with large or even medium sized groups. We run exclusive tours where you get as much access as possible to the people we meet and the sites we visit. Our preference is for small groups of friends, from 3 to 8 people, but we would discuss tours for couples or slightly larger groups.
Dates & Flexibility
We don't only fix dates for our tours. We think it's best to come as a group of friends and help you customise your itinerary. This tour can be enjoyed in any season. July can be around 30-35 celcius in the afternoon, which may be too hot for some to walk. June and August are warm and very pleasent. Spring here is fantastic for those who would love to see nature too, although bear in mind that like northern and central Europe, can bring rain. The change in leaves in late October and early November is incredible, but like Spring, there can be rain. Winter, especially during the snowy months of January and February, gives a whole different feel to the trip. Incredibly scenery.
So the itinerary and dates above are our suggestion, based on our experience and trying to balance "seeing everything", with still being relaxed and having a holiday. But we're equally happy to do more or less days, or focus on your favourite species.
You will be able to find cheaper and more convenient flights than us. Plus, as we also offer custom groups, we can work with you to explore the best and cheapest times for you to fly in and out. That also means your group could fly into Skopje or Tirana, and fly back from Thessaloniki. Alternatively, you could have a week with us, and then head to the beach! We'll help you research the best flights and connections to get you from your town or city to our part of the Balkans. And if you want advice on where else in the region you could visit after us, we know the wider region very well. The Albanian coast, wine tours, Meteora, Halkidiki, Athens, the Peloponnese. Just ask!
What's included in the price
- Breakfast, lunch and dinner (plus tips where applicable)
- Drinks at breakfast (some hotels provide one glass of wine, beer or spirit with meals, but it is not the norm)
- Transport to and from the airport
- Transport during the full itininerary
- Financial Failure Insurance (see seciton on Package Tour Regulations)
- Water and fruit in the minibus
- Trip report and video
What's not included in the price
- Travel insurance (do not forget this!)
- Drinks in accomodation or at lunch and dinner
Insurance is not just about losing your luggage. You must, must, must take out travel insurance before coming on this tour. Do not just rely on the E111, which isn't valid in Albania and fYR* of Macedonia anyway. If you did have an accident, the health care services in the Balkans are safe and compotent, but they will not match what you are used to at home. Anyone can slip and fall, whether walking in the city or in a mountain, and should an accident occur, you will wish you had insurance to fly you home.
The tours are in English, which allows us to translate between the various Balkan languages. But don't worry, you won't need a high level of English yourselves. Before you arrive we will translate names of common species into your language, print them out on laminated paper, and you can have them with you in the field. The many local guides that we use are not native English speakers, so they won't be using complicated words or speaking fast. They will be happy to speak slowly and repeat when necessary. We can also provide printed materials every morning that give detailed information of what you will hear during the day.
For Dutch speakers
The one exception to English is Dutch. We have a colleague from the Netherlands who can join tours in Dutch. Contact us for more information.
Responsible Tourism - how you give back to the region
Whether you call it responsible, sustainable, green or eco tourism, it only works if you leave something positive behind when you return home. For us, it's not enough that a tour gives money to local hotels and restaurants, a guide (who sometimes isn't born in the region) or a donation a local NGO. The majority of local people will not know that you have visited the region, and even if they do, they possibly don't understand why.
What's really important is that you (and all visitors with Balkan Tracks) interact with as many local people as possible. As with many parts of the world, the people who live in the countryside don't consider it special. Many want to leave, or at least their children do, so it can be odd to see foreigners come and spend money to "see birds and plants". Really odd, actually.
Every day we work with local people to add authenticity to the tours. Shepherds, fishermen, beekeepers, park staff and teachers; the people who really live and work here. Through translators they can walk with us, show us their homes and talk about their lives. Also, each of our tours uses a different combination of hotels and restaurants and we don't just visit the few of them that you can find in the Lonely Planet. The more local people that can show off their region to visitors, the better.
This gives you a much fuller experience, meeting a variety of people and hearing a variety of stories about past and present ways of life, all from different nationalities and ethnicities. But most importantly, more local people than just the hotel owner can benefit financially and culturally from talking with you. In our opinion this is the only way that eco-tourism can have a real impact on conservation; if local people speak to you and truely understand why you have visited them. It's not about just giving money.
People read Greece and think sun, lemons and olive trees. The Prespa/ Ohrid region is where the Mediterrenean climate meets Central European. So summers are still warm, but in the mountains, at alititude, we have snowy winters and similar spring and autumn with northern Europe. Nature in the region is best seen in spring, before the sun burns away the plants and birds begin to migrate back. There's still a lot to see and enjoy in July, especially birds and butterflies, but it can reach 30-35C in mid-July, so you need to consider if that's too hot for you to be walking around.
Spring in any mountains can be wet, and any eco-tour in Europe runs the risk of rain. There's nothing we can do about it, although it would be extremely unfortunate to have 7 days of continuous rain. April is the wettest month, May is fairly mild, June is warm and can see showers, and July is quite hot.
What to Bring
Good walking boots. When it's wet, walking shoes won't be enough. We also walk on sand near the lake. Boots are best
Plenty of good walking socks
Warm, waterproof coat and trousers (in really bad rain we will alter the itinerary, but bring them just in case)
Hats and gloves. Even in June and July, if we are above 1,000m, it can get cold very quickly. Not icey cold, but you'll appreciate hat and gloves.
Plug adapters for UK guests (all three countries have the same plugs and voltage)
If you're interested in eco-tourism in the Balkans, you probably don't expect 5 star accomodation, golf clubs or Spa Hotels. The guesthoues in our region are small, cosy and family run, and, where possible, we use tradition stone houses converted to accomodation. We have stayed as guests ourselves in all the accomodation in this tour, and we know that they are clean, warm, with hot water and WI-FI. In accordance with the Package Tour Regulations, we include locations of the various hotels on this page, together with category, degree of comfort, main features and, for Greece, it's star rating (Greece being the only EU member state). We also include photos above. If you would like further information on any accomodation used in the tour, please do contact us.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are included in the cost.
Breakfast is Continental, with the regional addition of pastry pies (cheese pie, spinach pie etc.).
Lunches alternate between packed lunches from the hotel or a local tavern.
Dinners are in the hotel or a local tavern.
We try our best to use small, family run hotels and restaurants, but even when we can't, we agree the menu in advance and ensure it's local reciepies. You won't be served spaghetti bolognese and hamburgers.
Meals are "Balkan style". This means all the food is in the middle of the table and we share. So, if you have any requests or allergies, you must advise us at least 4 weeks in advance so that we can arrange different menues with each venue.
Vegetarians can be catered for, as the region is rich in meze and salads. Vegan can be arranged and we'll contact you to get some ideas for what you'd like to eat each day. It's a more limited menu, as even without meat, the regional food revolves around dairy products. But it's possible.
Transport & Self-drive
The cost includes a 9 seater minibus, which is used exclusively throughout the tour.
Visas and Passports
The UK Foreign Office recommends that no one travels without at least 6 months remaining on their passports. Citizens of other countries should speak to their government department for specific advice. All citizens, UK and otherwise, are responsible for having the correct travel documents to enter Albania, Greece and fYR* of Macedonia. It is especially important that EU citizens check whether they are able to cross all three borders with their ID cards. Either way, we strongly recommend that you bring passports. Old identity cards, especially some Greek ones which used to be handwritten, have been rejected on certain borders.
Please note: Greece is a member of the EU and the Schengen Zone. Albania and fYR* of Macedonia are not.