Dear S........l and family,
These lakes and mountains are an unexplored corner of Europe. Perfect for those who want to walk off the beaten track, where at most you'll only ever meet a shepherd up in the hills...
The tour is centred around the Prespa lakes; shared by three different countries, four national parks and five ethnicities, the region has a long and complex history. The best way to take it all in is for the local people to show you their homes and their ancestors' ancient ruins, hidden on islands and amongst the forests. We ensure that every day you'll meet someone different to tell you about their lives whilst enjoying lunch and dinner together.
It's also a great educational opportunity for young explorers. Playing with hidden cameras, using a bat detector and catching bugs. Every day is a new adventure.
Take a look at our trailer opposite, which includes many of the activities that we suggest below.
Click above to watch the trailer
Hikes, Food & History
31 March - 8 April 2017
8 days (9 inc. travel)
Pella, Bees & Mushrooms
Hikes, Boats &
& Dwarf Cows
Mt Galicica & Lake Ohrid
Hiking the Holy Water Trail
& Roman Ruins
Find out more
Boat trip to the Island,
hike the Holy Water Trail
The WW1 Trail,
& Wine tasting
Tracking Mammals &
Dinner with Shepherds
Pella, Aristotle, Beekeeping & Mushroom collecting
Hike with views of all three lakes
& Dwarf Cows
DAY ONE - Arrive Thessaloniki -Friday, 31 March
Collect from airport, stop somewhere for dinner on way to hotel
DAY TWO - Pella, Bees & Mushrooms - Saturday, 1 April
- Driving to the ancient city of Pella, second capital of the Ancient Macedonians
- Explore the small site attributed to the School of Aristotle. Have lunch outdoors where Alexander the Great was taught
- Drive across the Pelagonia plains to the valley of Kleines, where we'll meet a beekeeper and go mushroom hunting
- Dinner in a local coffee shop and grappa distillery ("tsipuro", in Greek)
DAY THREE - Hikes, Boats and Shepherds - Sunday, 2 April
- A boat ride out on the lake to hopefully watch pelicans fishing and see the 500 year old hermitages
- Hiking above the lake to Cape Roti, an easy 3km route, checking for signs of bears along the way
- Lunch is a 'Shepherd's Gledi', with lamb on the spit, traditional music and stories from local Vlach shepherds
- A 2km circular route around the island of Tsar Samuel. There's a gorgeous tavern on the island for downtime
- Time to relax in the hotel and village in the evening
DAY FOUR - Cooking, Dwarf Cows and Bats - Monday, 3 April
- A cooking class at a lakeshore taverna, using seasonal recipes from 50 years ago
- Crossing the border into Albanian Prespa, we'll visit a cow herder with a unique new stable, designed for bats
- Dinner and hotel on the shores of Great Prespa
DAY FIVE - Nature club and Smallholdings - Tuesday, 4 April
- A morning walk amongst rare junipers to the St Marina monastery
- a bite to eat and then we'll join the local school's nature club to plant seeds for butterflies
- dinner with a local family
- We cross the border after dinner to stay at Tito's old hotel on the lake shore
DAY SIX - Mt Galicica and Lake Ohrid - Wednesday, 5 April
Today you can spend a whole day relaxing in Ohrid, with the option of a morning or afternoon hike on Galicica.
Ohrid - an incredible UNESCO protected city. See the castle, churches by the lake, cobbled streets and plenty of little shops.
Galicica - join a park guide on a 5km hike to a summit with views of all three lakes
Resen - Homecooked cuisine at a restaurant or with a local family
DAY SEVEN - Hiking the Holy Water Trail - Thursday, 6 April
- Weather permitting we'll cross to the historic island of Golem Grad
- Hike the Holy Water Trail from the church of St George to the Monastery of the Virgin Mary, with lunch along the way
- Dinner in a hotel up in the Pelister mountain range
DAY EIGHT - Pine forests, ancient cities and Wine-tasting - Friday, 7 April
- We'll visit the park's Information Centre and maybe hike the World War One trail, with lunch somewhere in the forest
- Visit the ancient city of Heraclea, established by Phillip II and then expanded by the Romans
- Crossing the border we'll head through the Pelagonia plains for wine-tasting at an organic vineyard
- After dinner we'll drive to our hotel in Vergina, by the Macedonian Tombs
DAY NINE - Ancient Aigai - First capital of the Macedonians - Satuday, 8 April
- After breakfast a short uphill hike to the Acropolis overlooking the ancient kingdom
- Inside the modern town of Vergina are the tombs of Phillip and Macedonian dignitaries
- Sad times. The flight home.
Arrive in Thessaloniki (Salonica)
Friday, 31 March
The best introduction to the city is a book called 'Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews' by Mark Mazower:
"a fascinating crossroads metropolis of different religions and ethnicities, where Egyptian merchants, Spanish Jews, Orthodox Greeks, Sufi dervishes, and Albanian brigands all rubbed shoulders. Tensions sometimes flared, but tolerance largely prevailed until the twentieth century when the Greek army marched in, Muslims were forced out, and the Nazis deported and killed the Jews. As the acclaimed historian Mark Mazower follows the city’s inhabitants through plague, invasion, famine, and the disastrous twentieth century, he resurrects a fascinating and vanished world".
Find out more on this book, and others written about the region, in our Reading List.
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Pella, Bees and Mushrooms
Saturday, 1 April
Interaction: 2 local guides and dialogue with locals in their coffee shop
For kids: seeing inside a beehive and learning how they live and work
We leave Thessaloniki on the scenic route for the Prespa National Park via Pella, second capital of the Ancient Macedonians.
Quite an exciting stop for lunch, at the School of Aristotle where historians tell us he would have taught a teenage Alexander. We'll grab some pies, pasties and wraps on the way and eat them under an old tree, imagining Aristotle and his students doing the same.
Back on the road, we'll skirt unknown lakes and the slopes of Mt Kaimaktsalan on our way across the Pelagonia plains to Kleines.
Here we'll get a demonstration of beehives and learn all about the annual cycle of bees. He'll explain, in English, about their ecology and the uses for honey, propolis and Royal Jelly. He is also a Pondic Greek, whose ancestors were expelled from the Pondus River delta during the Greek-Turkish population exchanges of 1923. 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. You can find more out about Haris here, and find books on the subject in our Reading List.
As well as being a beekeeper, Haris also collects, dries and sells mushrooms. He can take us out into the forests and streams where his bees also roam. Even if the weather conditions the days previous aren't right for mushrooms, it's a beautiful valley that no tourists in Greece know of. Indeed, there won't be many Greeks who know. We'll have our binoculars with us too, plus a bug collector, butterfly net and magnifying glass so that your son can get as close as possible to the weird and wonderful bugs we have.
Continuing our Pondic theme, dinner tonight is in a traditional coffee shop. Since the 1920s the village has largely been inhabited by Pondic and Minor Asia Greeks, who settled here gradually after being expelled from what is now northern Turkey. The current owner is the third generation who has run the shop. Such places are getting rarer and rarer in modern Greece, but they're incredibly important for the local community. It's a grocery store, a coffee shop, a bar for watching sports in the evening, and it has the village's tsipuro distillery (raki in the Slavic languages, grappa in Italian) - very much the centre of traditional village life.
Your hotel for the next two nights is a traditional farmhouse, restored and converted into a 10 room guesthouse.
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Hikes, Boats and Shepherds
Sunday, 2 April
Interaction: Variety of local guides and dialogue opportunies
For kids: driving a powerboat, exploring caves and ruined churches, checking cameras for bears
Boat ride + 3km hike
During the 14th and 15th century the Ottoman Empire grew and grew. Monks and hermits were drawn to the caves along the Great Prespa Lake, caves that were far from Ottoman eyes. The ruins of these hermitages can still only be seen by boat. We take a 90 minute tour with a local fisherman, who tells all about the hermits and the lives of fishermen themselves. It's a very relaxing way to spend the morning.
Afterwards we could add on a walk out to the cape. With the exception of deep winter, bears are on the move and their footprints and characteristic faeces can be found here. We have had trail cameras set on the road and you can see some videos below. Plus we have printed materials for both adults and children that help distinguish paths, prints and faeces for the mammals of the region.
Lunch on the Island - 2km hike
It's a short walk to the inhabited island of Saint Achillios, accessible only by boat or footbridge. It's a beautiful place, giving commanding views of the mountains all around the Prespa lake basin. The island is most famous for being a short-lived capital of Tsar Samuel in the 10th century and his now ruined, but still magnificent cathedral. If anyone's tired or the weather isn't cooperative, the island also has a great taverna with a huge veranda. A perfect place to look over the lake shore.
Next to the island is Prespa's birding highlight - the vantage point over the pelican colonies. Lake Lesser Prespa is home to the world's largest breeding colony of Dalmatian pelicans, as well as other rare and important birds. We can bring along telescopes and binoculars, plus a picture guide of common birds for children.
Today's dinner is quite special. Our shepherd friend above will organise a traditional "gledi" (Greek for party) on the hillside overlooking his village. Lamb will be grilled on the spit, served with roasted potatoes and fresh salads. As with many residents in Greek Prespa, the villagers belong to the Aromanian ethnicity, or "Vlach" as people in the Balkans 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. (Note: if budget becomes an issue, you may want to cut this. For two people it's expensive to pay for the lamb, for it to be cooked for 3 hours outdoors, and for the clarinet player. It comes to 100€, which is an expensive evening for two people.)
Tonight would be perfect for a night walk (if energy levels are still up)! We'll listen out for owls, wolves and bring along our bat detector too; your son can have it with him and try find bats as dusk comes.
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Cooking Class and Albanian Dwarf Cows
Monday, 3 April
Interaction: Home cooking, 3 local guides, in Greece and Albania
For kids: more mammal tracking, seeing dwarf cows and learning about bats
Morning - Cookery class and lunch
Artermis and her family have run a taverna by the small lake since the 1960s. They too are Vlach, from merchant families who have lived in the region for centuries. She's a great cook and, together with your family, would love to teach you how to prepare a lunch from her childhood. Off the top of her head today she says you could choose three dishes from the following, with a mix of starters, main and salad. We can amend for any dietary requirements, and add in standard dishes for your son... they do great sausages!
- Carp in the oven with onions and prunes (a traditional, local recipe, where prunes give the sour taste that lemon does today, but
when Artemis grew up they didn't have lemons in the north of Greece)
- Spicy myzithra - a cheese salad (served as a starter) - red hot peppers OR potatoes, garlic and hot peppers
- Pikantiki - Cabbage salad (a little pickled) - contains peppers, celery, garlic, carrot, normally preserved from last year
- Tomato-rice - this is actually a summer food (no tomatoes yet) - rice with onions, peppers and tomato
- Vlach chicken wings - chicken wings with onions, peppers and tomato - Vlachs used to love this delicacy because it was a cheap one -
chicken wings cost nothing - Can be done with other parts of the chicken
- Platsos - very, very easy pie with different spring greens and corn flour (all mixed together and baked - no fyllo pastry involved)
- Spanako-rizo - also a favourite and a perfect Spring recipe - spinach & spring onions, with a twist of cinnamon and almonds
Afternoon - to Albania
We're going to start by visiting the villages and shoreline of the tiny sliver of Lake Lesser Prespa that falls in Albania. It's a world apart from Greek Prespa, and was described by one resident to local author, Julian Hoffman, as the place, "that even God has forgotten." You can read Julian's blog post about it here, which formed a chapter in his award-winning book. If you've not been to Albania before then a good overall introduction is the Bradt Travel Guide. We've wider reading suggestions in our Reading List.
Our local guide for the afternoon is a shepherd who has worked with the Swiss SAVE Foundation and the Greek Society for the Protection of Prespa to breed and conserve the unique Prespa dwarf cows. Together they have 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 as he guides us through the fields and reedbeds. We'll have the bat detector handy too! The shepherd is a great guy and we'll hopefully get the chance to meet his wife and four lovely kids.
Depending on energy levels, we could stay til dusk above to wait for the bats, or we could leave earlier for the night's accommodation and let you put your feet up before dinner.
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Nature Club and Smallholdings
Tuesday, 4 April
Interaction: Nature Club and 2 local, farming families
For kids: Hopefully join Nature Club at the local school
We will most likely do a short hike to the monastery of Saint Marina, but a local eco-guide is seeing is she can instead arrange a visit with a local farmer to his small holding. He speaks English and she thinks he would enjoy showing us around.
We'll stop in Dolna Gorica for a simple lunch in a taverna next to the school
First, to Nature Club. 5-10% of profits from our tours go to helping the school offer basic materials to the children, and they will now help us pay for running environmental education for a new 'Nature Club'. The school is small and all age groups, from 7 to 16 are taught together in one class. They also suffer from funding shortages and lack basic writing and sports equipment (they're always happy to accept donations of coloured pens, paper and such materials). Our next Nature Club will be planting seeds that attract bees and butterflies. So we'll be studying the plants and insects, then coming back in a month or so to see the insects in action.
After school we'll walk over to a local family home and smallholding. They've recently been experimenting with new timber crops and 'mountain tea'. We'll have a walk through their land before dinner in the evening. They'll explain about the farming life in Albanian Prespa, where very few people have machinery. Ploughing is done by animals. Lifting and carrying by donkey.
We'll cross the border after dinner and stay in Tito's old hotel on the lake shore in Oteshevo.
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Mt. Galicica and Lake Ohrid
Wednesday, 5 April
Interaction: A young local mountain guide and stay with a Macedonian-American family
For kids: Galicica is one of Europe's butterfly hotspots. We'll bring our butterfly net! The hotel also has a private beach!
Morning - 4 km/ 2.5 miles
The huge mountain range of Galicica National Park separates the Prespa lakes from the even larger and older Lake Ohrid. After breakfast we'll drive up and over the mountain, but will stop at the top to enjoy a hike and views over both lakes and enjoy a plant and butterfly hotspot, looking out for Clouded yellow, Queen of Spain and the Apollo butterflies. We also hope to be joined by a young warden from the National Park, who'll be able to tell us all about the natural and cultural history of the park.
Lunch will be in a lakeshore restaurant in the UNESCO city of Ohrid.
We can give you a map of Ohrid and let you explore it's many delights and cobbled streets. Or we can arrange a guided tour of the city for you.
Two local young ladies will invite us into their home to try recipes passed down the generations. One of the ladies has a cooking blog based on her grandfather's recipe collection - grandadscookbook.blogspot.gr
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The Holy Water Trail
Thursday, 6 April
Interaction: 2 or 3 local guides
For kids: a boat trip to an uninhabited island!
Weather permitting we'll take a boat ride to the uninhabited island of Golem Grad (If the wind's up we'll switch morning and afternoon activities). It's a Strictly Protected part of Galicica National Park, but we'll be guided by a warden from the park, who will also show us the archaeological remains from the 4th century and churches from the 15th century. It's a really special place.
Some of the region's most well preserved and splendid traditional houses and villas are in the villages on this side of the lake, so we'll have a walk around after, looking out for Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) above. Also of note, the high forests of Pelister are the only place in Prespa that the critically endangered Balkan lynx (Lynx lynx balcanicus) has been recorded on a trail camera, back in September 2013.
Two choices here. We could eat in a local tavern, or we could begin the afternoon's hike and have some packed lunches on the trail.
Maybe our favourite hike in Prespa. We'll take a drive to the former monastery of the Virgin Mary (15th century), where its water fountain gives the Holy Water Trail its name. The views of the lake and the walking up here are quite something. There is a relatively easy, marked trail that crosses the mountain between this monastery and the 12th century church of St George, with little ascent or descent as it stays more or less at 1.500m, and takes about 2 hours.
We'll drive to our next hotel, up in the mountains of Pelister National Park, where we can try more local cuisine in the hotel's restaurant.
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Pines, Stone rivers and ancient Heraclea
Friday, 7 April
Interaction: 2 local guides and a tour of Ancient Heraclea
For kids: more bug collecting and mammal tracking
The Pelister mountain range (which continues through the Greek side) has an obvious difference to the Galicica side. Its granite rock is covered in forests, with the eastern side overlooking Prespa, and the western side overlooking the Pelagonia plain and 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). The information centre for the park is on the eastern side, and it’s there that we’ll start our day. 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 front line 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 1915 at over 1,500m in a trench.
A packed lunch up on the mountain.
We’ll descend for the ancient city of Heraclea. Founded by Philip II of Macedon in the 4th century BC, it was named in honour of the mythological Greek hero Heracles, or Hercules as the Romans called him. Hadrian built an ampitheatre 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.
Crossing the border back into Greece, we'll visit the vineyards of Karanika - a Dutch-Greek company committed to organic wine and traditional methods. We'll enjoy a tour of the facilities, some wine-tasting and local food.
After we'll drive to Vergina, ready for an early start in the morning.
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The ancient city of Aigai - first capital of the Macedonians
Saturday, 8 April
For afternoon/evening flights we can have an early start and get a good look round the various sites and ruins. We propose an early morning visit to the top of the Acropolis, before the heat haze gets a chance to form.
Then we'll have a look at the old palace and ampitheatre, but it's currently closed and we need to enquire each time to see if we can get permission to enter.
Following that, we'll enter the old tombs, which are something else. Quite brilliant and certainly the best museum experience in Greece alongside the Parthenon in Athens.
Then it's an hours drive to the airport.
What's included in the price
The price includes:
- Breakfast, lunch and dinner (plus we'll sort tips where applicable, so you needn't worry about this)
- Juice and coffee or tea at breakfast (sometimes hotels provide one glass of wine, beer or spirit with lunch and dinner, but it is not the norm)
- Accommodation (3 star equivalent, as there's no star system in AL and MK - every hotel is warm, clean, cosy and with Wi-Fi)
- Transport between the Prespa region and Thessaloniki airport
- Transport during the full itinerary
- Financial Failure Insurance (see section on Package Tour Regulations)
- All expert and local guides
- Water and fruit in the car each day
- Trip report and video sent after you return home
What's not included in the price
- Transfer from your home to Italian airport and vice versa
- Travel insurance (do not forget this!)
- Drinks in hotels, 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 competent, but possibly 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.
The tour is in English. We will have translators with us in all three countries so that you can talk with local people and guides.
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 the 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 truly understand why you have visited them. It's not about just giving money.
Plus, 5-10% of the profit goes to helping a school in Albanian Prespa equip themselves, and for us to support the school with environmental education activities. (The percentage depends on how many people we have in a group)
People read Greece and think sun, lemons and olive trees. The Prespa/ Ohrid region is where the Mediterranean climate meets Central European, and it is at altitude. Early April can be wet, and when it's wet above 850m it's cold. If the weather is bad for a day, we'll stick to the itinerary. If it gets very bad, we'll talk together about driving further south into Greece and trying to escape the weather. This may incur some additional costs for fuel and hotels cancellations, but we'll try our best to get you outdoors somewhere!
What to Bring
Good walking boots. When it's wet, walking shoes also won't be enough. And wet or dry, we walk on sand near the lake, so boots are often 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 icy 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 accommodation, golf clubs or Spa Hotels. The guesthouses in our region are small, cosy and family run, and, where possible, we use tradition stone houses converted to accommodation. We have stayed as guests ourselves in all the accommodation for 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 an EU member state and required to do this). We also include photos. If you would like further information on any accommodation used in the tour, please do contact us.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are included in the cost.
Breakfast is Continental, with the occasional, 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 on the menu in advance and ensure it's local recipes. You won't be served spaghetti bolognese and hamburgers.
Meals are "Balkan style". This means that all the food is in the middle of the table and we share. So, if you have any requests or allergies, or prefer to have your own plate, you must advise us at least 4 weeks in advance so that we can arrange different menus with each venue.
Vegetarians can be catered for, as the region is rich in meze and salads. Vegan is a touch more difficult, but 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.
The cost includes a 4x4, which our guide will drive each day
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.