Secrets of Prespa and Ohrid - Full Itinerary
Day One - Cultural Capital of Thessaloniki
Visitors are asked to arrange their flights to Thessaloniki, Greece, where we'll meet you at the airport (see Flexibility in the Question section, for those who wish to fly to another airport).
As a major port city, Thessaloniki has been at the heart of the region for centuries. Founded in 315 BC by Cassander of Macedon, it became the second largest and wealthiest city of the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). It was conquered by the Ottomans in 1430 and passed from the Ottoman Empire to modern Greece on 8 November 1912. Remains from throughout history survive today amongst the modern buildings.
People will get in at different times, so the tour starts at 19:00 in the lobby of Hotel Pefka, where we'll all meet before dinner at 19:30. The hotel is in the suburb of Panorama, high above the city. It is quiet and next to a park with nightjar. The restaurant terrace also has superb views over the city and the bay.
For those coming in early, we can also recommend things to do and see in Thessaloniki, and you could get a taxi back to the hotel in the late afternoon.
Many previous visitors have chosen to arrive early or stay for a day or two after in Thessaloniki. We'd certainly recommend this as it's a walkable and interesting city. We can suggest where to go, eat and drink, and visitors should definitely get a copy of Mark Mazower's 'Salonica, City of Ghosts'.
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Day Two - Wetlands, homemade pie and deserted villages
Morning - short walks, never more than a kilometre
We'll take the scenic route from Thessaloniki to Prespa, via unknown nature and heritage spots along the way. The first stop is for a drink by a little-visited lake where we should get our first views of both pelicans, pygmy cormorants, squacco heron and possibly glossy ibis. There's one spot under the cliffs with roller, bee-eater and hoopoe, and it'd be great to see long-legged buzzard and lanner falcon, which do breed here, but those need some luck. We'll then get back into the minibus, leave the mountains, and cross the Pelagonia plain. At the other side, at the foot of the Prespa mountains, lives Haris, an organic beekeeper. He'll show us his demonstration hives and explain about honey, propolis and Royal jelly. He makes some lovely liqueurs from local plants too!
Haris's wife will make us homemade Greek pies for lunch ('spanakopita' in Greek, but can be made with cheeses, peppers, leeks, you name it), and we'll either eat them in their garden, whilst listening to nightingales and golden orioles, or we can take them into the beech forests above and do a spot of mushroom collecting, hoping to see golden eagle above.
We'll continue on our way to Prespa, but stop off to meet a young man who's trying to reignite interest in his forgotten village, officially Akritas, but still called Buf by some of the inhabitants, which would be eagle owl in English. His village was home to 3,000 people before the Greek Civil War. It's now home to 50 and the ruins of all the other houses remain. It's quite an image, and a powerful introduction to the recent history of the area; a history that is known to very few outside Greece [Note: a landslide in winter 2017 wasn't cleared for 2018 and we had to miss this village. We await news on whether it is cleared for Spring 2019].
Evening & Dinner
Before the sun goes down we'll drive over the mountain pass into Prespa, to catch a view of the lakes from up high, before driving on to our hotel for the next three nights in the village of Laimos. It is a traditional farmhouse and mill, restored and converted into a 10 room guesthouse. As with all accommodation on the trip, it has breakfast, heating, hot water, wi-fi and en-suite rooms. We'll also eat dinner here after checking in.
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Day Three - Writers, Vlachs and Pelicans
Morning - A collection of short walks from the minibus, never more than a kilometre
Today we're joined by Julian Hoffman, an English-Canadian writer who has lived in Prespa for 17 years with his wife, Julia. As well as being one of the region’s most experienced bird-watchers, he is the author of ‘The Small Heart of Things’, an award-winning essay collection primarily set in Prespa that explores the connections between man, nature, place and home. You can watch the trailer here. He has a great blog too - Notes from Near and Far.
Starting on the eastern side of the isthmus, by 'Barred warbler corner' we'd be on the lookout for breeding birds such as alpine swift, black-headed bunting, red-backed shrike, golden oriole and yellow wagtail feldegg (black head). Plus the wide variety of butterflies and spring plants covering the land as we walk west amongst river forest, lakeshore, scrubland and reedbed by the lakeshore, the latter being a great place in the morning for pelicans, cormorants and other water birds. [Note: Barred warbler are in small numbers and are tough to see or, more importantly, hear after May.]
We will stop at the sluice gate to hear about the wetland restoration work done by the Society for the Protection of Prespa, which is also a great place to demonstrate Balkan Track’s trail cameras, which have recorded a wide variety of mammals in the area. The morning finishes with a drive to the hill that looks over the pelican and pygmy cormorant colonies. We bring along a telescope, but you'll get great views just with binoculars. Lesser Prespa is home to the world's largest breeding colony of Dalmatian pelicans (≈1,200-1,400 breeding pairs) and ≈400-500 pairs of great white pelican. Visitors should also be on the lookout for pygmy cormorants, glossy ibis, grey and squacco herons, great white and little egret and marsh harriers.
This day, and every day, we'll be looking out for the footprints and other signs left by the region's mammals. With the exception of deep winter, bears are on the move and their footprints and characteristic faeces can be found all around the lakes and mountains. But it's just as fun learning to spot badger and wildcat, or distinguishing between wolf or dog, goat or roe deer. We may also pass by a trail camera (camera trap) and see what walked past in the days before us.
We'll stop for a few local meze at a tavern between the lakes, with a terrace near the dam.
Afternoon - 3km / 2 miles
After lunch, we'll visit a traditional shepherds village, nestled in a plateau at 1,000m asl, surrounded by mountains and on the border with Albania. As with many residents in Greek Prespa, the villagers belong to the Aromanian ethnicity (often referred to as "Vlach" in the Balkans). Many Aromanians were transhumance shepherds, a semi-nomadic people moving great distances throughout the Byzantine and Ottoman empires as they moved their herds from summer to winter pasture. One of the shepherds will join us for a walk around the village and nearby fields, where one will soon notice fodder crops full of poppies, cornflower and corn cockle. He'll point out the various herbs, berries and flowers that his generation used for medicinal purposes, as well as giving a short history of the Vlach people and his own life as a shepherd.
This generally brings us to about 16:00, at which time we return to the hotel for a few hours rest for those who fancy it. Or, for those who'd like to see a bit more, the hotel is set amongst fields and streams, so the guide can take people for a short bit of nature-spotting.
After a rest and/or gentle walk near the hotel, we'll visit Ayios Yermanos for dinner in the village square. This mountain village was recently listed to protect its vernacular architecture. Before dinner, we'll have a short walk to see the 10th-century church and some of the exemplary houses from the 19th and 20th century.
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Day Four - Junipers, butterflies and birdwatching by boat
Early Morning (optional extra)
Chance to try see otters from a vantage point above the lake.
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 reached 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 of the boats of pelicans and other waterbirds fishing in the lake. As it's a boat trip, it's a very relaxed way to spend the morning, with weight taken off feet. Once back on land we'll take a short walk around the gorgeous fishing village before exploring the wide openings at the foot of the mixed oak and juniper forests.
We'll take a pause along the route by a small church, where we'll take delivery of a packed lunch from a local restaurant.
Afternoon - 5km / 3 miles (can be done instead from the minibus and just explore the vicinity)
After lunch, we drive higher into the forest. After learning the minibus we take a short walk amongst ancient juniper stands, some a thousand years old. The soil and climate make these stands unique in Europe and they are host to a range of important plants, dozens of butterfly species and good chances of seeing hoopoe, treecreeper, ortolan bunting, woodlark and short-toed eagle. Half of Greek Prespa's plants can be found here, including the rare soapwort (Saponaria bellidifolia), Orchis mascula, Orchis quadripunctata, Platanthere cholrantha and Ophrys sphegodes. The mountain was also a frontline during the Greek Civil War of 1945-1949 and many ruined military buildings are found along the footpath. For the whole walk, you'll want to be on the lookout for signs of bear, wolf, wild boar and roe deer. They love these forests. Eyes open for Stag beetle (Lucanus cervus) too. Ideally, we'll be joined by a local forester, ranger or logger to tell us about the balance between man and nature in the forest.
Dinner and drinks in a traditional coffee shop, 'To Kazani tou Pappou' ('Grandad's Distillery', in English). 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 history from a local beekeeper and mushroom collector, who'll also bring his organic produce to sample.
(Read more: an introduction on Wikipedia or try two brilliant Bernieres's brilliant book on the exchanges, Louis de Bernieres's historical fiction, Birds Without Wings and a non-fiction account by Bruce Clark, Twice a Stranger.
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Day Five - The Tsar's Island and into Albania
Morning - 1km / 0.7 miles
The island of Saint Achillios (Ayios Achillios on maps) has been inhabited for centuries, but until 2000 was only accessible by boat. For the millennium a footbridge was built, which we cross to do a short, circular route of the island. It's a beautiful place, giving 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. The island is famous for being a short-lived capital of Tsar Samuel in the 10th century and his now ruined, but still magnificent basilica.
We'll leave Greek Prespa to drive toward the border with Albania. Just before getting there we'll stop by a river to enjoy a packed lunch under the shade of trees.
As we're halfway through the tour its a good idea to have a bit of a breather this afternoon. We cross the border and half an hour later arrive in the small yet important city of Korce. After checking in there's the choice of relaxing in the hotel lobby or joining the guide on a jaunt to the war cemetery high above the city, which as well as being interesting of itself with its graves bearing Christian, Jewish and Islamic names, is a good spot for a bit of birding and has excellent views over the city, Korce plains and surrounding mountains.
We'll be joined by a local guide who, before and after dinner, will give us a walking tour of her city. Home to the first school in Albania, museums, a 15th-century mosque, beer festivals and many of the country's literary figures, it's very much the cultural capital of the country. We'll eat in the recently refurbished Ottoman-era market before dessert on the pedestrianised promenade.
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Day Six - Albanian Prespa: a time machine
On the western side of the Prespa basin lies the Mali i Thate / Galicica mountain range, running north-south and dividing the Prespa lakes on the left from the Korce plain and Lake Ohrid to the right. To travel from Korce to Albanian Prespa we cross an asphalted mountain pass. We'll spend a bit of time here as not only are the views great, but it's home to a pair of blue rock thrush as well as black-eared wheatear, red-backed, woodchat and lesser grey shrike. Just over the pass, we'll again find bee-eater, hoopoe and maybe barred warbler.
Descending from the mountain pass to the shores of Great Prespa, we stop for a lunch of the local speciality, carp in a traditional white sauce, served on the terrace with views over the historical island of Mali Grad.
Visitors quickly realise that the landscape in Albanian Prespa looks similar, but also very different. There is no intensive farming here; to a large extent the residents just farm for their own need, and few have machines. The history behind this and current socio-economic issues are part of a longer discussion, but from Nature's perspective, this creates a healthy mosaic of different fields and crops - perfect for birds and insects. It's also how a lot of Europe would have looked before the Industrial Age.
It's a short drive from our lunch spot to the village of Gorice e Vogel, where we meet Valentina, a local teacher and eco-guide. She will join us on a circular walk outside her village, by the lakeshore and old terraces that are returning to nature. It's a flat walk that's largely shaded, giving us the chance to take our time and stop to check every last butterfly and wildflower. The trees are full of golden oriole and nightingale, with pelicans and cormorants next to us on the lake.
As night falls we'll cross the border and stay in Oteshevo for two nights, by the beach in a hotel constructed during the Tito-era. It is being renovated bit by bit by a local family and, whilst there are no frills, it is alone in a spectacular location.
Dinner will be just up the road. More regional cuisine with the local firewater, aged in oak barrels.
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Day Seven - Mt. Galicica and UNESCO Ohrid
Morning - 2km/ 1.5 miles
The huge mountain range of Galicica National Park (IUCN Level 2) separates the Prespa lakes from the even larger and older Lake Ohrid. After breakfast, we'll meet a forester and park warden who will be our guide for the day. We'll drive up and over the mountain, but will stop at the top to enjoy views over both lakes and enjoy a plant and butterfly hotspot, looking out for Queen of Spain and the Apollo butterflies, and from plants, the local endemic Mayeri’s milkvetch, Galicica houseleek, and Daphne oleoides.
Lunch is quite spectacular today. The waters of the Prespa basin are not connected to the outside of the basin by rivers and streams. Underneath Galicica, a mountain of limestone, the waters trickle through the rock and bubble up in a small lagoon on the shores of Lake Ohrid. We'll stop for barbecued trout from the lake, on yet another lakeside terrace, but this time the colossal Lake Ohrid.
We drive alongside the lake to the UNESCO protected city of Ohrid. An amazing place, it looks like something out of a fairytale. Tsar Samuel's fortress looks down on a Roman amphitheatre, 10th-century churches, winding streets and the towering mountains of Galicica National Park around it. And then there's Lake Ohrid itself, double the size of Prespa and four times as deep.
Today's a bit of a long day, and after leaving Ohrid it's a 50-minute drive to the hotel. We'll stop for a comfort break in Resen, with dinner being back at the hotel so that people can eat at their leisure and relax a little.
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Day Eight - Ancient Heraclea, Bitola and Pelister
Leaving Oteshevo we'll drive east and wave goodbye to the Prespa basin. By mid-morning we'll be in Bitola, a historical city that we'll see chronologically as we start at ancient Heraclea, where Bitola started. 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 a large amphitheatre 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 and their columns and fine floor mosaics remain.
Heraclea is on the outskirts of Bitola, the centre of which we'll visit next. From the outside it appears like any other Eastern European city; high-rise residential towers along tree-lined streets full of Yugo, Lada and Zastava. The centre though retains its mix of Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman influences, and we'll walk from the town museum in the old military academy at which Ataturk studied, along the pedestrian street, visiting two centuries old mosques and the Bit Bazaar.
Lunch will then be in the central square of Bitola at an Anatolian restaurant.
We’ll drive up to our hotel for the night - Sumski Fenari - drop off our bags and then go for a walk in Pelister National Park.
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.
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.
From the world of plants: Dianthus myrtinervius, a local endemic; Campanula albanica, a Balkan endemic; and the rare Viola orphanidis. Butterflies: a 30-minute walk from the hotel in June 2017 brought us 22 species, including Balkan clouded yellow, Eastern rock grayling, Marbled fritillary and Nettle-tree.
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.
Dinner will be at the hotel, Sumski Fenari, which also stocks a good variety of local wines.
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Day Nine - Wine & Phillip II
Today we journey back to Thessaloniki. We'll be back there by 18:00, which is ok for evening flights, but you may wish to stay overnight.
From Molika we'll head back to Greece, taking another route back to Thessaloniki. We'll stop along the way, by Lake Vegoritidha, at one of Greece's premier vineyards for lunch and wine-tasting. The north of Greece is home to its own grape, the xino-mavro. Learn more about it whilst tasting it.
Our final stop on the tour is one of the region's best museum, The Royal Tombs of Aigai, which in our opinion can only be topped by the new Acropolis museum in Athens. The centrepiece is the tomb of Phillip II, in which they house the museum. It's unspeakably brilliant and we can't write here or show photos to explain the experience of seeing all the artefacts in the tomb itself. You can try get an idea from the museum's website:
From there, it's another 45 minutes to the airport.
We'd like to stay in Greece a few more days!
Not a problem, and we'd be pleased to advise you on that too. More details on this can be found in the Questions section below, or you can send us an email or chat over the phone.
Don't forget Mark Mazower's book, Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews. Essential reading for those interested in seeing Thessaloniki.