A shimmering expanse of water riven by islets and ridges, the PRÉSPA LAKES are one of the Balkans’ most important wildlife sanctuaries. Though not postcard-pretty, the basin, in the far northwest of Macedonia, has an eerie beauty that grows on you with further acquaintance. It also has a surprisingly turbulent history as a place of exile for troublesome noblemen during the Byzantine era and the scene of vicious local battles during the 1947–49 Greek civil war.
Mikrí Préspa, the southerly lake, is mostly shallow (9m maximum depth) and reedy, with a narrow fjord curling west and just penetrating Albanian territory. The borders of Greece, Albania and the Republic of Macedonia meet in the middle of deeper Megáli Préspa and, especially during the early 1990s, it became a major exit corridor into Greece for Albanian refugees, who found work as illegal agricultural workers in the local bean and hay industry.
The core of the national park, established in 1971, barely encompasses Mikrí Préspa and its shores, but the peripheral zone extends well into the surrounding mountains, affording protection of sorts to foxes, wolves and even bears, which inhabit the area. The lakes have a dozen resident fish species, including tsiróni, a sort of freshwater sardine, and grivádhi, a kind of carp, but it’s birdlife for which the Préspa basin is most famous.
MIKROLÍMNI, 5km up a side road off the main route into the valley, is an extremely sleepy hamlet that might be your first conceivable stop. In the evening, you can look towards sunsets over reedbeds and the snake-infested Vidhronísi (or Vitrinítsi) islet, though swimming isn’t good here, or anywhere else on Mikrí Préspa for that matter.
Return to the main road, which reaches a T-junction 16km from the main Flórina–Kastoriá highway, on the spit which separates the larger and smaller lakes. It’s probable that at one time there was just one lake here, but now there’s a 4m elevation difference. Bearing right at the junction leads within 4km to Áyios Yermanós; the left option splits again at the west end of the spit, bearing south towards the islet of Áyios Ahíllios or northwest towards the hamlet of Psarádhes.
ÁYIOS YERMANÓS, 4km to the right at the T-junction when the main road reaches Megáli Préspa, is a large village of tile-roofed houses, overlooking a patch of the lake in the distance and adjoining the hamlet of Lemós. It’s worth making the trip up just to see two tiny late Byzantine churches, whose frescoes, dating from the time when the place belonged to the bishopric of Ohrid, display a marked Macedonian influence. Inside the lower church, Áyios Athanásios, seldom open, you can glimpse a dog-faced St Christopher among a line of saints opposite the door. Far more impressive, however, is the tiny, eleventh-century parish church of Áyios Yermanós up on the square, hidden behind a new monster awkwardly tacked onto it in 1882. The Byzantine structure has its own entrance, and the frescoes, skilfully retouched in 1743, can be lit; the switch is hidden in the narthex.
At the far end of the wide causeway dividing the two lakes, 4km to the left from the T-junction, is Koúla beach, a motley cluster of what passes for tourist development hereabouts: a patch of reed-free sand from where you can swim in Megáli Préspa; a free but basic camping area, now bereft of its water tap; plus an army post.
Reached by 6km of panoramic corniche road from a signposted turning near Koúla beach, the rickety village of PSARÁDHES makes for a pleasant stroll. Unfortunately, the wonderful old houses lining the lanes are increasingly derelict. It is sometimes possible to take a short boat excursion out onto the lake to see some of the lakeside monuments and churches, but this is not the best way to spot birdlife; there is no fixed schedule, so ask around.
Two kilometres directly south of Koúla beach, the road soon brings you to a floating footbridge, 1500m in length, which leads across to the islet of Áyios Ahíllios and its impoverished, almost deserted hamlet. A five-minute walk from the footbridge is the ruined Byzantine basilica of Áyios Ahíllios, while another ruin, a sixteenth-century monastery, Panayía Porfaras, lies at the southern end of the islet. For unrivalled views of Mikrí Préspa climb up to the summit of the islet’s hill.