Mikrolimni to Vatochori: Bear in the night?

“Beware the bears” , the girl in the supermarket had said. We lay in our tents in the dark, not daring to move.  Something big had crashed through the undergrowth and was nosing around  the campsite. It barked – again and again. But no, it didn’t sound like a dog. Do bears bark? Foolishly, we had kept the food in the tent rather than hanging it up out of reach over a branch. Would it try and find it? We lay there trembling, not daring to move. Wrapped up in our sleeping bags we were at a definite disadvantage.  Where was my whistle? “Loud” had been the feedback on the website where I bought it – maybe that would be a deterrent. And we’d been told that European brown bears weren’t aggressive, unless you got between a mother bear and her cubs….  Then there was snuffling, as it moved noisily away into the forest. Gradually we relaxed. It took a long time to get to sleep.

It had been a long day and the campsite, just outside Vatochori on the main road to Albania, wasn’t ideal. The village was mostly abandoned with houses crumbling into ruin. There were few people about, almost all men. There were no cafes, rooms or shops. It was a strange, slightly threatening atmosphere – too close to the border. We’d filled up with water and fled back out into the countryside.

Lake Prespa from Mikrolimni

It had been an idyllic start to the day, with coffee on the waterfront at Mikrolimni, watching the water snakes below. One caught a fish, and disappeared off into the reeds to eat it. We walked on round the headland to Litatsi cove, where we could see right down to the tip of the lake in Albania. Below was wooded pastureland, with rushes fringing the inlet: pink and gold and pale green. In the distance we saw a fox running through the grass. There were lots of little flies – the sign of a healthy eco-system. Veryan  nearly trod on a small black snake.

Litatsi inlet, lake Prespa

As we headed up the dirt track out of the cove, a four wheel drive vehicle was coming down: the border police. One got out to check our passports, and to ask what we were doing.  We were right on the uneasy border with Albania. The shepherds told of traffickers: a man with a Kalashnikov and two frightened girls, who waved as he passed by. On the trail were Albanian cigarette packets.

We’d decided not to take the high route over the Triklario peak (1700m), as the paths were defined as “faint”, and I was still having difficulty getting to grips with the GPS. Instead, we followed the E6 to the deserted village of Sfika on the pass. We were now in limestone country and the flowers were different: the magenta blaze of everlasting pea, with broom and irises, purple, yellow and white. We had lunch by the stream running through the village, surrounded by luminous green fields and decaying mud brick walls.

Above Mikrolimni

It was here that Alan and I had our first big disagreement on which way to go. He had the compass, and I had the GPS, and we both agreed we wanted to go South. But the compass showed South one way, and the GPS showed the opposite. We sat and argued for a while, and then sanity struck: we looked at the sun. The compass was wrong! It belonged to our son, and we found out later that he’d been given it free because the directions were painted on upside down. It’s a good thing the sun was shining.

Forest trail beyond Sfika The rest of the day we walked through mixed forest of beech, oak and pine, with occasional small  cornfields, scattered with corn cockles and cornflowers, pretty weeds long disappeared from British farmland. Coming down into the final valley, we found that the river was dry, we didn’t have enough water to camp and so had to walk on up the road to Vatohori and our campsite just above the village.

The route: E6, but with very few waymarks. Fairly easy walking mostly along dirt tracks, and occasional footpaths. The main problem were the confusing new tracks, not yet shown on the map, which sometimes made it  hard to find the right path. The final part of the E6 follows the dirt track along the river rather than the footpath shown on the map, which we didn’t see.  There was water on the first part of the route, but nothing after Sfika until the newly refurbished village spring at Vatohori church. However, there is water in the main Ladopotami river south of the main road. Compass, map and GPS essential. Kilometres: 19. Ascent: 595m. Descent: 591m. Map: Anavasi  6.2. Prespa, Vitsi, Voras.

Facilities: None.

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