For many years, Prespa was forbidden territory. During the Greek Civil War (1946-49), it was one of the last strongholds of the Left. As the fighters and their families fled across the border to Albania and on to exile throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, their land was confiscated and villages were left abandoned and in ruins. When I passed this way in 1970, I was turned back at a military checkpoint somewhere north of Kastoria.
There are now memorials on the lakeside to both the Democratic Army (leftwing) and a young soldier of the right wing National Army. Following the Civil War amnesty in 1982, people started to trickle home, and this forgotten corner of Greece, tucked up beside the lakes with Albania and the Federal Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) just across the water, is slowly coming back to life.
The Society for the Protection of Prespa (SPP) was set up in 1990, to encourage sustainable development and protect the amazing natural environment. They have also brought more people to settle in the area. French Marie first came to work at SPP: she and and her Greek husband now run Spirit of Adventure, hiring out bikes, binoculars and GPS.
The spectacular lake and mountain scenery has hardly been touched by tourist development, and the main occupation is still farming. Prespa has long been the bean capital of Greece: fields of beans line the eastern lake shore, there was bean soup in the tavernas, and beans for sale at every corner.
And then there’s the birds. I’m not really a birdwatcher – birds are too small and move too fast and I never really got the hang of binoculars either. But the birds here are big, slow-moving, even stationary – the charismatic megafauna of the avian world. You can’t miss them. Squadrons of pelicans wheel overhead or sit and preen on the shore. It’s the largest colony of Dalmatian pelicans in the world, and there’s plenty of White pelicans too.
As we crossed the causeway between the two lakes, a stork peered down from its nest at the top of a telegraph pole. All around was birdsong. Earlier on we had spent ages watching the bee-eaters high above, with the sun shining down through their translucent wings.
There’s also cultural treasures to explore. We visited the little church of Agios Germanos with its glowing Byzantine frescoes, and crossed the causeway to the island of Agios Achilleos and the ruined tenth century basilica, set amidst a very English landscape of honeysuckle, hawthorn and buttercups.
Altogether, we had three days of not carrying packs. Our bodies appreciated the time to get used to the unaccustomed exercise. We stayed at the Prespes guesthouse – a lovely old 1930s building, with wooden ceilings, whitewashed walls and handmade quilts on the beds.