Lake Prespa through 360˚

North Macedonia, Albania & Greece

Sun 08 – Sun 15 May 2022

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The Balkans hold some of the oldest and most important freshwater lakes in Europe and this tour is devoted entirely to circumnavigating one of them – Lake Prespa. It stands on an elevated plateau entirely surrounded by mountains and at almost every moment of the holiday you are aware of being immersed in an enormous sense of physical space.

Yet it is no coincidence that in French the word macédoine means mixed fruit or vegetable salad. Throughout Europe the Balkans have long been synonymous with complexity. In a very short distance around this one water body we make a journey through three countries. The week is thus a three-centre holiday, designed to bring you the greatest amount of cultural diversity, alongside the unfolding spectacle of Prespa’s wildlife, but with a minimum of drive-time.

The mixture of habitats – mountains and freshwater marshes, juniper forests and traditional farm fields – offers a glorious blend of birds, butterflies, flowers, reptiles, amphibians and insects, all in remarkable abundance. It is as if the place were tailor-made for the all-encompassing approach of 360 Degrees; and nor should you overlook that the tour takes us to some of the most beautiful, least-visited national parks on the continent.

Before our anti-clockwise tour around Prespa we call at Kalachori on the shores of the Aegean just outside Thessaloniki. The site represents a fragment of the original Axios delta wetlands and gives a glimpse of their former riches. It still serves as a magnet for migrants and Kalachori is always full of surprises. In May at the height of the northward movement of water birds it can be thronging with flocks of flamingos, herons, duck and waders – curlew sandpipers, little stints, marsh and terek sandpipers, spotted redshank – all in gleaming nuptial plumage and full of intensity as many of them feed up in preparation for their journey to the Arctic rim. Dipping and floating over them can be black and white-winged terns, Mediterranean (above) and slender-billed gulls in glorious summer dress. Kalachori is a perfect start to any 360˚ holiday.

North Macedonia

But we begin our Prespa experience proper in North Macedonia, staying on the shore of its sister lake Ohrid, at a former monastery dedicated to St Naum. The hotel has the most beautiful setting with the lake on one side and mature riverine woodland on the other. A series of freshwater springs, where Prespa waters bubble up on the shores of Ohrid, is encircled by the most beautiful lush wood-pasture. It is loud with nightingale and golden oriole songs and Naum is a fabulous spot for woodpeckers, with seven species present, including black and wryneck (below).


However the main destination for our Macedonian stay is the slopes of the Galicica National Park, whose crags loom just to the east of Ohrid. The park holds the rare Balkan chamois and is a wonderful spot for flowers including the rather strange Galicica house-leek (below) and the gorgeous prostrate cherry . It also has around twice as many butterflies as occur in the entire British Isles, with species of blue butterfly often in profusion, like these mazarine & common blues (btm).


Albania

The heart of our Prespa holiday is devoted to Albania, where we stay for three nights, based in the historic city of Korce, with its beautiful Ottoman architecture, its old-world charm and fossil-rich cobbled streets. Although Albania was once completely politically isolated, the country is very much forging a new identity and surging ahead in economic terms.

Yet for now Albania retains an older system of agriculture. The fields are often full of people working, ploughing with horse-drawn implements or hoeing and weeding by hand. The cultivated fields on the shores of Lake Prespa are managed without chemical additives, while the grazed slopes above are dotted with scrub and thickly wooded in parts. Together they create wonderful wildlife landscapes. In some meadows the flowers are so dense, like these lax-flowered orchids, that they create a purple haze of blooms. It is not uncommon to hear in one arable setting a mixed chorus of quail, corn buntings, turtle doves, nightingales and red-backed shrikes, all of which have declined by more than 90 per cent in Britain


GREECE

Greek Prespa is our last port of call and the perfect place to conclude the holiday. Our hotel is on a small island (Aghios Achillios) 700m from the shores of Little Prespa and immediately adjacent to the region’s biggest colony of waterbirds.

 

Here the overhead flow of Dalmatian ( top) and great white pelicans, night herons, egrets and cormorants is unceasing. The surrounding reeds are alive with great reed warblers, little bitterns and bearded reedlings. Even the causeway is a great place to see wildlife, especially the snakes that love to sun themselves by the water’s edge (all are harmless even though the four-striped snake can grow to 2m long!).

The visit is timed to coincide with the height of the breeding season for many of the water birds. The dawn chorus is at its loudest while the flowers can be spectacular. Not surprisingly it is a great place to enjoy butterflies, dragonflies and bumblebees, not to mention lizards and Hermann’s tortoises. There is a short article mainly on Prespa’s birds on my Blackwater Blog here.

The 360 Degree Approach

The week is co-organised and led with director of Balkan Tracks Chris Mounsey. He has lived in Greece for seven years, speaks Greek and is a mine of information on the culture and history of the area. I have visited Greece nearly 20 times since the 1970s. Our shared approach to the week has been worked out over many years of sharing wildlife and its place in human culture with others. The week is intended to be a form of alfresco salon where the landscapes and life of Prespa and Ohrid are a stimulation for reflection, thought, debate and unending conversation, as well as laughter and great fun.

We shall never be in a rush. There will be no concern whatsoever for listing. And while we are not experts in everything, we will look at everything. The aim is to pack each day with wonder so that you have the richest and most imaginative engagement with all parts, whether it is pelicans or wall paintings. It is not a writing trip in any sense but the approach lends itself to creative responses. If you feel inspired all the better, and impromptu readings in the evening are a routine part of the week.

Your Guides

Mark Cocker is an author and lifelong naturalist. For more than 30 years he has contributed to the Guardian country diary. His 12 books of creative non-fiction, including Our Place, Birds and People and Crow Country,  have been shortlisted for many awards including the Samuel Johnson Prize. Crow Country won the New Angle Prize in 2008. In a previous life he led wildlife holidays all over the world and the 360 Degree approach is a distillation of that experience.

Originally a lawyer in London, Chris Mounsey worked for an environmental NGO in Greece. He and his father Richard then founded their dedicated travel company when they judged that it probably wasn’t just them who enjoyed walking among unknown lakes and mountains and spending time with the local shepherds or fishermen. Balkan Tracks was thus born with Chris swapping office life for ‘responsible tourism’; connecting visitors with some of Europe’s finest nature and, importantly, the people who live among it.

Our Hotels

In North Macedonia our base is inside the monastery compound of St Naum, the ninth-century cleric and co-creator of the Slavs’ Cyrillic script. The complex is on the shore of Ohrid and offers us our main encounter with the other great Balkan lake. One speciality we will definitely seek out is barbecued local trout!

The hotel has recently been refurbished but it is a wonderfully atmospheric spot, with great wildlife around the adjacent springs and gardens. Both black woodpeckers and scops owls visit the area. The place is also very convenient for Galicica and within 30 minutes we can be at 1600m among the national park’s flowers and butterflies. The hotel was developed in Tito’s times and part of its charm is the faded chic of the old communist regime.

Butjina e Bardhe in Korce

Our Albanian base is the ‘White House’ (below). Despite its rather grand title it is a small friendly guesthouse, recently refurbished by a local family and right in the heart of the old town. The breakfasts are excellent with fresh seasonal fruit (cherries and strawberries) and fresh baked bread and pastries. Korce is full of characterful villas from the late Ottoman period and this is a good example. We are in the heart of the city and close to some terrific restaurants and coffeeshops.

Our Greek Prespa base is on the little island of Aghios Achillios at its eponymous hotel (below). It is hard to imagine a location that more completely immerses you in a sense of natural abundance. Even after dark, when the ‘rush hour’ traffic of the herons and pelicans has ended, there is a night shift of frogs and great reed warblers to remind us that we are surrounded by one of Europe’s great wildlife locations. We must underline that the hotel is a simple, clean establishment with varied menu, excellent food, decent wifi connection & spectacular views. But it is chosen for its unparalleled location, not for its luxuries. The rooms are spacious and have en suite facilities but they are simple. It has a Greek website (www.agiosahilios.gr).

Prices and Arrangements

Single    £1495  Shared: £1395 Dates:   Sun 08-15 May 2022

Included are all transfers to/from Thessaloniki airport, all transport, all guiding and entry fees, all meals including daily packed lunches, all accommodation. Mark and Chris will be with you on all excursions. The only additional costs are your flights to/from Thessaloniki, drinks or snacks during the day, evening drinks with your dinners. The tour will have a maximum of twelve participants with two leaders. Our programme is based on 9am – 6pm excursions, although sometimes we might be later back from more distant locations. We will provide a detailed daily plan closer to departure including recommendations for where to stay in Thessaloniki before or after the trip. We can make reading and equipment recommendations. Thessaloniki is a great regional capital and many previous participants have booked additional nights before or after the holiday. A £300 deposit is payable on booking. See our websites for additional details but don’t hesitate to ask us for more information.

Thank you so much for a wonderful week – it was nourishing on every level – the wildlife, the great company,  the beauty, the food and your hugely generous sharing of your time and expertise.”

Sheila on the Summer Writing Course, Lake Prespa in June 2018

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1 Comment

  1. Zagori and Lake Prespa, highlights of northern Greece | Through 360 Degrees - A blog by Mark Cocker

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