Zagori and Lake Prespa, highlights of northern Greece

Wed 25 May- Wed 1 June 2022

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Zagori and Lake Prespa are two equally glorious but totally different landscapes of northern Greece. They are united in one detail. They are as steeped in wildlife abundance as they are rich in cultural history. This holiday will explore both places, capturing the best of them in one week. The outline presented here is very much shaped to be read in conjunction with separate, but detailed accounts of our Zagori (here) and Prespa (here) holidays in 2022.

Zagori

Zagori is a distinct region within Epirus and located close to the tallest peaks of the northern Pindos mountains. It is characterised by extensive new-growth oak forests interspersed with vast areas of grazed montane pasture. The roads are windy and slow and almost every bend seems to offer even more dramatic vistas. We will have four nights at our customary hotel Archontiko Dilofo, which is perfectly placed for us to reach both Beloi, the look-out that commands the most spectacular views over the Vikos Gorge, that is said to be the deepest in the world. We are also close to the tiny village of Vikos, giving us access to the gorge bottom and the exquisite Voidomatis springs, which are the origins of one of Europe’s most pristine river systems. Wildlife is present in abundance and the plan is to sample it all: birds, butterflies, flowers, insects, reptiles and mammals. Please note there is some fairly serious walking when we descend to the gorge bottom but it will be at an extremely comfortable pace and we can provide everyone with double sticks if required.

Prespa Lakes

Encircled by Balkan montains including those of Northern Macedonia and Albania, Lesser and Greater Prespa are part of the oldest lake system in Europe and one of the continent’s finest wetlands. Our week includes three nights staying at our customary hotel on the small island of Aghios Achillios. It is almost perfectly located to capture the never-ending traffic of large waterbirds as they move to feed in other parts of the lake from the main nest colonies nearby. It is immensely birdy at Lesser Prespa but the joy of this place is the completeness of its ecosystem, which is crowned by some of the healthiest bear and wolf populations in Europe. In late May the spring is in its pomp. The evenings are loud with the chorus of marsh frogs and nightingales (and great reed warblers), the insects are at their peak and the tortoises are breeding. Prespa could not be more different to Epirus and Zagori, but there is one key similarity: remarkable wildlife abundance.

The week is structured to give a sense of leisure in both places, to explore the deep contrasts between these radically different ecosystems and to see as much as we can of their remarkable wildlife.

Itinerary (this could vary a little with weather forecasts etc and wildlife news)

25 May Day 1: Wed, a pick up at Hotel Avalon and a morning and probably lunch at the superb wetlands of Kalichori close to Thessaloniki. These can be smothered in spring migrant waders, gulls, terns, ducks and flamingos. It is often the perfect start to our holiday and we then drive to Zagori for a late-afternoon exploration of Dilofo around the hotel. Night at Archontiko Dilofo.

26 May Day 2: Thurs, a day out to the Beloi lookout over Vikos and then the afternoon around the bridges at Kipi. Night at Archontiko Dilofo.

27 May Day 3: Fri a day exploring the lookout at Oxyia and the afternoon around Monodendri with a visit to the Rizario centre and Paraskevi Monastery. Night at Archontiko Dilofo.

28 May Day 4: Sat our day long walk into the Vikos gorge with a visit to Papigo if there is time in late afternoon. Night at Archontiko Dilofo

29 May Day 5: Sun, drive to Prespa stopping en route in the Pindos for black woodpeckers and cliff-nesting house martins. Late afternoon and evening around Krina and the causeway. Night on Aghios Achillios.

30 May Day 6: Mon, Prespa all day including visits to Panagyia Porphyria and Kula woods between Greater and Lesser Prespa Lakes. Night on Aghios Achillios.

31 May Day 7: Tues, boat trip our to the hermitages on the shore of Greater Prespa. Afternoon around Psarades and the juniper forest and return to Kula and Krina. Night on Aghios Achillios.

1 June Day 8: Wed, Last morning along the causeway and leisurely breakfast before heading back to Thessaloniki for the drop off.

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 PlaceBirds 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 Zagori we stay (25-28 May) in Archontiko Dilofo, a 400-year-old country house that has been restored to its original condition by the owner Giorgis Kontaxis. It is probably the most beautiful hotel we have found in an area not short of superb accommodation and Giorgis rightly gets rave reviews in the Lonely Planet guide. The rooms are extremely well equipped and have very good wifi. The food is excellent, the breakfasts remarkably generous and varied and we will take our evening meals between Archontiko and a local restuarant five minutes walk away. Dilofo has no roads or cars and is immensely peaceful but there is a short walk to the hotel.

Our Greek Prespa base (29-31 May) 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    £1595  Shared: £1495                  Dates:   Wed 25 – Wed 1 June 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. Chris and Mark 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 group will be a maximum of ten. 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 superb regional capital and many previous participants have booked additional nights before or after the holidays. A £300 deposit is payable on booking. See our websites for additional details but don’t hesitate to ask us for more information.

If you wish to go straight to making a booking you can do that here. To contact MC for advice on wildlife, places, equipment and other aspects of the tour click here. To email Chris concerning logistics and advice on accommodation, click here.

“I thought the trip was fantastic, a good balance of nature and the culture”

Ed, Epirus 360 Degrees 2019

“Thank you both so much for a wonderful week – so full of richness and food for thought – the 360 degree experience is not only wide but also deep!”

Sheila, Epirus 360 Degrees 2019

“I think the makings of your trip, arranged along with Balkan Tracks, are the variety – in the birds, the wild flowers, the other wildlife – tortoise, snakes, mammals and insects etc., the landscapes and habitats, the cultural experiences – the folk music, ancient history and the food etc. I also particularly appreciated the walks – down into the gorge and to the view point over it…”

Arne, Epirus 360 Degrees 2019

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