It is a sunny winter Thursday, just past noon. In the middle of Small Prespa Lake, the islet of Saint Achilles (one of the two inhabited lake islands in Greece), sums up the atmosphere and ideology of the lochs. Part of a wild microcosm and part of a post-Byzantine art exhibition, this rural place hosts no vehicles and apart from a great number of a native breed of small horned dwarf cattle, is sparsely inhabited. Being home to just a handful of fishermen who cast their nets for carp using a traditional fishing boat called plava. Strange enough, this isle hosts one of the largest basilicas in Greece.
We leave our car in the small parking deck, where at the same time a handful of local producers display fresh legumes in the back of their pickup trucks, and start walking through the wooden footbridge. Once, this walkway did not exist and the residents’ young children had to slip on ice to cross over to the dry land.
Leaving behind this mystic paradise, we drive further south to come across the village where the rebels of 1930s installed their headquarters, Pyli, (which translates as the «Gate» in Greek). Continuing on the main road, we finally reach Vrontero, a ramshackle farming village, just a breath away from Albania, where apart from the shepherds with their herds and stone goat sheds fell between the cracks, we indulge in excellent hiking routes. Here, there is also a cave that served as a makeshift hospital for the wounded rebels during the Civil War.
Snuggled under the rugged bulk of mountain Varnoudas - on a hillside overlooking the two lakes - Agios Germanos is the largest of Prespa’s communities. With red tiled roofed stone houses, this village seems to always await the invasion of heavy winter. Stoves and firewood pretty much everywhere. Even in churches. How to fight otherwise -20 degrees? Outside of the loggias, deep red peppers are being dried, while chimneys permanently smoke, spreading in the crystal atmosphere their warmth scent. Apart from the church that dates from the 11th century and a traditional watermill that has been fully restored and won recently a European prize; the Prespa National Forest Management Body provides maps and useful touristic information about the area, as well as free tours.
We drive until it’s too dark to get back and trying to get sleep next to a hut up in the mountains. However, we soon are awake by the border police and a group of forest rangers, who have got us confused for drug smugglers. Ever since the 1990s, waves of Albanians have been entering the alpine zone of Grammos’ Mountain, where it is particularly difficult to make arrests, as we have been excused afterwards.