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The melancholic beauty of a morning gone by

Before the sun comes up, we are awake. It is a raw, plain dawn. We take down the pin locks from the windows. The earth is covered with early morning dew, yet the wind bends tall reeds across the plains as if a warning. Soon the mountains turn white in the distance like the sky has put on a coat. But while the image is alluring romance, the realities of Prespa Lakes are forbidding, and require expert guidance. We bump into a legendary shepherd, who kindly suggested to keep ourselves warm inside roasting chestnuts by the fireplace as soon as the place would be about to be  buried into a state of frozen wildernesses.

Instead, we swiftly pour coffee into two mugs and carry them outside. We sit on a patch of lichen and breath deep the gathering wintry. The air carried the bite of the cold that was soon to come. The longer we sat there, the more we discovered that just the breeze could bring us into the right here and now.  We set off the road.

Prespa region is like a prayer under an open heaven and with its silence gives you a gentle push to get a bit closer to the divine. Here, there is as well an infinite watercolor of migratory birds, ancient settlements and stories from the depths of time. Anywhere you look, life leaves traces on the mirror of aqua; fauna and people are the records of this liveliness. Also, there is an undefined borderline where no creature needs a passport, whether human, fish or fowl.
 

Let's travel (audibly) together to prespes

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From the small idyllic village of Oxya, in which we dwell all these days, we follow a long walk trail between two lethargically inhabited villages (Lefkonas and Karyes), until we arrive at the top of Kale hill; an unlikely balcony in Prespa Lakes. Then, we march backwards to Mikrolimni, a 40-people village, set at the shores of Small Prespa Lake and fenced by an old oak forest.

 
 
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From the water's edge, we turn inland towards the community of Psarades, which is built at the end of a natural fjord, having the reputation of being the only Greek village on the shores of Great Prespa Lake. Constantly driving, we are happy to coffee-break at this bucolic port, where fishermen mend yellow nets and cats prowl for their fish. We get even more enchanted when the locals begin to share with us various stories, and then, insisting to take us to a different kind of voyage.

 

We hence find ourselves hopping on a boat ride.  This remote spot has apparently attracted many monks during the Ottoman occupation, who built along the shorelines of Great Prespa Lake a number of hermitages. At some point, we disembark and hike up from a wooded hill to a small plateau, where a well-preserved Byzantine chapel of Panagia (Virgin) Eleousa is sheltered. Upon arrival, the revved motor on our small improvised jetty stopped steering. Halfway the lake our captain Lazaros, who had actually left his own country, hails in Albanian another octogenarian fisherman, «Dobro, Dobro». We were just mesmerized looking at the vast liquid borders, until we soon got back to our comfort zone.

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Light shifted; the day unfurled until dusk eventually arrived with its long shadows and the landscape gloomed. Yet we can still see some large rock formations and flocks of migratory birds dance to be free. They are following the thermal currents in the air and beginning to form circles amidst the three-facet lake, one nation as a whole. They eventually convince you that borders are only a human state of mind.
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A VERITABLE ARK OF WILDLIFE AND ANTIQUE CULTURE AMID A FORMER WAR-ZONE

 

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.

 
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