Six natural lakes dot the Florina borderlands. This is a land of wondrous images: flawless, fluid reflections of plaves (flat-bottomed boats used on the lakes); flocks of birds; clouds that settle atop highland basins, blanketing everything in fog; endless reed beds; and so much more. Indeed, there’s absolutely no doubt that the setting truly is cinematic, at any time of the year.
The six lakes can be divided into pairs: Mikri and Megali (Small and Great) Prespa to the northwest, Zazari and Heimaditida to the south, Vegoritida and Petron to the east. They all form part of the Natura 2000 network (the Prespa lakes are also a national park), as they contain many important ecosystems and host dozens of species of birds and fish.
The lakes have also inspired local populations to weave fanciful tales about them. People say, for example, that once upon a time, there was a well where Lake Vegoritida is today. The locals knew that every time they drew water they had to seal it carefully on top, to prevent the well from overflowing. However, one night a girl became frightened by elves and fled hastily, thus forgetting it unsealed. The plain flooded as a result, and, in the morning, Lake Vegoritida appeared before everyone’s eyes.
In the Prespa lakes area they speak of fairies and bewitched princes, while in Zazari there is a story about an evil mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law, with the latter drowning the former and thus creating the lake.
The reality is that an immense body of water called the Eordaia once existed in the area. It covered some 1,000 square kilometers and had a depth of about 250 meters. The “scattered bits” of water that have survived to this day have created four of these six lakes in the Florina area – specifically the ones to the southeast.
It is worth noting that a regular car can drive along all of the lake routes, but caution should be exercised when on dirt-road sections, as these tend to become very muddy. Whatever the case, especially in winter, it is a good idea to carefully check the conditions in the area you are planning to visit beforehand; this is because visibility may be reduced, the edges of the lakes might not be easily discernible, reed beds may be flooded, and any snowfall might seem deceptively light.
SMALL AND GREAT PRESPA
These two borderland lakes, which are situated right on the tri-national boundary with Albania and the Republic of North Macedonia, are a whole world unto themselves. This magnificent ecosystem also happens to comprise the largest national park in the country, and is well worth visiting at least once.
Touring the Lakes
You cannot drive around the entire perimeter of these lakes without crossing into different countries, as both Megali (Great) and Mikri (Small) Prespa form natural, international borders. The former is split between Greece, Albania and the Republic of North Macedonia, while the latter is shared by Greece and Albania.
You can, of course, tour and explore their Greek sections endlessly, and in the process encounter mystical settings, birds in every nook and cranny, reed beds, water meadows, water buffalo, and so much more.
Mikri Prespa occupies an area of 44 sq km and lies almost completely within Greek territory, while Megali Prespa covers some 272 sq km, with 22% of it inside Greece.
In the villages of the area, and especially in Aghios Germanos, be sure to stop and take note of the houses, which feature a distinctive style of architecture: They typically have a sachnisi (traditional type of bay window), a timber frame, and walls built out of stone or mud. If you do visit this village, it’s also worth viewing the Byzantine church of Aghios Germanos, whose murals date to 1743. Psarades is also lovely. At Mileonas, you’ll be able to check out houses constructed out of earth, water, hay and reeds.
The Isle of the Lake
Aghios Achillios is the name of the islet located in Small Prespa, and the whole place can easily be walked in about two hours. It’s worth a visit, as it’s as though all of the special energy of the entire area converges there.
A 650m-long footbridge leads you to the islet’s small village, with its few inhabitants. There, you can explore the charming ruins of the basilica of Aghios Achillios, erected in the 10th century by the Bulgarian Tsar Samuel. If you keep going, you will come to Panaghia Porphyra (16th century), and after that to ruins of other places of worship.
Boating and Snow Skiing
A boat ride on Megali Prespa is a one-of-a-kind experience (for information, contact Ν. Traianopoulos, tel +30 694.615.0074). The boat departs from Psarades, and travels along the liquid border separating the three countries. The ride also includes visits to the askitaria – the small churches and dwellings created by ascetics centuries ago.
If you are a lover of snow, then you might like to know that just 20 km from the Prespa lakes lies Pisoderi, the location of one of the best ski centers in the country (tel +30 23850.458.00).
In Psarades, Syntrofia (tel +30 23850.461.07) will offer you the opportunity to savor wonderful local recipes: Lake carp in tomato, sun-dried common roach fish, and “Fasolia Gigantes Elefantes Prespon Florinas PGI” (Protected Geographical Indication), which are similar to lima beans and produced locally. The food at Haso (tel +30 23850.468.03) in Mikrolimni is also exceptional.
A good option is the Agios Germanos inn, located in the village of the same name. It has a family atmosphere and beautiful rooms with fireplaces (tel +30 23850.513.97, starting from €50, including breakfast).
ZAZARI – HEIMADITIDA
Lake Zazari, the smallest of Florina’s six lakes with a total area of 1.2 sq km, is the only one where you’ll be able to do various sports, while Heimaditida, the least touristically developed of the lot, lies just 2 km away. A visit to the pair, in tandem with the village of Nymfaio, makes for a fantastic weekend break.
A Tour of the Lakes
It’s easy to circle around tiny Zazari on the passable dirt road running around it – especially worth doing on a mountain bike. The shores of Heimaditida are filled with marshes and dense reed beds. This route is paved for the most part. You will see the four old heimadia (winter quarters) where the local stockbreeders would overwinter; fishermen from the Republic of North Macedonia plying the waters, as well as some stockbreeding facilities (but be careful when around the Greek Sheepdogs guarding flocks – they mean business!)
Communing with Nature
Seek out Takis Voglidis of the company Artemis if you’re interested in getting to know the area around Zazari in a more thrilling way. They offer canoeing, horseback riding, bird watching, hiking, mushroom gathering, archery and bicycle and jeep rides in the forests of Mount Vitsi (tel +30 697.407.6527).
Waiting for the Fishermen
Limenohori is the sole village on the shores of Lake Zazari. Go there at dusk, when local fishermen return in their plaves brimming with fish, and then head for the taverna Del Lago (tel +30 23860.413.82), where you can enjoy the day’s catch.
A Model Village
Nymfaio, one of the loveliest villages in all of Greece, is located 14k above Lake Zazari. Stroll through its cobbled streets and be amazed at the mastery of the stonemasons who built it. Take a seat at one of its tavernas for game and soup dishes.
Land of Wolves and Bears
The village of Agrapidia is the setting for a wolf sanctuary run by the NGO Arcturos, and the location of a breeding center for Greek Sheepdogs. The bear sanctuary in Nymfaio is closed from January through early March, but even in those months you can obtain details about the area’s bears at the information center, which is housed in the Nikeios Scholi (tel +30 23860.415.00).
The reputation of the restaurant Thomas (tel +30 23860.310.80) in Sklithro has traveled well beyond the boundaries of the local area. Chicken on the rotisserie may be its speciality, but you will also be able to try dozens of other delicious and carefully prepared dishes.
If you interested in staying near the lakes, the best choice is the stone-built Agkonari guesthouse (tel +30 23860.310.80, starting from €50, including breakfast), which offers rooms with fireplaces, created with much attention to detail.
VEGORITIDA – PETRON
Lake Vegoritida – or Neraida, to locals (meaning mermaid) – is one of the deepest lakes in Greece and covers an area of 50 sq km. Lake Petron, by contrast, is small and relatively little-known. Both are situated at the foot of Mount Kaimaktsalan, and offer a wealth of possibilities for excursions.
A Tour of the Lakes
The route that encircles Lake Vegoritida has a length of approximately 50 km. At times, it runs along its shores, along other sections it offers panoramic views. You will come across villages, lookout points, beaches, and little coves. If you make it as far as Arnissa, you will easily be able to make your way up to village of Aghios Athanasios, and the Vora-Kaimaktsalan ski center.
The route around Lake Petron is also paved for the most part, but much shorter. There, the otherworldly beauty that the rocks and green waters create will surely impress you.
Aghios Panteleimonas is the most developed of the villages, and the one worth selecting as your base. It features old houses, kafeneia (traditional coffee houses), tavernas and beaches, and also a prehistoric necropolis with 376 cist graves, testament to the millennia of human habitation of the area.
Lake or Sea?
Vegoritida is so big that you’d swear it was a sea. Its waters are ideal for wind and kite surfing. Local surfers will let you in on their secret spots – but you’ll need to bring your own gear along. The company Artemis offers an interesting excursion that includes a week with horses and tents in the mountains, visiting four of the area’s lakes.
The Renowned Florina Pepper
The Naoumidis family have become quite famous on the domestic gastronomic scene. Using their own locally-bred peppers, they organically cultivate, process and package all of their products on site in Aghios Panteleimonas, and the premises are open to visitors. Their little glass jars contain various pepper-based products, including dips, pickles and sauces, and many other products (tel +30 697.339.0993 piperiesflorinis.gr).
“Wine maketh glad the heart of man”
You will see hundreds of hectares of vineyards where the variety Xinomavro of Amyntaio is produced. Two of the best-known local wineries are the Ktima Alpha (tel +30 23860.201.11) and the Kyr-Yianni (tel +30 23320.511.00).
For a real culinary experience, take a seat at either the Naoumidis family’s award-winning restaurant or their mezedopoleio (a traditional meze eatery; tel +30 23860.612.38) in Aghios Panteleimonas, right on Lake Vegoritida. Another outstanding dining experience awaits at the award-winning Kontosoros (tel +30 23860.812.56), in Xino Nero.
The Bella Toumpa guesthouse (tel +30 23860.612.70, starting from €50, including breakfast) in Aghios Panteleimonas offers meticulously-kept rooms and suites with fireplaces and lovely views. It also has a restaurant, and horses for rides along the lake.