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Lake Prespa: A Greek Eco Park Steeped in History

View of Great Prespa Lake. Credit Greek Reporter

Greece’s Lake Prespa National Park is a place where nature, culture, and history combine to create a fascinating desttination for visitors of all ages.

Located at the northern end of the Pindos mountain range, the Prespa Lake system— comprised of Great Prespa and Little (or Lesser) Prespa—is a place where three countries meet.

Great Prespa Lake is divided between Greece, Albania, and North Macedonia while Little Prespa Lake is mostly within Greek territory.

The two lakes, among the largest bodies of water in the Balkans, are also among the oldest in the world.

Prespa and Prespa National Park belong to the Prefecture of Florina. Covering an area of 330 sq. km, Prespa has thirteen villages inhabited by about 1,300 people, all linked to the lake.

A place of unique geography and history

The fauna and flora of the area, along with the geography and climate, make Prespa a unique place, with an equally unique and long history.

The earliest archaeological findings around Lake Prespa show that people lived there in the Bronze and Iron Ages.

From the early 5th century, the Lake Prespa area was ruled by the Macedonian kings and their successors until 200 BC.

Buildings and graves from the Roman and early Christian periods tell very little about life at that time. However, from the end of the 9th century, Prespa came under the rule of Bulgarian King Simeon.

That marked the beginning of the Byzantine Empire and Simeon of Bulgaria’s rule of the area until the end of the 10th century, when Samuel became Czar of the Bulgarians.

Prespa, and later Ochrid, became the center of Samuel’s kingdom, and from there, he launched operations against the Byzantines.

Samuel raised palaces and a basilica in Prespa, where he brought the remains of Agios Achilleios, the patron saint of the town of Larissa.

The Bulgarian Czar’s wars against Byzantium ended when Emperor Basil II, later known as the “Bulgar Slayer,” defeated Samuel and recaptured the territory.

From the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 and on, the area was taken over by the Ottomans.

However, due to the remoteness of the region, Prespa was not affected by Ottoman rule as much as urban areas were, and was left to be controlled by local leaders.

From the middle of the 19th century and onward, however, both Bulgarians and Greeks tried to emancipate themselves from the Ottomans.

During the Macedonian Struggle and at the beginning of the 20th century, many Prespiots emigrated to America, Canada, and Romania.

The Balkan Wars (1912-1913) that followed were concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Bucharest that set today’s borders in the area.

View of Lake Prespa. Credit: Greek Reporter

The lakes’ rare ecosystem

Great and Lesser Prespa Lakes were once a single lake, but thousands of years ago sediment carried by Agios Germanos River accumulated and created an isthmus between the lakes.

A channel at Koula connects the two lakes and a sluice gate controls the flow from Lesser Prespa to Great Prespa.

About ninety percent of the 47.4 km2  (18 square miles) of the Lesser Prespa’s surface area belongs to Greece while Greater Prespa (with an area of 259.4 km2 or 100 square miles) is shared by Greece, Albania, and North Macedonia with 176.3 km2 (68 square miles) belonging to the latter.

Lesser Prespa Lake is protected by the RAMSAR Convention as one of Greece’s ten “Wetlands of International Importance” and is one of the core areas of the entire Prespa National Park.

Lake Prespa’s importance lies in the exceptional biodiversity of its marshes. These are areas around the lake with a shallow incline and low aquatic vegetation which are flooded seasonally by the fluctuating water level.

These marshes form a crucial habitat for many species of birds and small animals, providing shelter and food.

They also provide breeding and overwintering areas for a wide range of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and insects that would not survive in other parts of the world, as they are vulnerable and threatened.

Lesser Prespa Lake is the largest breeding colony of Dalmatian pelicans and Greece’s only breeding colonies of greylag geese.

A Dalmatian Pelican over Lake Prespa. Credit: ImogenX/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

An amazing diversity of habitats

The region hosts an amazing diversity of habitats from sandy and rocky coastal formations to grasslands and shrublands, with a total of 1,800 species of plants.

Lake Prespa is so important because it hosts almost one third of the total plant species in Greece and about half of the total number of amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds.

The unique geological and climatic characteristics of the lake area allow endemic species to evolve, as well as species with a very narrow geographic range in Greece and the Balkans.

Important species of mammals, such as the brown bear, wolf, roe deer, European hare, boar, European wildcat, and chamois, are found on the mountain slopes around the two lakes.

The area also boasts 26 species of bats out of a total 45 species in the whole of Europe. There are also 23 species of fish, eight of which are endemic in the lakes.

The flora of Lake Prespa includes several protected species—amongst them many plants native to the Balkans.

10th century Agios Achilleios Basilica on the islet of Agios Achilleios. Credit: Greek Reporter

Places to visit around Lake Prespa

Agios Achilleios is a small island connected to the mainland by a floating bridge. Its Agios Georgios chapel with 15th century frescoes serves as the small community cemetery.

The highlight of this tiny island is the ruins of the Agios Achilleios Basilica built by Czar Samuel in the 10th century.

Agios Germanos is a traditional village with many houses retaining the traditional, local architectural style. The Byzantine church of the same name dates to the beginning of the 11th century.

Kale Hill offers a panoramic view over Lesser Prespa. It took its name from French troops in World War I because it reminded them of the English Channel.

The shore of Great Prespa Lake possesses many stretches where one can swim. Koula Beach is one of them. It is also great for a picnic, during which you can watch pelicans and herons flying from Lesser Prespa to feed in Great Prespa Lake.

The village of Psarades on the shore of Lesser Prespa Lake is full of restaurants offering fresh lake fish and local delicacies, such as the famous Prespa beans, sweet red peppers, and small dried fish. Small boats also offer tours on the lake.

In Psarades, on June 17, 2018, former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras signed the Prespa Agreement with his Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) counterpart, Zoran Zaev.

The deal to call the country The Republic of North Macedonia put an end to a long dispute over the name of Greece’s northern neighbor.

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