Our route to the Prespa Lakes followed the path of the Roman Egnatia Way west along a new, European Union-funded Egnatia Motorway. Turning off to the north — because it’s Greece, the exit sign says “Exodus” — we climbed up into the mountains. The scenery there is reminiscent of the Alps, at least to the extent that I, as an American, find all European mountain scenery vaguely reminiscent of the Alps. Oaks and firs replace olive groves and fruit trees, and the drive is more than enough to satisfy those who savor the feeling of Europeanness they experience when honking and shifting gears to accelerate around an uphill hairpin turn.
The Prespa Lakes themselves are probably the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, though the staff at a small welcome center seemed far more interested in highlighting the fact that they are also Europe’s oldest. My claim, I felt, was indisputable, especially looking down from the spot where the road begins its descent out of the hills. The staff’s claim, meanwhile, was quickly challenged by a German visitor standing next to us, who generously placed them at third- or fourth-oldest.
Prespa has relaxed hikes on hundred-year-old limestone paths looking out over the water, as well as more intense uphill options for people who insist that a good day should end with one arm swollen from a spider bite and the other still tingling from a brush with an electric fence. If the fence wasn’t able to keep me from taking a picture of some surprisingly colorful beehives, I don’t see how it could stop a larger, presumably more determined bear from reaching the honey. In fact, although signs warned of bears, we had both sets of trails largely to ourselves. The only signs of human habitation were some occasional goats and Albanian cigarette wrappers left by the men hired to look after them.
Prespa also has churches in every stage of picturesque abandonment. Some are so ruined as to be nearly nonexistent, just a prostrate column beneath the brambles. Others, despite their appearance, remain in use, with bags of dirt-caked bones stacked in the corner to be washed and re-interred according to Orthodox custom.
At the bottom of a steep trail down to the lakeshore, narrow Byzantine bricks nestled into the protruding cliff face formed a small chapel for a 13th-century hermit. On another shore of the lake, the once grand basilica built by the medieval Bulgar Tsar Samuil is now two walls and a series of arches framing the mountains behind it.
Deeper still into the underbrush is the church of a now-vanished monastery. The north wall was rebuilt after shelling in World War II, but painted fragments of the old one lie stacked inside on the dirt floor, barely visible in the light from a low window. After a day of seeing ruins, we found a surprising stateliness to the square village church standing perfectly intact at dusk amid a field of completely leveled houses. The inscription over the door was defaced, but the interior woodwork was painted and intact, still showing the form of the trees out of which it was partially carved.
The fields surrounding the lakes were filled with reed tripods, woven together as frames for growing the region’s famous flat beans. (Reeds from the lake itself, we learned, are too brittle, so farmers import sturdier reeds from lakes farther south.) The beans, sold at roadside stands by the bag or served in every local restaurant with an excess of tomato sauce and olive oil, are delicious. Still, you can only walk past so many goats in an afternoon without wanting to eat something more substantial.
We were staying in Agios Germanos, a town whose grand stone houses belie its small size. Built where the mountains marking the border with Macedonia open into the lake, it had one open restaurant, with a final portion of grilled mutton on the spit, resting as if exhausted from turning all evening. The meat was served on an upside-down curved roof tile, and the waitress made a point of telling us to eat the fat.
In his book “Prospero’s Cell,” famed British travel writer Lawrence Durrell claimed that while every country offers you discovery, “Greece offers you something harder — the discovery of yourself.” His penchant for this kind of nonsense largely explains why no one reads his books anymore, and I certainly have no idea what he meant. If by something harder, though, he meant impeccably cooked, crispy-yet-soft lamb fat, Greece certainly offers you that.
Amid the hiking and the history, that almost tastes like self-discovery.
Danforth is a PhD candidate in Middle Eastern history at Georgetown University. He writes about history, politics and maps at www.midafternoonmap.com.