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The Magnificent Lakes and Mountains of North-West Greece: Spring Break 2016, Breaking Bad on the Looney Front - Part 2

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If I look to the left my eyes land in Albania, if I look to the front my eyes land in Macedonia, and if I look at my feet my eyes land in Greece.

I am in fact in the far north-western nook of Greece on the shore of tri-national Megali (Great) Prespa Lake, staring over the gloriously blue green waters at the dazzlingly white snow-capped mountains that gird it in early spring in all three countries.

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On the Greek side three tiny hermitages perch on rocky promontories, all reachable by motor boat from the little lake-side village of Psarades. The one closest to Albania, Panagia Eleousa, hangs like an eagle's aerie high up inside the vaulting canopy of a hollowed cliff face, reached by scores of steep stone steps from a pebbled beach mottled with yellow blooms.

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They're little more than small stone huts but their interiors are awash with golden-haloed saints in multicoloured garb.

Inside Panagia Eleousa

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Outside saggy-sacked pelicans are floating on the waters seeking to fill those yellow dewlaps of theirs with silver fish.

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The surrounding juniper forests, the southernmost point in Europe for this species, are a favourite haunt of brown bears, who come down to the shore in spring to teach their cubs to swim, fish and climb rocks.

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13th century Metamorfosi Hermitage

Psarades, like most villages in the region, is a picturesque collection of sturdy squat stone houses with red-tiled rooves. In the hillside village of Agios Germanos, about seven miles away, there's an 11th century byzantine church - tiny, simple outside, full of golden icons within.

Agios Germanos

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Public transport other than taxi is virtually non-existent, but tourist buses bring in scores of domestic visitors, including a gent from Rhodes, who spent a year and a half in Canada when he was a youth during the Pleistocene age and who now produces his ancient Canadian social security card to prove it.

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Psarades

Scion of a nation of philosophers that produced Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, he feels duty-bound to bless me with his own particular insight which seems to reduce itself to: 'Everybody should love everybody, but don't trust the Turks.'

Views from above Psarades
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Just to the south of Psarades, amid equally superb scenery, lies Mikri (Little) Prespa Lake, once joined to Megali Prespa until silt built a narrow neck. Conversely Agios Ahillios (St. Achilles) Island was once a rocky promontory until the waters eroded its narrow neck, to be replaced by a series of pontoons.

Now it sits like a grassy emerald of meadows and hills in Mikri Prespa's deep green waters, surrounded by forested mountains and snow-capped peaks, topped by a little modern red-roofed church and girt with ruins of basilicas from long ago Byzantium.

Agios Ahillios Island

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It was from this island that Czar Samuel of Bulgaria ruled his mini-empire in the late 10th century, until Byzantium wrested it back, and the most impressive ruin is the concave shell of St. Achilles basilica which he built.

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The others are fairly non-descript - a simple 16th century hut-like stone church by the half wall of the monastery of Panagia Porfira (the virgin in purple), a little tower at the 15th century Agios Giorgios Church, the ruined shell of 14th century Agios Demetrios.

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Agios Giorgios

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Panagia Porfira

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Agios Demetrios

But it's fun to let your imagination run riot, especially amid the surrounding vegetation.

Oops, imagination be buggered, watch that cowpat!

They're everywhere and I seem to have descended into the domain of the local farmer Giles. A dirty great snorting bull is eyeing me suspiciously, pawing the ground and lowering his horns. Hey steady on there, Ferdinand! But he doesn't charge, lowering further to munch some flowers. Wow, he really is Ferdinand. He must be on Prozac. So I don't have to do the waltz of the toreadors.

Or do I? A couple of transgender cows have just exited a mud bath, gleaming with mire. They lower their shorter horns and prance towards me, clearly feeling their inner bull. I nip behind a rock. They start munching flowers, too. Hi there, Buttercup. You too, Daisy.

Island views

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After about a mile on the four-mile hilly walk back to Psarades, a little hoot springs me from my Byzantine reverie. It's a guy from the inn offering me a ride. He has one hand on the steering wheel, imbibing from a bottle of beer in the other.

Two gateways lead to the lake region. To the east, the pretty and lively university town of Florina is easily accessible by bus or train from Thessaloniki.

Florina

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On a recent trip the spring sun glinted off the brilliant snow-capped peaks of Mt. Olympus in the far distance on the left - and smoke billowed up from the driver in the near distance right in front. He was vaping away, almost literally like a house on fire, e-cigarettes apparently escaping the no-smoking ban.

A narrow rushing rivers chatters right through the middle of Florina, tumbling down under a dozen little pedestrian bridges. Already-fresh-green weeping willows and other less plaintive trees about to bud line its banks, providing a delightful mini promenade.

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Up on a wooded hillside lie the ruins of a Hellenistic town from the times of Alexander the Great and His Dad, Philip of Macedon. You need to use your imagination a bit to sail back into the past as you walk among shin-high stone-wall remnants of houses and streets, with tiny blue, purple, red and yellow flowers and brilliant yellow-green moss crunching underfoot.

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You don't need to use your imagination at all as you walk along a grassy tree-girt track opposite, with multi-coloured foil condom packets and torn used condoms crunching underfoot. You've hit upon Florina's Lovers' Lane.

Lovers' Lane

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From the south you can approach the lakes from Kastoria, an idyllic town that clambers up the hillsides on both sides of a rocky promontory in Lake Orestiada. Statuesque swans progress majestically across its still waters, their giant wings hollowing slightly upwards. The music you hear in the air above is the twang of pelican wings in flight.

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Kastoria is renowned for its plethora of small Byzantine churches, centuries-old Ottoman style mansions, and the fur trade. The stone and red brick churches turn up everywhere as you climb the twisting alleys, unpretentious in their simplicity, tiny, squat, with the barest basics of Byzantine design.

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The mansions rise closer to the lakeshore, sturdy and imposing with projecting upper storeys.

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[Upcoming next Sunday: Greece's Vikos Gorge, the World's Deepest]

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By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.