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Letter from Lake Prespa: a journey to the water’s edge of a Balkan hinterland

Letter from Lake Prespa: a journey to the water's edge of a Balkan hinterland
Lake Prespa. Image: Jaime Perez under a CC license

From Byzantines to Ottomans to the medieval Bogomil heretics, Lake Prespa has passed through many hands. Alexander Clapp visited the lake to explore how its curious past has shaped its present

28 December 2016

The borders of Greece, Albania and Macedonia meet in the middle of a lake called Prespa. A crescent-shaped pane of deep blue, it’s the highest body of water in the Balkans, cut off from the rest of the peninsula by glacial crags and alpine forests. No paved roads link one country to another. You cannot legally cross borders by boat. Around the lake live several thousand peasants who all speak the same language — a Slavic dialect infused with bits of Greek and Turkish — but who were divided into nation states in 1913 and, three decades after that, severed from one another completely. Greece was a capitalist nation, Macedonia a socialist republic, Albania a totalitarian state. Their mutual borders were closed.

In Stenje, a village on Prespa’s Macedonian shore, I entered the Riba Hotel. I’d come from Skopje in Macedonia; I wanted to go to Athens in Greece; Mircea, a concierge in a black shirt and pink bowtie, stared at me blankly.


“Greece.” I pointed to the far shore of the lake. “Over there.”

Mircea frowned, then called in two Riba colleagues, liveried in the same black and pink. The lobby music was lowered. Arms were waved. A telephone call was made to a knowledgeable truck driver, then a local taxi company. A faded map of the lake was removed from a drawer and carefully unfolded. Fingers ran around shores.

“I’m sorry,” Mircea said finally. “It’s impossible to reach Greece from here.”

For the next five days I was the Riba’s only guest. Its nine vacant rooms each had the same pastel of a catfish slithering above the same antique television. I wandered around Stenje, a tumbledown collection of mud-brick houses echoing with the quarrels of roosters and half-wild cats. A widely despised local politician was funding the construction of a new cement Orthodox church. Most of the Stenje women laboured in a garment factory that lofted feudally above the village. The men fished for a few hours in the morning, then gathered for the afternoon in two circles of white chairs and sipped beer.

Historically, Prespa has been a hinterland. It was the westernmost fringe of a Macedonian empire that Alexander the Great brought east to the Indus River. Under the Ottomans, Prespa fell within the agrapha, the “unrecorded lands” too rugged for imperial tax collectors. The expulsion of the Turks in the early 20th century from Prespa brought nation-states – Greece, Albania, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia — and, with them, a bureaucratic incursion that brought few discernible improvements to the Prespians’ lives, but an historical amnesia that today makes for a rather peculiar situation. In order to convince the Prespians that they were Greek or Albanian or Yugoslav, those nation-states had to insist that they were nothing like their neighbours — that their pasts were distinct, their identities utterly different. Most of the names of their villages were changed. Peasants were directed to observe new patriarchates.

Historically, Prespa has been a hinterland; unrecorded lands too rugged for imperial tax collectors

Situated within sight of another today, the Prespians I met could tell me next to nothing about the Prespians of the other shores. I never met a single Prespian who had actually left his or her own country. The lake had become in effect three islands. Perhaps the strangest thing of all was that, for all the nationalist straining of the last century, none of the Prespa villages had become very much different from one another. Capitalism didn’t make the Greek villages any more prosperous than did socialism alleviate the poverty of those on the Yugoslav shore.

Yet each had pieced together a mythology of the last century. One morning a Macedonian fisherman named Alex brought me to the “Yugoslav,” a lakeside resort once prized by summering apparatchiks. It had become the “Evropa” in the mid-1990s, but shortly afterward had been engulfed by a kitchen fire and to this day sits in decrepit ruin. Alex’s ancient red Yugo had no license plate. “The car cost me 100 euros ($104), the registration 250 euros ($260), so no registration,” he explained. Alex had spent a few years in Germany and returned to Macedonia upon its independence. He’d regretted the decision ever since. “But the EU will bring order, I think,” Alexander said. “I’ll get my visa and leave.” We entered the former hotel lobby of the Yugoslav-turned-Evropa, where a telephone receiver dangled from a cracked glass booth. Our shoes crunched across the former hotel bowling lanes, silted with dust, broken glass and crushed cans of Skopsko beer. A swimming pool overlooking the lake was now a waterless cement pit. “Who are Yougoslavia?,” read spray-paint emblazoned on the walls of the old dance hall. A few disco balls twirled mournfully with the breeze.

The contradictions of Prespa had been twisted still further by its politics. Along the Macedonian shore, the only place where a Slavic dialect formed that nation’s official language, I encountered what was in fact a Turkic minority. Their mosques lay in disrepair. Along the Albanian shore were ethnic Slavs who had their own political representation in Tirana, had neither mosques nor churches and were in fact most active in Macedonian elections: nationalist parties in Skopje bus them in illegally on election days and give them sandwiches in exchange for votes. The situation in Greece was yet more convoluted. The Prespians there had churches but spoke a pidgin Greek, though politicians in Athens insisted on calling them Greek nevertheless: they deny the existence of a Slavic minority within Greece. This gave the Greek Prespians the curious honour of having the highest wages and the fewest minority rights.

From Macedonia, a poor road plodded south through the mountains. It took hours to find a local willing to take me to the border; Ivo dropped me off, and I hitchhiked forth. Albania became recognisable as the cement bunkers of Enver Hoxha came into view. Throughout the 1970s, bunkers were built for every Albanian family to defend the motherland from invasion — an invasion that here, on Prespa and on neighboring Lake Ohrid, was suspected of being launched by Yugoslav submarine. From the village of Globoceni, an Albanian fisherman named Mendo agreed to take me to Golem Grad island. Mendo interchanged swigs of raki with bites from a cucumber. Though Golem Grad translates as “Great City,” it’s been uninhabited for most of the last millennium. Mendo and I disembarked and hiked up a wooded hill to small, grassy plateau, where a well-preserved Byzantine chapel of Saint Peter commanded a view of all three countries.

The contradictions of Prespa had been twisted still further by its politics

Before Prespa had all been Ottoman, it had all been Byzantine and, for a brief period, all Bogomil — a bizarre medieval heresy that sought to resurrect the purity of the earliest Christians by rejecting Church hierarchy and iconography. Bogomils, “friends of God,” were contemptuous of procreative sex but embraced its recreational value; they were known in France as “bougres,” the origin of the English verb “to bugger.” A Bogomilist capital was constructed on the shores of Prespa. Its emperor, Samuil, was allegedly buried on Golem Grad after suffering a stroke when he saw how the Byzantines had gouged the eyes out of nearly all his 10,000 soldiers. On the frescos inside Saint Peter’s, some of the saints’ eyes had been chipped away. “The Turks?,” I asked Mendo. He shook his head. “The Bogomils?” He shook it again. “The blind. Inhaling the fresco dust of the saints’ eyes gave them back their sight – or so they said.” We left Golem Grad after a brief, failed search for Samuil’s grave.

Finally I left for Greece, heading back through Macedonia and a city near the Greek border called Bitola. At the Medzitlija passport check, a Greek customs official demanded ten euros on account of my having come from the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”. I continued south to Florina, then looped back west to Prespa. The journey took two busses, two taxis and six hours of travel through hillsides of deserted villages. Standing on Prespa’s shore, I spotted the Riba sitting mockingly, vacantly in the distance. The Greeks of the village of Psarades pointed up the valley, where they claimed a cave still existed with medical equipment used to treat wounded Communist partisans of the Greek Civil War. In Macedonia, what remained for the odd tourist was the decaying resort of the corrupt apparatchiks who had recycled themselves into the nationalists that now rule in Skopje. Here, in Greece, it was the smouldering last remains of the Communist martyrs who had never returned.

Lake Prespa. Image: Jaime Perez under a CC license

Prespa is swiftly being destroyed. Less and less snowmelt each year has reduced its depths by five metres in the last two decades. Its fish population has been heavily depleted. Its bird population, among the largest and most exotic in all of Europe, has decimated vast acreage of fir trees with their excrement. When I asked Prespians why a common effort wasn’t made to help enforce environmental regulations, they pinned the blame on their neighbors in a litany of clichés. The Greeks littered; the Albanians fished with dynamite; the Macedonians used the lake as a septic tank. I left for Athens certain that nationalism would hound Prespa — absurdly, and perhaps fatally — for decades to come.

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