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  • Writer's pictureGreen Traveller

Places of interest in West Macedonia and Thessaloniki

As we launch our Green Traveller's Guide to West Macedonia and Thessaloniki, Sarah Baxter selects a range of visitor attractions and other places of interest in this beautiful part of northern Greece.

Agios Ahilios, Prespa National Park

Measuring 1.6km long by 400m wide, the islet of Agios Ahilios sits at the northern end of Lesser Prespa Lake, connected to the mainland by a floating footbridge. The tiny village has only 11 houses – according to local legend, if any more are built, and old one would collapse. Another story goes that, when the waters are very clear, the ruins of the lost city of Lyka can be seen at the bottom of the lake. You might not see that, but on a walk around the island you will come across the impressive ruins of the 10th-century Agios Ahilios basilica, the deserted monastery of Panagia Porphyra and the 11th-century Church of the 12 Apostles. You may also spot the Prepsa dwarf short-horned cattle that are reared here, as well as a bevy of birds.

Photo: Richard Hammond

Arcturos Bear Sanctuary, Nymfaio, Florina

Arcturos is a pioneering non-profit environmental organisation that was established in 1992 by Yiannis Boutaris (former mayor of Thessaloniki) after his son was appalled by the sight of a dancing bear. Since then, Arcturos has successfully campaigned for a ban on such practices and has provided a spacious sanctuary for ill-treated captive bears from across the continent that can’t be reintroduced into the wild. At the visitor centre, on the edge of Nymfaio, you can learn about the organisation’s work, which focuses on addressing illegal wildlife captivity, educating landowners and the public, and protecting wildlife and natural habitats. You can also get thrillingly close to the bears. There are around 20 animals in the large, leafy, hillside enclosures; a guide will lead you around the inner fence and introduce you to any residents that lollop over. The centre is open year-round, excluding January-March, when the bears are in hibernation.

Photos across from top left: wolf, lynx, wolf, and bear. Sarah's guide took her to a bear camera in the woods. Photos: Richard Hammond

Wolf & Lynx Conservation Area, Agrapidies, Florina

Arcturos isn’t all about bears. Its sister sanctuary in the nearby village of Agrapidies, below Nymfaio, provides a lush, spacious retirement home for wolves and lynx that have been orphaned or rescued from badly run zoos and private collections and are too habituated to humans to be returned to the wild. Importantly, no wild species are bred on site but the sanctuary does breed traditional Greek shepherd dogs. These dogs, which are known to be especially effective at protecting livestock (they never leave their flocks), are being donated to farmers in an attempt to reduce human-wolf conflict and thus safeguard the country’s wild wolf population. A single ticket covers entry to both the bear and wolf sanctuaries. Note, the best time to visit the wolf area is early in the morning – the wolves often retreat into the trees as the day heats up.

Alpha Estate, Amydeo, Florina

The viticulturists at Alpha Wine Estate have one aim: to ensure their wines truly reflect the ecosystem in which they are produced – that is, a prehistoric lakebed, surrounded by mountains, that is the coldest, driest appellation in Greece. But while the goal is simple, the operation is not, with cutting edge techniques employed to create some of the country’s most highly rated wines. These are mainly from Greek grape varieties (xinomavro, malagouzia, assyrtiko), and include a smoky, complex xinomavro reserve made from a vine that’s over 100 years old. Visits and tastings at the large, elegant winery are free. Staff will show you around the cellars and pour you a selection of wines to try. There are plans to create walking and cycling routes around the estate, as well as to build a restaurant and boutique hotel.

The entrance to the Alpha Wine Estate. Photo: Richard Hammond

Watermill, Agios Germanos, Prespa National Park

Down a leafy track, past the 11th-century Byzantine church, lies the old Agios Germanos watermill. There were once around 20 mills on the Agios Germanos River, which runs from the summit of Mount Varnous into Great Prespa Lake. The small stone mill here, originally built in 1930, is the only one that has been fully restored, thanks to the committed efforts of the Society for the Protection of Prespa. It serves as a living monument to the area’s industrial heritage; in 2016 it was recognised with a European Heritage Europa Nostra Award. It is also fully operational, with three different functions: there’s fulling tub for washing fabrics, a fulling mill for textile finishing and a grain mill for grinding flour, using an internal horizontal waterwheel. Behind the mill you can see the headraces and flumes that divert the water inside. It is open to visitors on Saturdays.;

Hermitages, Prespa National Park

The steep cliffs flanking the southern shores of Great Prespa Lake provided a refuge for Christian hermits after the fall of the Byzantine Empire. Hard-to-reach hermitages were created, tucked into the rocks, where monks could find spiritual solace. Three remain: the 13th-century Hermitage of the Metamorphosis, the crevice-tucked Hermitage of Mikri Analipsi and the Hermitage of Panagia Eleoussa. The latter, a stone’s throw from the Albanian and Northern Macedonia borders, is only accessible by boat. Disembarking on a pebble beach, it’s a stiff climb up a zigzagging staircase to reach the small chapel at the top, which is decorated with frescoes; you’ll also find icons and offerings tucked into nooks in the rock walls. The views back out are spectacular, with the lake and mountains framed by the cave’s gaping mouth.

The view from the gaping cave at Hermitage of Panagia Eleoussa. Photo: Richard Hammond

Naoumidis Farm, Agios Panteleimonas, Florina

They don’t just grow any old veg at Naoumidis. This farm near the shores of Lake Vegoritida specialises in deep-red, horn-shaped Florina peppers, famed for their rich, sweet flavour. They are only cultivated in Florina, nurtured by the region’s special soil and microclimate, and have Protected Designation of Origin status. The Naoumidis family use their own seeds and their own stone-built Piperadiko processing planet where they employ traditional processing methods – peppers are peeled by hand, cooked at low temperatures, and wood-smoked or grilled on charcoal. Naoumidis makes a range of different products: whole pickled peppers, pepper caviar spreads, sauces infused with herbs and wild garlic, sweet and spicy pepper ketchup and hot sun-dried Piperokama powder. It’s possible to visit the crop fields, workshop, and cellar, where you can taste and buy the spoils. There is also a small Pepper Museum.

The peppers from Naoumidis Farm near the shores of Lake Vegoritida are famed for their rich, sweet flavour. Photo: Richard Hammond

Domaine Karanika, Karanika, Florina

These organic and biodynamic vineyards on the Amyndeo plateau produce a range of quality sparkling and still wines from assyrtiko, old xinomavro and rare limniona vines. Winery tours, winemaking seminars and accommodation in the tent in the middle of the vineyard can be arranged.

Ktima Kir-Yianni, Naoussa, Florina

Located in the eastern foothills of Mount Vermion, Ktima is focused on both great wines and sustainability. The vineyard is carbon neutral, thanks to tree planting and solar panels. It’s open for tours and tastings, and the wider estate can be explored via two cycling trails.

Museum of Gold and Silver-smithery, Folklore and History, Nymfaio, Florina

Housed in a three-storey townhouse in the centre of the village, this small museum displays an eclectic array of objects – letters, jewellery, snuff-boxes – that showcase both the craftsmanship and history of the region.

Lake Zazari, Florina

There are four lakes in the Florina region. Zazari is the smallest but probably the best set up for visitors. Come for the brilliant birdlife (it’s an important breeding site, part of the Natura 2000 network), canoe excursions and to grab a drink at the lakeside bar.

Vrondero, Prespa National Park

The remote farming village of Vrondero lies at western edge of Prespa. From here you can take a path to the ruined village of Angathoto on the lakeshore; it runs via the Cave of Kokkalis, which was used as a field hospital by the partisans during the Civil War.

Koula Beach, Prespa National Park

There are several swimming spots on the shores of Great Prespa Lake, including the long, sandy beach at Koula. This is also where the channel connecting the Lesser and Great lakes flows, and it’s an excellent place to watch large numbers of pelicans, herons and other birds flying between the two.

Prespa Visitor Centre, Agios Germanos, Prespa National Park

Occupying a restored traditional building near the village square, this centre (open Monday-Saturday) provides useful information about the nature and culture of Prespa. It has a small exhibition plus maps and leaflets detailing hiking route, cycle trails and bird-watching points.


The Google map below shows the location and details of all the places to stay, local food and drink, visitor attractions and activities in our Green Traveller's Guide to West Macedonia and Thessaloniki

Green = Places to stay Blue = Local food & drink Yellow = Attractions Purple = Activities

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