Every time I come here , in Florina, in Prespa lakes area , and especially on the island of Aghios Ahillios, and the border of Greece , I feel the same joy and excitement . I ascend from the one and only island’s village walking through dogwood and wild pear trees, I passed by the ancient church of St. George and watched the petite cows at the nearby fields and after a while I saw the most beautiful church in the area, right on the edge of a grass meadow . It was the legendary Aghios Ahillios (St. Achilles) of Prespa!
Even if you have never come in Prespa lakes area, you would have probably seen that church, at least once ! It is the most photographed monument of Prespa and is one of the most evocative landscapes of Greece and the Balkans , located near the shores of Lake Mikri Prespa , exactly on the east coast of the eponymous island of St. Achilles . Behold its history…
The imposing church was built between 983 and 986 by the Bulgarian Tsar Samuel, “near the palace of the city of Prespa” as the Byzantine chronicler John Skylitzis wrote.
Samuel had just then conquered Larisa territory and his soldiers brought in Prespa area the relic of St. Achilles ( and the relics of two other Saints from Thessaly; St. Diodorus from Triki and St. Riginos from Skopelos island ) which were discovered here in 1963 , during excavations directed by the Professor N. Moutsopoulos.
During these excavations , another relic was discovered, buried in another shrine , covered with purple sheet and brocaded fabrics and tunics embroidered with eagles . The relic was allegedly belonging to Tsar Samuel; scholars do say so .
You might ask , “But how do we know that this relic was once the powerful Bulgarian sovereign Samuel? The answer is perhaps the most fascinating historical information about this photogenic and charming temple . The forensic investigation of the relic revealed that the nasal bone indicates a clear lineage from Armenia . But Samuel’s mother was Armenian! Also the hand bones of the corpse showed clearly that the hand was once broken. But Samuel’s hand was broken (during a battle , probably) . So all the facts testify that yes , the famous Bulgarian tsar , once ruler of many areas of the Balkans and great enemy of the Byzantine emperors was buried here.
The same excavations revealed that the basilica was built with material from the ancient Macedonian city named Lyca , which was probably built on the west side of the island of St. Achilles .
The impressive church – dimensions (20 x 47 m ) -, was a cruciform basilica church and among the ruins today you can see the famous sanctuary with three lobed windows , the pillars made of bricks and stones and a tomb on the south side. The few paintings of the 11th and 12th century that were found here now they are exhibited in the museum of Florina.
The church was in use until the mid- 15th century and over the years it was abandoned and deserted.
The view is different through the year and through the day. Whenever you will come here you will see something different. Through the three arches of the sanctuary reeds, lake views and the high mountains on the back, pop like a film.
Visiting Aghios Ahillios basilica is much more than a cultural walk : it’s a pilgrimage to the true beauty !
At least I feel so every time I come here .
Where am I ?
The Prespa lakes are located in western Macedonia to the borders with Albania and FYROM. The quickest way to get there is through the Via Egnatia and the northern road to Kastoria . For reaching the island of St. Achilles follow the road to Pyli village and then walk on the pedestrian bridge; after about 700 meters you will step on the island.