This was the question I had in my mind going down to Psarades village (Psarades means fishermen in Greek), to see especially the frescoes in the “Eleousa Hermitage” located on the banks of the Megali (major in Greek) Prespa lake, in Western Macedonia.
You see…I was reading my travel guide carefully last evening…
A sweet sunny afternoon in the winter here is an unexpected gift. So beautiful! Everyone was enjoying it: the fishermen who took off their caps to warm up on the jetty, the small-sized cows (local species indigenous of the Prespa lakes area) grazing in the meadow, the village women who stretched numerous strings loaded with peppers to dry in the sun (for the village Psarades I will tell you a lot more in another future article).
I leave the village with Vasilis Arabatzis, my escort and my boatman. He is the most famous boatman in Megali Prespa. His tours are enriched by a plethora of information and they have a really sensitive and modern approach that surprises me! The boat trip to Megali Prespa lake with Arabatzis is not just an ordinary touristic ride. It is a grand cultural event.
He raises the lever of the outboard engine, and the boat slips over the turbid water and the large aquatic plants. The Hermitages – small piety spots built on the smooth limestone- are unique monuments. The water of the lake looks like a broken mirror behind the boat, it smells damp and a peculiar mud- smell coming from the coast of the lake.
“There are 7 Hermitages in Megali Prespa: 4 belong to Albania and 3 to Greece,” my boatman says. But, in my mind I keep only the Eleousa Hermitage.
We tie our rope at a small floating dock. Forty meters higher (and 184 steps later …) inside an evocative cave there is one of the finest Byzantine churches of the Balkans. “Askitario…” says Vasilis correcting me (askitario means Hermitage). “Monks used to live here … It is the last Hermitage before the Albanian borders.”
The single-nave Byzantine church is maintained impeccably. Built in 1409 has surprisingly red colored external patterns that mimic ceramic decoration. I love those patterns in Byzantine churches with Christian symbols and monograms. I feel them like a strange poetry, like a forgotten ancient code.
I take off my cap and I enter in the church. Amazing murals painted by the bold brush of the painter-monk Ioannikios, and by a second unknown artist, of the 15th century fill the walls shining softly in an unearthly light. The walls are full of murals going as far down as to the earthen floor.
“Look carefully …” says Vasilis pointing to the different zones of hagiography. “The frescoes in the upper zone are more simplistic, while in the lower zone are much more artistic and they belong to the Paleologian School of painting.”. The upper zone is the Dodekaorton (pictures from Jesus Christ’s life). The lower zone is about the saints. Those murals are stunning!
“Of course, the student worked at the upper zone and the teacher painted the lower one.” I suggest. “Yes, but who is who?” I ask admiring the famous scene of the burial of Christ.
“It is an unresolved mystery…” says my guide.
The chapel was built in 1409 by the Serbian ruler Boukasin (the inscription on the wall refers to him as Bloukasinos), who unfortunately was dead in 1409, and this has put in deep concern the scholars of the church. That is yet another enigma…
We admire this poetic painting for a little longer. We admire the view from the cave’s entrance and then we walk down towards the boat. An inflatable boat with the border patrol-guards is approaching. We greet the guards. They lit a cigarette.
“We found some destroyed nets…” they say. They are young men, somewhat shy. What a job… To check constantly the water- borders surrounded by the wild Balkan Mountains … They narrated to us many stories about the various dangerous night smugglers and other ‘border criminals’.
“Hey guys your boat needs maintenance” I say, looking at the worn-out balloons. They smile politely and they leave quietly.
I think, I may have embittered them …
Where am I? The Prespa Lakes are in Western Macedonia at the borders with Albania and FUROM. The quickest way to get there is through the Egnatia Road and the northern branch to Kastoria city.
For boat trips – tours with Vasilis Arabatzis tel: +30 6945744657.