The sound was extraordinary, like giant hoovers moving slowly towards us. And moving towards us they were, slowly and rhythmically, large dark beasts, heads to the ground, hoovering whatever nourishment there was to be found on the ground. As the herd of water buffalo came upon us, 5 adults, a Landrover and assorted dogs, they parted, continued round us and re-convened on the other side, hoovering all the while. There seemed like hundreds, maybe thousands, to me, however my hosts assured me that the numbers are decreasing at an alarming rate: complications with EU subsidies and the current Greek economic position I gather.
Lake Kerkini has many most extraordinary features, this being just one. Another, which amazed me, was the sight of pelicans, huge birds, paddling across the lake with their pouched bills ready to store fish. And sharing the lake with them are both Greek and Bulgarian fishermen, in small boats, standing, with oars as rudders. My guide and I wandered to the lakeside, hung about with low-lying mist, to chat to the men on the shore. They were all older, slightly gruff and well wrapped up on the December morning, a brazier sending out warmth and the occasional spark. The cabin they used seemed to me the equivalent of the shed we all joke about, however here it was rammed full of fishing paraphernalia and a few bottles of warming liquid I suspected. It was an almost ageless scene, probably repeated at lakes around the world, be they in Europe or further afield. Lake Kerkini, it must be noted, is a wetland of international importance and attracts birders from around the world as well as the local fisherman.
It takes about 90 minutes to travel from Thessaloniki to Lake Kerkini, out through the industrial edges of the metropolis, where the recent crisis has caused more challenges than the city’s beautiful centre admits to. And then fast driving on a superb motorway, through gently rising, wooded hills, into Balkan country. It really was the first time I’d been conscious of Greece’s proximity to its Balkan neighbours, indeed it is part of the mountainous territory. We passed a road sign, on our right, which said simply, on the arrow, ‘Bulgaria’. An entire country in one direction, with one sign post. I got the impression that borders here, whilst marked, are a tad fluid.
The lake is certainly testament to that, it’s a shared resource between the two countries, with the water being used for irrigation at different times. The buffalo which so entranced me were grazing on the dry lake bed as late on in the year, Bulgaria keeps the water and then during the spring and summer the sluice gates of the dam on the border are opened and the Greek side of the lake (or more properly, reservoir) fills up. The eco-system that results from this is extremely special and although this was always marshland, the present day sunken forests and wetlands are vital for fish and birdlife. Flamingos had been reported just days before I visited but sadly, we spotted none. These magical, comic birds always elude me.
There is an interesting history here, concerning both the people and the lake. Much like Thessaloniki, many thousands were re-settled here in 1923 however the marshlands were malarial and hard to farm, so the ‘new’ population was badly affected. The original dam was built in the late 1920s, the second one in the 1980s, and as so often happens, villages were flooded as was the willow forest. It is still a highly agricultural region and has a rural, traditional feel to it as you drive through the villages. Apparently, elements of Rumca are still heard here, an ancient form of Greek that was brought back, unchanged for centuries, during the exchange of people. I was minded to stay a week or two in Serres, to explore both the social history and the natural beauty.
We took a drive up to a rather extraordinary monastery in the hills just above the lake, it is a similar to those on the holy Mount Athos, where women are forbidden, and was built according to identical Byzantine architectural standards in 1981. Pleasingly ironically, it is home to around 35 nuns and has a magnificence that is somewhat unexpected in such really natural surroundings. The architecture and features of the church, dedicated to St John the Baptist, are outstanding and as a woman who has always yearned after a trip to Mount Athos, it was a joy to see.
So what would I do at Lake Kerkini: take a jeep safari, go hiking, go fishing, enjoy horse riding and cycling, take a boat trip, bird watch, take photos, visit the villages and eat fish, buffalo, local produce. In fact, do anything that involves the outside and nature’s wonders. And frankly, the time of year you visit is irrelevant because there is much to enjoy whenever you go. This is a hidden, utterly unspoilt, little known part of Greece for sure.
Where to stay, well, there’s no contest here! Oikoperiigitis is the most fabulously welcoming country inn, with an atmosphere that totally draws you in. I really felt as if I’d walked into the home of an old friend and indeed Jiannis Reklos, who owns the place treats everyone exactly this way. The building is reminiscent of a Swiss chalet somehow, the reception opens into an informal sitting area with a massive fireplace, a warming fire burned brightly, made with untidy branches and logs, reflecting the storks’ nests on top of the pylons outside. Coffee and pastries were brought as a matter of course and international chatter ensued. Jiannis is responsible for bringing tourists to this area and he is certainly seen and acts as an informal elder statesman in these parts. He has created a really special place here. The rooms are comfortably rustic, undoubtedly, each one different, some for families or groups, sleeping up to six and all with fireplaces. Truly wonderful. Everything is spotless and bathrooms absolutely fine, well above rustic! Giannis has also restored a beautiful small mansion into a guest house, it’s an architectural gem from 1918 in the Black Sea style. So you have a choice!
As for the restaurant upstairs at Oikoperiigitis, groups sit at large tables and there’s a friendly informality that is in tune with the entire ethos. The food was very tasty, plentiful and reflected the regional produce. I was offered buffalo and tried it, totally delicious, lean and really healthy, in fact it’s recommended for those with allergies as it’s highly organic. The related dairy products are abundant, all types of cheese, yoghurt and buffalo milk too. Our lunch was a lengthy leisurely affair, no one rushes here, and on a chilly afternoon, glasses of wine by the fireplace seemed the obvious answer. Our conversation wandered through the haze of good food, covering Dalmatian pelicans, erosion around the lake, the name Kerkini (from the Crimea or Turkey), what will happen to the Greek economy long term and the origins of the buffalo (maybe the Persians with Xerxes en route to Athens in 490s BC) such wondrous beasts, uncertainty of origin and uncertainty of continuation.
I recommend you visit Lake Kerkini swiftly, there is much that is unique to enjoy. Take coffee with Jiannis, walk on the shores of the lake and marvel at the birds. Whether you decide to surround yourself with buffalo, is up to you.