Embraced by nature, Kerkini’s manmade lake holds the riches of Greece’s greatest wetlands

Yiannis Reklos knows the lake of Kerkini like the back of his hand. A native of this manmade body of water in northeastern Macedonia near the border with Bulgaria and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Reklos has given tours to many Greek and international visitors. He calls himself a child of Kerkini and goes so far as to say that if there was a tribe of so-called «Kerkinisians,» he would be their representative. Yet despite his deep knowledge of and love for his land, he has trouble finding the right words to describe the beauty of Kerkini Lake and its surrounding villages. «I’m at a loss as to which word I should I say first and which I should say second,» he said. So instead he offers seasonal descriptions: In winter, he loves looking at the exposed roots of the lakeside forest. The roots, giant and strong, seem to be sewn into the ground and during most of the year are usually covered by water. In spring, he savors the birds singing. The chirping and cawing that signals arrival and rebirth, as well as how much the lake’s feathered residents love this home, even if it is a passing stop on a migratory journey dictated by biology. They gather in the afternoons on poplars and wire fences, sunning in the multicolor carpet of blooming earth. It’s a holiday for those birds, the flamingos of the shores, the diving cormorants, the wild pelicans who always seem to be flying. By summer, the young birds that hatched in spring are flying, playing flight games with their still-weak wings, learning how to forage for food. They fly past the reflections of surrounding mountains in the lake’s calm waters. And fall offers a celebration of burnished colors. An earthy medley of green, yellow, ocher, brown and burgundy mixed together, sparkling in the forest’s light. Beauty is one clean narrative in Kerkini, Reklos says. Visit Kerkini any time of the year and you will be sure to experience something transcendental. Noted filmmaker Theodoros Angelopoulos said the wetlands reminded him of a «weeping meadow.» Indeed, it is a large, watery area that is 15 kilometers long and 8.5 kilometers wide in a giant meadow that measures 10,000 hectares. It has a mix of people and history, birds and other wildlife and many rare trees, flowers and other fauna. Poets of the camera, like Angelopoulos, may see Kerkini as a weeping meadow. But many visitors don’t think that deeply about it. They just want to appreciate it. They take in the eerie silence when the snow falls on the lake and covers the nearby villages. They watch the birds of prey whipping through the air, taking in the ensuing sensation of freedom. They explore the adventure in this strange world. No matter what, Kerkini is a place for play. You can travel here on a four-day break from Athens to Macedonia. You can steal away for a weekend from Thessaloniki. If you’re at school, you can travel by school bus on an educational trip to discover the importance of waterways. Like a magnet, the land draws those who support small and alternative vacation destinations or those who simply want to tell their friends stories about the «home of the wild pelicans.» Several thousand visitors witness the magic every year, traveling through the nearby areas of Lithotopos, Mandraki, Limnohori, Megalohori, Livadia, Vyronia, and Akritohori. The residents of this area teach their children the importance of the crane’s flight. Ornithologists and nature lovers alike feel at home in this land. In the last decade, Kerkini has become both a vacation escape and a lesson in how to protect nature. It is a sin, they say, to find yourself in Kerkini and not experience that which makes it stand out, such as a bike ride around its waters, scaling the surrounding mountains, bird-watching, searching for flocks of rare water buffalo, boating past white and yellow water lilies, eating the regional dishes of Ano Poroia, grilling just-caught carp over a fire and trying homemade liqueurs and sweets while having relaxing discussions by a fire. The land of birds Kerkini is also a manmade work embraced by nature. It began after the waters of the Strymon River were dammed during the 1930s. Now it is the hangout of some 300 types of birds, including the diving cormorants and their small-sized cousins the lagonna, rose-colored pelicans, bronze hens, nightingales, golden hawks and rare varieties of kingfisher and swamp horn owl. In the areas around this lake one stands a chance of encountering foxes, wolves and wildcats. There are also lots of boats in the lake, since 200 fishermen catch 30 types of fish from its waters. The lake also has rare water chestnuts. The surrounding mountains have Stoyanoff pansies (a small and beautiful flower). But as is the case with most of the wetlands in the country, Kerkini has become the subject of a tug of war. «Let’s irrigate,» farmers say, «this is a repository for water, and we have more than 60,000 hectares to cultivate.» «Let’s develop it as a tourist destination,» say residents and authorities from the lakeside villages. «The nests and trees of the lakeside forests are drowning,» say ecological organizations and ornithological specialists. But too much pressure from one interest or another could break the fragile balance between humans and nature here. Because though Kerkini is considered a land of birds, it is also a haven for people. Those who take care of it should not turn a blind eye to its fragility or its care, as has been the case with other wetlands in Greece. If this happens, it will truly be a sin. Kerkini, home to the richest wetlands in Greece, knows how to give. Its visitors must just learn how to receive. This article first appeared in Kathimerini’s color supplement K on January 8.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.