The site

The Prespa Lakes are two freshwater lakes which belong to the highest tectonic lakes in the Balkans. The other one is Lake Ohrid which is located just thirty kilometers away and is inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List. The Great Prespa Lake is divided between Albania, Greece and North Macedonia; the Small Prespa Lake between Albania and Greese. 

The Great and the Small Prespa Lakes create a National Park which was established to protect the natural and cultural heritage of the region and is included in the European Green Belt as well as included in the World Network of Biosphere Reserves under the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Programme. Biosphere Reserves are no classical “Nature Conservation Areas” as one might assume from the name “reserve”. In contrast to the concept of National Parks, which focuses on protection of natural processes, the concept of Biosphere Reserves puts the interaction between people and nature at its centre.

The Transboundary Prespa Park shared between Albania, Greece and Northern Macedonia is the first transboundary protected area in the Balkans. The Prespa National Park is an example of the harmonic coexistence of human and nature. As a protected area, the Prespa National Park is considered an ecosystem of global significance and has been identified as one of Europe’s major transboundary “ecological brick sites”. In the Prespa National Park, varied forms of life, including many rare, endangered and endemic species are concentrated; the Prespa region hosts unique habitats and species that are important from both a European and a global conservation perspective. Moreover, the Small Prespa Lake is a “Wetland of International Importance”, thus under the aegis of the international Ramsar Convention.

The historic importance and the cultural value of the region are proved by the numerous archaeological sites and ancient findings from the Neolithic Age to the Byzantine and Post-Byzantine period. In addition, the whole region is rich in cultural heritage with a number of monuments stemming from pre-historic times over the Middle Age till 19th and early 20th centuries.

Despite the region is currently divided between Albania, Greece and North Macedonia, it is from the cultural point of view and in regards to tangible and intangible heritage quite coherent since the mentioned division dates only back to the 1920ies and the population in the Albanian part is ethnically completely Macedonian, and also the Greek part had been till recent times mainly populated by Macedonians.

The most iconic heritage site of the region is St. Mary Church, located on Maligrad Island, one of the two islands within Great Prespa Lake. The church was built in 1369 by Kesar Novak, a noble of Serbian origin, in a cave in the island’s rocky cliff. The church is of comparably small size, but parts of the outer façade as well as the complete interior are painted with frescos. The frescos are of outstanding artistic quality and exquisite examples of religious art on the Balkans in Late Middle Ages. They frescos which depict the family of Kesar Novak and his Greek wife Kalia and are completed by documentary inscriptions provide an interesting window into this period.

A special type of monuments that is characteristic for the Great Prespa Lake are cave churches. They got their name after their placement, namely they have been built in a cave or in a rock.  Often, these caves were unreachable, on mountains and surrounded by nature. Most of them have been built in the Middle Ages, although there are few that date originally back to the 9th century. The cave churches around Great Prespa Lake – which are in fact a combination of a chapel and a very basic housing opportunity – were built to house hermit monks who retrieved from society to be more in communion with God. When the Balkans came in the late Middle Ages under Ottoman rule and stayed so for almost 500 years, the cave churches were further on used by hermits and played an important role for the continuity of the Christian religion in the region.

There are numerous cave churches around the Great Prespa Lake – almost ten on the North Macedonian site and four on the Albanian site. All are not easy accessible since they are placed in a certain height above the lake shore and in several cases the original ladders do already not exist. On the Macedonian site there are several cave churches which are only accessible with alpinist equipment. On the Albanian site one cave church on the northern shore of the lake is used by the local population for annual religious events; another one on the western shore is located far away from any settlement and only accessible by boat and a ten metres high free standing ladder; and the other two are located on the eastern shore in direct neighbourhood to each other. This two cave churches have been since ever connected both factually – since the ladder leading to the upper one is passing the lower one – as well as functionally.    

The lastly mentioned two cave churches – which will be the main working place of the European Heritage Volunteers Project 2022 – date back to the 13th or 14th centuries and are highly valuable since they content frescos from the Middle Age as well as from later times. Nevertheless they are – as the other cave churches on the Albanian site of the Great Prespa Lake, too – surprisingly not monuments protected by law. Their not easy accessibility – and probably also the vicinity to the border with Greece – have them so far protected from vandalism and human-caused damages; on the other hand this situation has impeded any rescue and conservation measures.

In result, the cave churches are in an extremely endangered state. The access ladders are partly broken; two years ago most of the wall closing one of the cave churches and creating a kind of entrance situation collapsed; other masonry parts may also collapse soon; the frescos are exposed to rain, snow and wind and deteriorate further from year to year. If rescue and conservation interventions will not be undertaken immediately, the loos of these cultural and historical treasures will be unavoidable.


The project

European Heritage Volunteers is since 2020 active in the Prespa Lake Area. In 2020, European Heritage Volunteers replaced the damaged roof construction and roof of the St. Mary Church on Maligrad Island and thus protected the church including the valuable frescos in its interior from further decay. In addition, the frescos on the outside of the church were documented. Within the framework of a European Heritage Training Course in 2021 the vernacular architecture in Zaroshke, one of the villages at the shore of the Great Prespa Lake, was documented and guidelines for further interventions at vernacular architecture in the villages surrounding the Great Prespa Lake area were established.

The European Heritage Volunteers Project in 2022 will focus on rescue and conservation measures at the two cave churches on the eastern shore of Great Prespa Lake and their frescos.

The works will on one hand aim to consolidate the structure of the cave churches, mainly the remains of the walls closing the caves; possibly the recently collapsed wall will be reconstructed, too. These works will include various traditional masonry and carpentry techniques. In addition, the ladders will be repaired to enable a safe accessibility.

On the other hand, the frescos in the cave churches and above the entrance of the upper church will be documented and conserved. If possible, first restoration measures will be also implemented.

Additionally, a detailed documentation of the frescoes located inside of St. Mary Church on Maligrad Island will be carried out. The documentation will help to prepare future conservation and restoration interventions at the frescos at St. Mary Church.

The works at the constructive system will be led by a craftsman specialised in traditional masonry and wood techniques with studies in archaeology and civil engineering and experiences as dendrochronologist; the works linked to frescos will be guided by a conservator-restorer specialised in wall paintings.

The educational programme will be complemented by guided tours and excursions through the region in order to contextualise the cave churches within the natural and cultural heritage of the Great Prespa Lake.


The project will take place from August, 29th, till September, 10th, 2022, and is jointly organised by European Heritage Volunteers with the GFA Consulting Group Albania, and various institutions from Albania.


European Heritage Volunteers