There's an impressive success story surrounding Lake Karla, one about ecological progress, hope and sustainability that can stand as a model for many areas of the world. A few decades ago in the 1960s, fuelled by a misguided vision to increase farmland, the authorities emptied ancient Lake Karla and caused major damage to an ecosystem that was thousands of years old. Wetlands perished and biodiversity suffered, taking with them the livelihood of whole communities as well. The mythical Lake Voeveis-Karla – once described as a paradise where they Argonauts built their kingdom – now lay barren.
This is a nationally protected area that falls under the Management Body of the Eco-development Area of Karla-Mavrovouni-Kefalovrisi-Velestino. The body is striving to manage the environment in and around the lake, including the fauna and flora found there. It also encourages environmental training, ecotourism and sustainable development. (visit the Management Body of Lake Karla's Gis platform)
Today, with the support of the lake's management body, European efforts to bring back the lake have paid off, recreating an important wetland for different birds such as flamingo, egret, grey heron, wigeon, teal, cormorant, coot and mallard duck. Of special note is the delicate small-sized falcon known as the Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni) or 'Kirkinezi' in Greek, which unlike its larger cousin, Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus), mainly feeds on insects instead of mammals. The EU-funded LIFE project has undertaken steps to protect the Lesser Kestrel which is under threat from different manmade factors.
An eco-tourist's paradise
The plains surrounding the lake are virtually untouched by tourism, offering valuable insight into rural Greek living and an intriguing contrast in nature to the lush mountains of Pelion nearby. Mavrovouni or 'Black Mountain' along with the Polydendri Forest (once owned by the Glucksbergs and Greek Royal family) are now protected under the EU legislation and are teaming with biodiversity. The greater region offers equally stunning forests such as Kouri in the Almyros area and the Farsala Forest, dubbed one of the country's 19 'aesthetic forests'.
In the lake area, you'll do well to hike in areas around this re-emerging body of water, especially as there are numerous hiking trails (See section on hiking) that reveal the riches of the region. You can hike to the deserted mountain village of Ano Kerasia, as well as the Flamouri Monastery and Sourvia Monastery. Walking almost 6 hours through gorgeous nature to the seaside village of Keramidi will thrill experienced trekkers so will hiking through different Natura 2000 sites. Wells, archeological remains, Byzantine churches, old-style fishing huts, verdant forests and rich biodiversity await hikers at every turn.
Beyond caving, birdwatching, biking and canyoning enthusiasts will also revel in the area around Lake Karla. A canyoning escapade through the Polydendri Gorge and Rakopotamos Gorge in the area of Mount Mavrovouni will thrill you with strange geological formations. If you're into birdwatching you're going to thoroughly enjoy the different varieties of birds mentioned previously, from the black storks around Mavrovouni to the lesser kestrel and flamingos. Trekking Hellas combines cycling tours with birdwatching, offering a great way to experience the stunning nature in the area.
Captivating villages around the Lake
Surprisingly, there are no hotels or guesthouses around the lake. The closest areas to stay in – about 30-45 minutes away – are either the beautiful villages of Makrinitsa and Portaria above the city of Volos, or the delightful little seaside town of Keramidi with its three or four little hotels and guesthouses on the coastal side of Mount Pelion (there is a picturesque road from the lake area across the mountain). That said, you can make a day trip to the lake area from practically anywhere in Pelion, as well as from the region of Larissa.
Despite the lack of accommodation, the villages and areas around the Lake offer some intriguing attractions and landmarks that tourists don't know about. To begin with, the Lake Karla Culture Museum (open by appointment) outlines life before the lake was drained, as well as the social and environmental challenges. It's refreshing to know that this lifestyle along with old traditions are slowly re-emerging.
Check through the 'Landmarks' section to prepare your visit to the Monastery of the Dervishes dating from 1942, as well as historic stone bridges, revered war memorials, a one-of-a-kind map of the Balkans from 1797, a bakery from 1897 and a 100-year-old coffee shop to name just a few. Two towns that show what rural Greek life is like, very close to the lake, are Velestino and Stefanovikeio. Stop for some treats from the local bakeries, try the family restaurants and admire the old churches for a true Greek experience without the intervention of tourism.
And if you travel a bit further to the town of Farsala deep in the Thessaly plain, you must stop by the Ottoman tower of Karamichos before trying the town's famous 'Halva Farsalon', a pudding-like dessert with buttery caramel overtones. The contrasting nature of magical lake, fertile plain, Mediterranean coast and rolling green mountains makes the overall region undeniably unique for nature lovers, adventurers and those seeking deeply authentic experiences.