Northern Greece, Sep 26-Oct 2 2011

During this early autumn week of incomparable weather, twelve members of the IOS, and three others who were guests, enjoyed a truly memorable time in northern Greece.  There were 13 men and two women, one the wife of the tour leader, the other my own traveling companion.  People on the tour were one from the UK, two Americans, two from Holland, the rest Belgians.  In many ways the tour was a “moveable feast.” (However, while those wild plums may make good slivovitz, they sure were sour!)  The tour was organized by Belgian nurseryman Dirk Benoit, director of the tour committee of the IOS, and led by Bruno Van Puijenbroek of the Belgian Dendrological Society.  Bruno’s more than 25 years of botanizing in Greece guaranteed that we would see the best sites for botanizing and enjoy the beauty that this rarely visited part of Greece offers to outsiders.

The tour began on Monday, September 26, in Igoumenitsa, a tourist and port town on the Ionian Sea opposite the island of Corfu in the far northwest of Greece.  People began to arrive there in the afternoon of the 25th, and our first event together was dinner in the late evening in an outside setting uptown.  The food was of course delicious (Greek cuisine is one of the best kept secrets of European cuisine) and we were really amazed at how one waitress could cover so many tables so efficiently and graciously, and after dark besides!

Some members of the IOS Greek tour relaxing under the plane tree in the village square. Vitsa, Epirus, Greece. (Photo: Gert Dessoy)

From the 21st century to the 2nd century—BCE!

 

The next morning early we met our large tour bus and its charming and skillful driver, Grigoris, who hails from the mountain village of Gardiki not far from here.  We did a bit of leisurely botanizing before we reached Perdika, our first destination of the day.  There are two reasons to visit Perdika: one is the Karavostasi beach, a curving strand with golden sand, and the archaeological site of Dymokastron, a Hellenistic mountain-top town reached by a steep hike.  The view of the beach far below was beautiful, as it must have been when the town was still inhabited. The town was destroyed in 167 BCE by a Roman army, along with most of the other towns in the vicinity, all allied with Rome’s enemy, Macedonia.  The site is under active excavation, and we were able to admire the remnants of protective walls (how in the world did they get those big stones up there?), building foundations, and cisterns, which were certainly needed in case of a prolonged siege, which Dymocastron must have experienced more than once.  The site also has many living trees, including wild pears (Pyrus spinosa Vill., also known as P. amygdaliformis Vill.) and figs (Ficus carica L.) which appear to be descendants of wild native trees selected by the original inhabitants, as well as some oaks, of course, such as Quercus coccifera L., Q. cerris L., Q macrolepis Kotschy. The morning ended with a hike and picnic lunch in a sylvan canyon nearby, filled with oaks and enormous plane (sycamore) trees (Platanus orientalis L.).  It is interesting to note that the Greeks so appreciate the plane tree that it is illegal to cut them in the wild.  There are many Greek folksongs about the platano, which is traditionally associated with water and coolness.  They got that right!

Tree form of Quercus coccifera, possibly a hybrid. Vitsa, Epirus, Greece. (Photo: Gert Dessoy)

During the afternoon we all discovered our inner tourist: overnight was at a delightful beach hotel at Lichnos, near Parga.   In addition to swimming, many of us were treated to a speed boat ride by the owner of hostel.  The food here, expectable for a tourist area, was outstanding.  It’s hard to decide which was better, the beach or the veranda, with recorded Greek popular music and nice cold drinks.  Incidentally, this is one of the most beautiful areas of Greece I have ever visited.  Keep it in mind if you intend to visit Greece!

Now for the mountain flora…

On Wednesday, September 28 we drove into the Pindus Mountains, not far from the Albanian border.  Here is the second highest mountain in Greece, Mount Smolikas  (8,660’; the first is Mount Olympus, in Greek Macedonia, whose highest point reaches over 9,500 feet above sea level ).    Our destination for the night was the Zagori District, specifically the Epirot town of Vitsa.  We botanized along the way, stopping often to view the many different oak species which are native here: Q. caliprinos Webb (Palestine oak), Q. cerris  (turkey oak), Q. coccifera  (kermes oak), Q. frainetto Ten. (Hungarian or Italian oak), Q.macrolepis (Valonian oak), Q. petraea (Mattuschka) Liebl. (Durmast oak), Q. pubescens Willd. (Downy oak, including a form of the species called Q. virgiliana (Ten.) Ten.), Q. robur (English oak) in its subsp pedunculiflora (K. Koch) Menitsky.  I had never seen oaks in the Cerris section, and I was astonished at the size of the acorns and the long, thick fringe on the acorn cap in species in this section. We took a group picture in front of a large, beautiful Quercus caliprinos.  Also very frequent was Cercis siliquastrum L, heavy with reddish-brown seed pods, testimony to the abundant pink flowers of last spring.  Also common were Celtis australis L., Mediterranean hackberry, Fagus sylvatica L., European beech, Populus alba L., white poplar, and many naturalized stands of the American tree Robinia pseudoacacia L., black locust.

Sites along the route to Vitsa included the interesting “Pancake Rocks,” limestone formations where weathering of the strata has produced what looks like stacks of pancakes.  The foreground of some of these formations was occupied by beautiful beds of blooming Sternbergia lutea (L.) Ker-Gawl. ex Spreng (no, not named for Guy Sternberg!), their brilliant yellow flowers brightening the otherwise autumn landscape.  Throughout the tour we also saw occasional purple autumn-blooming colchicums and many blooming cyclamens (probably Cyclamen hederifolium Aiton).  Other attractions in the Zagori District were large stands of Acer monspessulanum L., Montpellier maple, most with abundant seed, and some with orange fall color; these trees were very attractive to those of us from cold areas where the same species from the western Mediterranean cannot survive. Also present was Acer opalus Mill., Italian maple. Here also we first encountered the beautiful Quercus trojana Webb, (Macedonian oak). Other trees of interest were Crataegus orientalis M. Bieb., silver thorn tree, with large edible fruits, and the rare bigeneric hybrid x Malosorbus florentina (Zuccagni) Browicz, Florentine crab apple, thought by some to be a natural cross between a species of Malus and Sorbus, but generally regarded as a species of Malus

Another treat of this section of our journey was the afternoon visit near Oxia to the Vikos Gorge carved by the Voidamatis River; this very impressive canyon, with towering limestone cliffs 3,000 feet (roughly 915 meters) high, was breathtaking, even dizzying, and not something you might expect to find in Europe.  It is located in a national park, The Vikos-Aoos Nature Reserve, established in 1974.

 

Of limestone, plane trees, and graceful Ottoman bridges

The village of Vitsa, where we stayed two nights, was extremely picturesque.  Most of the houses, and the streets apart from the modern highway, are built of hand-tailored limestone blocks; the roofs are also made from thin sheets of limestone.  The picture this gave of generations of manual labor was sobering. 

One of the most memorable things about Vitsa was the small square (mesochori) in front of our hotel, which was shaded by a gigantic plane tree.  The tree was so large that the entire square was perpetually shaded. Such mesochoria are typical of the villages in the Zagori.  We enjoyed a number of beers and ouzos under that tree.  At night the local street dogs slept under the tree and in the street in front of it, curled up in the abundant fallen leaves of the ancient tree.

Using Vitsa as our base we made many hikes in the area, admiring oaks and other trees, as well as several Ottoman bridges dating from the 16th century.  These high, narrow limestone bridges were built so that people and pack animals could safely cross the rushing mountain streams of the area.  People who have any familiarity with these bridges usually think of the famous bridge at Mostar over the Neretva River, in Bosnia, completed around 1569.  It was destroyed in the fighting there in the 1990s.  The news is that there are several of these are still standing in the Zagori and in neighboring Greek Macedonia.  One particularly beautiful one is the Gephyri Kokkorou, which is along the road to Kipoi (“Gardens”) where we also spent time exploring the surroundings.

 

The Greek Lake District

On Thursday, September 29, we botanized a bit on our way to the Greek “Lake District.”  Along the way we were impressed by the large stands of Q. frainetto, called both the “Italian” and the “Hungarian” oak.  (If it had been first described in Greece, would it be called the “Greek Oak?”). There were also pine forests (Pinus nigra J.F.Arnold, Austrian pine), in fact, we stopped for a hike in a small mountain town in western Macedonia called simply Pefkos, from the Greek word pefko, which means “pine”.  This area of Greece gets very cold in winter; one resident I spoke to told me that he had seen -27C (-18 F).  Pefkos is located at 1058 meters (around 3,500 feet) above sea level.

In the evening we reached the first and most famous lake of the Greek Lake District, Lake Orestiada.  This lake, as the other northern Greek lakes, is surrounded by high, rather barren hills, very brown at this season.  This reminded me of similar lakes and reservoirs in the western United States. In a similar topography in northern Europe, e.g. Switzerland or Bavaria, the lakes would be surrounded by hills covered in thick conifer forest. The lower rainfall in this part of the Balkans, (and the interior American West), is probably the explanation for this, although burning by shepherds to create grasslands could also be responsible.  The town of Kastoria, which surrounds the lake, is very touristic; we had our evening meal there, but didn’t spend any time looking around, since shopping was not our reason for being there.  Before dark we did enjoy the pelicans, ducks, and swans swimming and diving in the lake in front of our hotel.

The next morning we set off early (as usual), headed for the other main lakes in the area, Megale (“big”) and Micre (“little”) Prespa.  These lakes are so close to both Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia that all three countries share sovereignty of the larger lake.  The whole area is a national park, and renowned for the abundant wildlife found there, including wolves, bears, lynx, and the large, rare Dalmatian pelican (Pelecanus crispus Bruch).  The most prominent oak in this area is Q. petraea, which occurs in very large stands. We spent the afternoon hiking near Megale Prespa after enjoying a wonderful lunch in the small, lakeside village of Psarades (“Fishermen”).  This is bean country, and there were people selling many different sorts of beans out of their vans across the street from our restaurant.  Indeed, we had some of the beans as a meze (“appetizer”) before lunch: giant beans (3 or 4 cm long, over an inch in the English system) called gigantes (no translation required!).  The main course was, expectedly, fish from the lake.  Another interesting attraction was a van whose owner was selling all kinds of preserved vegetables and fruits: pickles and jams of all kinds, as well as different flavors of honey, in glass jars; some of them looked so appetizing, e.g. quince and sour cherry preserves that I bought some and passed them around at lunch.

That evening we had another treat: our lodging was a hotel located on Agios Achileos, an island in Lake Micre Prespa.  We hiked across a long causeway, past thick stands of giant reeds (Phragmites australis (Cav.) Trin.ex Steud.) growing in the water, to the island, while our luggage was brought over by boat.  We were in the middle of a very small northern Greek village, populated mostly by chickens, goats, lots of dogs and cats of indeterminate breed, and maybe 20 human beings.  The main touristic attraction of the island (not counting fishing!) is a ruined Eastern Orthodox basilica named for Agios (Saint) Achileos, built in the 10th century by the Slavic (Macedonian) Tsar Samuel who ruled the area at that time.  I was interested to note on the explanatory plaque in front of the ruin, (with texts in both Greek and English), that the name “Macedonian” had been scratched out in both texts.  This is a reflection of the continuing resentment in Greece of the Slavic republic’s use of the name of the ancient kingdom of Alexander the Great, whom the Greeks claim as their own and aren’t about to lend to non-Greeks, particularly when they are Vourgaroi (Bulgarians).  But ethnic animosities are overcome each August, when a musical concert is held here under the stars, featuring artists from Greece and neighboring Balkan countries; I have to say that it would be difficult to find a more lovely setting to enjoy the timeless beauty of music…

 

Still more mountains, with fruited plains between…

The next day, Saturday, October 1 we set out early, for the long drive to the other end of the Pindus range.  The terrain was mountainous.  Along the way, we drove through prosperous orchard country, bordering Lake Vergontis, with lots of plantations of fruit trees such as peaches, pears, and apples, many with unpicked fruit.  Many of the apple trees were espaliered on wire-strand fences, literally forming a “wall of apples.”  There were also many chestnut trees (Castanea sativa Mill., sweet chestnut), heavy with burs. We were also startled to see water buffalo near the lake. As we climbed higher into the Voras range, toward the ski station at Kaimaktsalan, we reached a high ridge (over 2000 meters elevation, around 6,600 feet) near the ski station. The ridge was covered with outcroppings of what looked like schist, and here and there among these were many low mounds of Juniperus communis L var. saxatilis Pall, common juniper,  many with ripe seed, as well as a spiny, ground-hugging plant in the Fabaceae, possibly Astragalus angustifolius Lam.  This cold and windy pastureland, virtual tundra, is what most of Greece looked like during the Pleistocene ice age, before the onset of the warm Holocene some 10,000 years ago.

As we approached the town of Arnissa we were flagged down by a man who turned out to be a restaurant owner who recognized a potential clientele in our tour bus. His motto was evidently “If your customers don’t come to you, go find them!”  We decided to follow him to his restaurant, which proved to be very good choice.                             

 

Soaring spires and peaceful contemplation 

Our goal for today was Kalampaka, in Thessaly, to the east and south, which is one of the best-known tourist destinations in Greece.  Just north of the town are towering sandstone and conglomerate crags and pillars, some 1800 feet high (about 550 meters), dating from the early Cenozoic period (60 million years before present), many crowned by churches or monasteries built by Hesychists in the Middle Ages (14th and 15th centuries).  “Hesychist” comes from the Greek word hesychia, which means ‘respite, quietude, peace.’  These were men (and some women) who sought refuge from the turbulent world of temptation and sin in the solitude of cliff-top aeries, six of which are still active monasteries.  The buildings high in the sky gives the Greek name for the area, “The Meteora.”  (Again, no translation required.)

As soon as we arrived in Kastraki, a suburban village very close to Kalampaka, most of the members of our party rushed off to see the spires, most armed with cameras and full of enthusiasm for the stupendous views.  After everyone had returned, as darkness began to fall, we gathered in the hotel restaurant for dinner.  This meal counted as our “farewell dinner,” since I and my travelling companion would be leaving the tour early the next day.  After dinner we gave formal thanks to our tour leader, Bruno Van Puijenbroek, who was given a copy of the beautiful two volume Guide illustré des chênes (Illustrated Guide to the Oaks), whose author, Antoine le Hardÿ de Beaulieu, was one of the members of our group.  Bruno was visibly touched, and he will certainly treasure this monumental work as a souvenir of this tour.

 

The last chapter

Although I did not participate in the group activities of the last day of the tour, this is what was done, according to participants.

The main scheduled activity of the morning was a visit to the principal monastery of the Meteora, the Agia Triada (“Holy Trinity”).  There was some difficulty with the bus, such that it couldn’t be driven up to the monastery, so the group decided to hike up. In this they were guided by “Frosso” (Efrossyni) one if the daughters of the owner of the hotel, a student of forestry who was familiar with the area.  But a distraction from the principal goal of the hike came up at the very edge of Kastraki, where a Mediterranean forest begins.  It was incredibly rich in the tree and shrub species of the eastern Mediterranean.  Of most interest were the many different oaks: Quercus cerris, Q.coccifera, Q. frainetto, Q. ilex L.,  Q. petraea, Q. pubescens, and Q. robur.  After a renewed acquaintance with these lower-altitude oaks, many already familiar from the first day of the tour, some of the guys continued on up to the monastery.  Others chose to return to Kastraki to sight see there. 

When the visit to the monastery was completed, it was time for lunch, and the bus, by now in running order again, picked up the hikers at the monastery.  Lunch was at the same restaurant as on Saturday night.  After lunch the journey back to Igoumenitsa was begun.  By general agreement, the route followed was a high-speed motorway, rather than the rural roads which had been followed throughout the tour.  People were by now thinking of returning home, satisfied with their exploration of the northern Greek mountains, but eager to get back to their normal lives and a less hurried pace. 

And so came to an end a rewarding and unforgettable visit to one of the less familiar parts of Europe, which just happens to be blessed with an extremely rich flora.  

Limestone block street, with dogs. Vitsa, Zagori, Epirus, Greece. (Photo: Allan Taylor)

Now, what about you?

I am sure that I speak for all of the fifteen participants in this exciting tour that “a good time was had by all!”  Moreover, the opportunity to photograph and collect seed from wild trees in their natural habitats greatly enhanced the many pleasures of the excursion.  If you have not yet participated in an IOS event of this kind, I hope that my description of the Greek Oak Open Days will suggest to you what you are missing, and motivate you to join a future IOS tour.  You’ll be glad you did, because oak trees and “oak nuts” are the greatest!