|Mediterranean Garden Society|
Epirus – MGS Trip May 2015
by John Joynes
Every year the MGS administration attempts to offer members at least two trips to places of botanical interest. In 2015 a repeat was offered in March of the previous year’s tour to Morocco, the 2014 trip having been oversubscribed. The second offering was a one-week botanising trip to the Epirus region of northern Greece in May.
Epirus is situated in north-west Greece. To the north it shares a border with Albania and to the west it has a coastline on the Ionian Sea. It is generally rugged in nature with the highest point being Mount Smolikas at 2,637 metres. The Pindus Mountains to the east combined with the winds blowing off the Ionian Sea ensure that the region receives more rainfall on average than the rest of Greece. The climate is mainly alpine and even in late May there was still snow on the higher ground.
On the afternoon of Monday 18th May a multinational group (British, Danish, Dutch, French, Australian and Cypriot) began to converge on Athens airport in order to catch the evening flight to Ioannina, the main town of the Epirus region. Twelve of us, plus Chris Gardner, our guide, boarded the plane, our thirteenth member having already taken the morning flight, for the short (roughly 45 minutes) hop. At the grandly named King Pyrrhus airport we were met by our driver who was to remain with us for the duration of our stay. The final stage of our journey took us to the town of Metsovo and the hotel that was to be our base for the next three days, the Katogi Averoff. Metsovo is situated at an altitude of 1,160 metres and in winter is a ski resort. By the time we arrived at the hotel it was getting late so the refreshments of tea, coffee, etc, that were offered as rooms were allocated and directions to find them given were very welcome. Our particular room proved to be more than adequate in size, with a sitting room that was large enough to have been sublet, in addition to the normal bedroom and en-suite bathroom.
Day 1, our first full day, began with an ample buffet breakfast before we headed north from Metsovo. We were taking in the area around Lake Aoos, Kampos Despoti and Flambourari. In these more remote regions cafés and restaurants are in short supply so packed lunches were often to be the order of the day.
It was not long before we were introduced to the first of the many species of wild flower that we were to encounter on the trip, and what an introduction it was. The sight of massed bunches of the small, fragrant Narcissus poeticus is one that will not easily be forgotten.
(At this point perhaps I should stress that as we discovered such a wide variety of plants over the period it would be impossible to mention them all in a particular location on a particular day and I will confine myself to a few that stood out. A fairly comprehensive list of plants seen will be included at the end of this article). For example, the area around Aoos Lake abounded with the sunshine yellow of marsh marigolds, Caltha palustris. Close by were a few of the equally bright yellow Tulipa sylvestris, a pretty pink deadnettle, Lamium garganicum,and open bells of Fritillaria montana.
In the pre-trip documentation we had been promised ‘orchid-rich terraces near Flambourari’ and we were not disappointed, with Anacamptis morio (green-winged orchid), Dactylorhiza baumanniana, Dactylorhiza kalopissii, Dactylorhiza sambucina (elder-flowered orchid), Neottia ovata (twayblade), Orchis mascula (early purple orchid), Orchis purpurea (lady orchid), Anacamptis pyramidalis (pyramidal orchid), Ophrys sphegodes subsp. helenae and Platanthera chlorantha (greater butterfly orchid) among the many seen.
On returning to the hotel at the end of a very successful day of plant hunting we were advised that the evening meal would begin with a bowl of traditional Metsovo soup. This turned out to be similar to one produced in Cyprus called ‘trachanas’. It is traditionally made using goat’s milk that is left to sour in an earthenware container, poured into a clean one every day for at least a week before being boiled with ground wheat and salt. Once cooled it is shaped into rough cubes and left to dry in the sun. It can then be stored for future use when the cubes are soaked in stock and reheated as soup. The Metsovo variety proved to be less sour than the Cyprus one, possibly due to a difference in the treatment of the milk.
On Day 2 our minibus was exchanged for a 4-wheel-drive version as we were heading for the Pindus Valley National Park of Valia Kalda. The need for this precaution became evident as we entered the park area and began to bounce and slide over the deeply-rutted and shiny-wet tracks. Apparently there had been heavy rain in the area in the days before our arrival and this was further evidenced by the number of streams we splashed through and the amount of soil and associated debris that had been washed down from the hillsides. The park is home to brown bears and Chris had told us that the tracks were deliberately left rough and that only licensed tour operators were allowed access in order to protect the wildlife from unwanted attention. It was blatantly obvious that the state of the ‘roads’ would certainly act as an effective deterrent to any casual traffic. Much of the route was over rather hairy, forested, precipitous tracks and, although enjoying the scenery, I spent some little time fervently hoping not to become a permanent feature of it… In fact the going eventually became so bad that our driver declared it impossible to proceed so we were forced to turn back, thus failing to reach our planned destination.
We were not disappointed in the plants that we found however, among them Muscari botryoides, tiny blue Soldanella pindicola by the side of a stream, a patch of unopened Crocus veluchensis that had suffered somewhat from the wet weather, and a pretty little yellow violet, Viola × dukadjinica.
In addition to the many plants we found we were fortunate to encounter some of the park’s wildlife. A creature that we were sure was a wildcat, and not a feral relative, raced across the track in front of the bus at one point, and at another we came across a fire salamander in the middle of the road. Chris leapt out of the bus and caught it to allow for a photo opportunity before releasing it well away from danger. Its bright yellow/gold splashes provided a clear indication to any potential predator that it would not make a good meal and that those who ignored this warning would seriously regret having done so.
Day 3, and we had a morning off from trekking to relax in the town of Metsovo and to indulge in some shopping. Metsovo is famous for a variety of local products but the one that my wife and I were particularly interested in was their cheeses, most especially in a smoked variety known as Kapnisto tou Metsovou. From the moment we first sampled it at the hotel breakfast buffet it had been our intention to acquire an ample supply to take home, and this we did. Suitably refreshed and rested we returned to the hotel for an early lunch, followed by a guided tour of the winery attached to the hotel and owned by the same family, where, needless to say, we took on board further fortification.
Having thus bade farewell to Metsovo we set off for our second base, the much smaller mountain village of Papingo, situated at a height of 980 metres. Our journey took us via Ioannina, where we made a short stop to view its old city walls and its lake, before heading back into the wilds and yet more new plants. Some of them indeed were not so new as we encountered old friends from our own gardens, such as Phlomis fruticosa (in one area presenting an attractive tableau intermingled with pyramidal orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis), Stachys cretica and Nigella damascena, among other plants.
We eventually arrived at our destination and the second hotel of our stay, in fact two hotels as the group was divided between the Astra Traditional Inn and the Hotel Papaevangelou. Our accommodation at the Astra was once more of a generous size, comprising a large sleeping/sitting area, a bathroom and a small kitchenette.
On Day 4 we set out for our first look at the spectacular Vikos Gorge. This is located in the Pindus Mountains on the southern slope of Mount Tymfi. It is approximately 20 kms long, ranges from 120 to 490 metres in depth and varies in width from a few metres at its narrowest point to 400 metres. There appears to be some contention regarding whether it is the deepest gorge in the world or only the second deepest. Apparently the indecision revolves around the somewhat arbitrary definition of what constitutes a gorge. Today we were just looking at the gorge, tomorrow would herald the walk down the side of it by way of the Vradeto Steps, but more of that later. Today there were yet more flowers to discover and photograph. We saw swathes of purple gooseneck loosestrife, Lysimachia atropurpurea, on the roadside verges, yellow spires of Asphodeline lutea growing in the most inhospitable conditions, stunning little Ramonda serbica clinging to crevices in the rock face, the brilliant cornflower blue of Centaurea triumfettii and yet more orchids: Ophrys sphegodes subsp. mammosa, Orchis pallens, Orchis quadripunctata and Neotinia tridentata, the gorgeous three-toothed orchid.
Day 5, the day of the Vradeto Steps. One of the highlights of the trip was to walk down the Vradeto Steps, a stone path that clings to the side of a tributary gorge and leads from the village of Vradeto at the top to Kapesovo at the bottom. Until 1974, these steps, numbering more than a thousand, provided the only means of access to the village of Vradeto – the highest village in the region. Unfortunately, when the time came I was not able to take part. Earlier in the year I had been forced to undergo a leg operation that severely reduced my mobility for several weeks. Although on the run up to the trip I had attempted to build up my strength with a regime of daily walking exercises, when it came to tackling the Vradeto Steps I had a very difficult decision to make. Over the course of the week my knee had begun to swell somewhat and my confidence in its ability to withstand the rigours of a one-hour downhill walk was a little shaken. So, with discretion being the better part of valour and not wishing to jeopardize the experience for the other members of the group, I chickened out. I therefore joined the driver in a more sedentary descent to the village of Kapesovo, where we were to eat lunch. I spent the time awaiting the arrival of the intrepid explorers sitting in the village square, drinking coffee and demolishing a portion of delicious cinnamon and ginger cake that was large enough to seriously threaten to spoil my appetite for the impending meal, supplied by the very pleasant lady who ran the small gift shop cum café. So I was forced to swallow my disappointment, along with the cake, and rely on the information supplied by the others that the descent of the Vradeto Steps provided some spectacular views accompanied by more flowers, such as Malabaila aurea, Artemisia absinthium, Lilium candidum, Acanthus hungaricus (syn. A. balcanicus) and Rosa xanthina (syn. R. pimpinellifolia).
Day 6 was the last full day and off we went to go as far north as possible and still remain in Greece. The small village of Molivdoskepasto is the last stop before the Albanian border and as we stood on a rise outside the church of Agioi Apostoloi looking down into the valley that was Albania we could just make out what appeared to be border posts on either side of a bridge across the river. It was only as we turned away to leave that we spotted on an information board that the church we were standing outside was in fact located on the actual border between the two countries.
It was on this day that Chris was able to fulfill one of his promises made at the beginning of the trip. He had already made good on all the others, and more. Probably the only thing we hadn’t seen was a brown bear, and he hadn’t promised that anyway. For days we had been tantalized and teased by finding rosettes of foliage and evidence of spent flowers until we had eventually come to the conclusion that we were too late in the season to find one of these plants still in bloom. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, Chris spotted something off to one side of the road, and there it was, a single, beautiful, deep-red flower of Paeonia peregrina.
All that was left now was to return to the hotel to prepare for our final meal together before our early morning departure the following day to catch the flight to Athens and onward to our separate destinations. However, this turned out to be not quite the end, for as we were walking back to the bus my wife noticed a plant growing beside the path to which she drew Chris’s attention. It proved to be our last new plant of the trip, an Onosma pygmaeum.
This trip was the brainchild of Nikos and Fleur Pavlidis and, although family circumstances had made it impossible for them to take part, I’m sure that I can speak on behalf of all members of the group in thanking them for all the hard work they had put into planning and arranging it. Thanks are also due to Chris Gardner for everything he did to make this both an enjoyable and an educational outing, freely and patiently sharing his knowledge and experience.
A list of the plants seen, by family