Spring in Epirus

Sunday 28 May to Tuesday 6 June 2023

Epirus: plant and scenic beauties

This was the 28th overseas tour organised by MPG. There were 18 people in the group which included Heather Martin, organiser and committee member, and Graham Kendall, our botanical guide.

Sunday 28 May 2023

Party members grouped together after travelling by various routes from the UK, mainland Greece, Crete and Belgium.

Once the introductory meal at Dionysos, with members getting to know each other, had concluded, Graham gave a brief overview of the itinerary for the days ahead. It was noted that the spring had been late this year but there would be a diversity of species including fritillaries, orchids and tulips to discover. The trip would enable MPG members to experience the natural beauty and the biodiversity of the area. This included the Pindus mountains, Vikos Gorge, wildflower meadows, forests and amazing rock formations, plus visits to traditional villages, cultural monuments and institutions. The area has a strong cultural heritage and identity with Sarakatsani people who historically have lived in a degree of isolation in the Pindus mountains.

Monday 29 May

Monodendri – the village in which we stayed – is a starting point for trekking paths into the Vikos Gorge. After a short bus ride we arrived at Oxya to start the walk through the Stone Forest. This is an amazing spectacle of limestone formations located among a forest of oaks and maples. There are natural formations of huge slabs of limestone rocks stacked up on top of each other. A very impressive sight created over thousands of years.

The area provided us with a rich array of varied flora. After lunch in Monodendri Square the group walked to the Monastery of Agia Paraskevi. This route took us along part of the Vikos Gorge which is located within the Northern Pindus National Park with forests of European black pine and common beech. Olive trees do not grow in the area. The gorge is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the deepest in the world relative to its width. The monastery is built on the western cliff of the gorge and the balcony at the very end of the monastery gives an amazing view of the gorge. On the drive along to Vikos lots of lime and ash trees were noted with an abundance of soapwort on the hillside.

Tuesday 30 May

Today the group visited an area of limestone pavements with further botanising opportunities. We found many species of orchids and the area is also home to several stone bridges built predominantly in the 18th and 19th centuries. Graham advised the bridges were primarily built from schist, prolific in the area. They provided vital links between the villages.

These bridges of Agios Minas, Kapetan Arkoudas and Kokouri were visited by our members. All the bridges were slightly different, unique in their structure and setting. Some of us were intrigued by the low decorative parapets and wondered what purpose they may serve, tying up a boat or cattle? At Kokouri Bridge there was an enormous horse chestnut tree growing out of the rock formation. All the bridges were impressive testaments to the skill and expertise of their constructors.

Wednesday 31 May

Today was set to be a slightly more difficult walk with narrow and uneven paths with loose gravel. On the bus journey to Vradeto, the highest village in the Zagori region where the walk started, Graham spoke about the Sarakatsani people who are descendants of the original pastoral tribes of Homeric Greece. There is an annual festival in the first weekend of August which celebrates the Sarakatsani and their culture. As we started our walk Melvyn pointed out bee hives surrounded by an electric fence to deter bears

Bee hives, Vradeto

Many blue butterflies

Tsepelovo village square

During today’s walk numerous hybrid orchids were spotted. Sadly, the weather was against us and a storm with heavy rain curtailed the original plan. Originally the only way to reach Vradeto village was by the Skala of Vradeto or Vradeto Staircase, 1100 steps cut into the side of the canyon. Thankfully we did not have to undertake this route! Lunch was at the Mikri Arktos (Small Bear) in Tsepelovo. This is the largest of the 45 villages in the Zagori region and flourished during the Ottoman empire until the end of the occupation in 1912.

Thursday 1 June

Kalogeriko – or Plakidas – Bridge, as it is also called, was our first destination for today. This is one of the few triple-arched bridges still in existence.

The surrounding area proved to be a rich hunting ground with a varied selection of plant material. The walk eventually led to Milos Bridge with a disused watermill close by. Graham told us about the Vikos doctors, well known in the 17th and 18th centuries for their herbal medicine. The use of local herbs and plants helped heal ailments for people as well as livestock. There is a large plant collection held at the University of Thessaloniki. A gorgeous light lunch was served at O Michalis in the village of Kipoi, where the Lazaridi-Kontodimou Bridge is located. The meaning of the Greek word “kipoi” is gardens, of which there are many. At one stage the village was the capital of Zagori, being the most central in the area. After lunch we visited a small natural history museum in a restored house in the nearby village of Koukouli. The village schoolmaster, Kostas Lazaridis, an amateur botanist, had lived there and spent his retirement collecting and classifying over 1300 examples of the local flora. After he died in 1987 his specimens and notes were put on display in the house, further evidence of the rich variety of herbs and plants found in the Zagori region.

Friday 2 June

The drive today took us up through the National Park to Megalo Papingo and Mikro Papingo, with their beautiful cobbled streets and buildings. On the way, after the village of Aristi, we had a lovely walk alongside the River Voidomatis where we saw many plants of interest. The single arched bridge was constructed in 1923. Graham spoke about the Tymfi mountain range situated in the northern Pindus which contains some unique fauna and flora species.

The mountains comprise a series of uplifted blocks largely composed of limestone. The roads in this part of the region were indeed curved and windy with many hairpin bends.

After lunch on the terrace of the Astra restaurant in Mikro Papingo, with lovely views, we spent the afternoon having a walk at the Rogovo rock pools – a series of waterfalls and natural pools created by the Rogovo river, exploring Megalo Papingo and then looking at the great gorge from a viewpoint with a different angle in the village of Vikos.

Saturday 3 June

Today we checked out of the Zagori-Philoxenia Hotel in Monodendri for the onward journey to Metsovo. The family who own it – Denis, his mother Ritsa, sister Natasha and father Vassilis – came out to see us off and have their photo taken. We then stopped off to visit the monument to the women of Zagori, a tribute to all the women of the area and their efforts in World War II, an impressive statue set on the hillside facing the Pindus mountain range with the surrounding area being another opportunity for botanising. Salvia sclarea is shown.

On our onward drive we passed Lake Pamvotida, also known as the Lake of Ioannina. This is the largest lake of Epirus and has a diverse and unique ecosystem. Ioannina is a major university town on its west shore. On our drive lots of different vegetation was noted, Spanish broom and verbascum were in full bloom.

Metsovo lies in a deep-sided valley with black pine forests and is a popular tourist town.  After check-ins were completed at the Apollon Hotel, where we were to stay for the final three nights, most of the group proceeded to visit a folk-art museum in the 19th century Tossizza Mansion near our hotel. It was a great insight to past times and thoroughly enjoyed.

Sunday 4 June

Katara Pass was the destination today. It is the highest paved road in mainland Greece with spectacular views of the mountains and forests and usually has to be closed due to deep snow for two months in winter. There is an artificial lake surrounded by a nature reserve and home to brown bears. Thankfully we did not meet up with any! The Katara Pass had been the old road from Epirus to Thessaloniki. The group stopped off in areas that Graham had visited in the past and was pleasantly rewarded with groups of Narcissus poeticus subsp. radiflorus, Podospermum roseum, Rhinanthus pindicola – which is related to Rhinanthus minor (yellow rattle) used by creators of wild meadows in north-west Europe including UK, and many other flowers we had not seen before. At a later stop a few of the group walked into the trees and found Fritillaria epirotica and Tulipa australis. An excellent picnic lunch which included tuna and mayo sandwiches went down well as we watched sheep being herded in the distance and horses being led behind a van going along the road beside us.

Politses meadows

Narcissus poeticus

Dactylorhiza sambucina

Dactylorhiza viridis

Fritillaria epirotica

Tulipa australis

Pinus nigra

Muscari neglectum

Monday 5 June

The last full day for the MPG group and the plan was to visit two monasteries of Meteora, Varlaam which is the second biggest of the six open to the public and is situated at the top of a rocky precipice, and Rousanou a smaller monastery on three floors inhabited by 15 nuns. Access to Rousanou was by ladder originally and then by a wooden bridge built in 1868 until two solid bridges were built in 1930. The monasteries are built on natural rocky pillars. Meteora, which means lofty, is a Unesco World Heritage site. These daunting and majestic rock towers were truly awe inspiring. A fitting end to what had been an amazing visit on the Epirus tour!

Special thanks to Graham Kendall and Heather Martin. Their expertise, knowledge and organisational skills helped make this trip truly memorable. Last but not least, hats off to Giorgos Kaffes for his amazing driving skills. Much appreciated by everyone.

> For more photos see Stephen Cole’s Flickr page

Text: Roisheen Childs

Pictures: Kirsty Angwin, Béatrice Castelein, Roisheen Childs, Stephen Cole, Melvyn Jope, Heather Martin