Zagori – Greece’s wildest human landscape

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Beloi: perhaps the ultimate spot in Zagori, not just for the breathtaking views of the world’s deepest gorge, but also for its breeding wallcreepers and glorious flowers and butterflies en route

In 2016 I began a series of excursions to the Balkans, beginning in Serbia. In September of that year it led Maria and me to Zagori, an area of the northern Pindos mountains, which includes the Vikos Gorge (pictured above), in northern Greece. I first heard of it in the mid 1980s and was inspired by the descriptions, but it has taken 30 years to fulfil this quiet ambition. How I wish we had acted sooner!

After just two visits it has become a kind of spiritual touchstone, a refuge from the increasingly humanised landscapes of southern England, a way of gauging what has happened to my country, but also a means to explore some of the new ways of thinking about European landscapes, such as the concept of ‘rewilding’.

However let me introduce Zagori. It is essentially a unit of human geography and a political realm originating during the period of Ottoman rule, which lasted in northern Greece for almost 500 years from 1430 until 1913. The Turkish capital for the region was Ioannina, a city with which many Zagorians retain strong links, often with houses there and also in the mountain villages.  The original Christian communities of Zagori, including 46 villages (of which Dilofo, pictured below, is one) were able to negotiate preferential trade arrangements with their Ottomans overlords and retained a degree of religious and administrative autonomy while expanding trade opportunities, partly through the construction of multi-arched pack bridges to facilitate communication among themselves and more widely in Epirus.

These remarkable stone bridges are a major feature of the place, such as the famous triple-arched bridge near Kipi (above). In truth, everywhere one travels in this glorious river-and-mountain landscape – and it is now both the North Pindos National Park (founded in 2005), the largest in mainland Greece at 2000 km2, and the  Vikos-Aoos Geopark – one is struck as much by the beauty and grandeur of the

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human settlements as the power of their natural setting. The craftsmanship exhibited in the limestone construction of the architecture (such as this old school building in Dilofo, above), is a never-ending source of pleasure in Zagori. Below meanwhile is Mikra Papingo, lying beneath the resonantly named Towers of Astraka (in the lowest dip in the hillslope above the village is the Astraka Refuge, where we stayed in May 2017).IMG_7395The wealth on display in the size and construction of many village houses speaks of a distinctive historical pattern in Zagorian society. Local people, while firmly rooted in their montane commmunities, spent long periods overseas and especially in parts of the Ottoman empire, and as far away as the Crimea, Moscow, Egypt and India. Zagorians were famous for their multilingual abilities and they were skilled merchants and administrators and sent home a stream of remittance money that financed Zagori’s architecture and underpinned numerous regional charitable works. A good example of this is the Rizareios Centre in Monodendri, a nineteenth century foundation that still supports local culture and craft.

Today Zagori is famous mainly for its natural beauty. It is a memorable place for wildlife regardless of season and is especially rich botanically. The national park has about 1,900 species, almost a third of Greece’s total 6,000 vascular plants and the equivalent of all the plant diversity in the British Isles. Here is a tiny glimpse below.

 

Where there are flowers there are invariably butterflies and I found their abundance in May 2017 completely intoxicating. I think it is the sense of unrelieved joy engendered by natural abundance – and which is something I have cherished since childhood – that I prize so highly about Zagori. It is the element that gives me a feeling of having ‘come home’. Too often in Britain, especially today,  encounters in nature are routinely pleated with the sense of loss. There are great places in the UK but even in Scotland one is assailed by awareness of mismanagement or by the reflection that things could be so much better.

One of the most memorable Zagori walks we did this spring was down from the tiny village of Vikos to the bottom of the gorge proper. The entire route was a succession of flowering bushes and shrubs thronged with insects – butterflies mainly but also bush crickets, owl flies, day-flying moths and grasshoppers – and everywhere  submerged in birdsong – subalpine warblers, cirl buntings, blackbirds, tits, finches and hirundines. Filling the gorge at the bottom were the icy waters of the Voidomatis Spring, where we cooled off.

May be it is their very coldness or some mineral content in the waters where they gush out the Earth, but they have a luminescent bloom that adds silver into the greens and turquoises of the river’s flow. The dryad and naiad-haunted tranquillity of the spot inspired the Greeks to establish a small shrine where  intact hand-painted frescoes can still be enjoyed. Above us in the shrine’s perpetual gloom were horseshoe bats. Outside in the shadows were singing nightingales. Here is a taste of it all (please click on the images to enlarge them and see the separate captions)

 

 

There is a further element in Zagori, aside from its glorious wildlife, sublime landscapes and complex human story, that makes the place so compelling. It is one of the least populated parts of Europe and human presence is shrinking. Here is how it has changed, with the historical populations for Zagori followed by the dates in brackets: 27,750 (1812), 28,135 (1874), 22,820 (1902), 9,446 (1961), 6,357 (1991), <1,000 (2017).

Many villages now are almost entirely deserted except at holiday times. We visited the beautiful settlement of Kato Pedina – just to the west of Vikos Gorge – which lies near one of the few large areas of open arable land. It has only 3-4 occupied houses in winter. We have had so many conversations with ex-patriate Zagorians, some making pilgrimage ‘home’ from Athens, and we asked them what they thought about ‘nature’. So often they found the changes, particularly the expansion of woodland, ‘scary’. Look at any old photographs of this landscape and then go and look at the same scene today. You can witness for yourself the forest’s inexorable encroachment. Zagori was, it still is, famous for its Vlach and Sarakatsani transhumant communities, but grazing pressure and livestock numbers are falling.

These changes are having a profound effect on many of the key natural communities for which Zagori is so special. Flowers, butterflies and birds such as red-backed shrike are all retreating before the spread of new woodlands. So often I found both density and variety of the birds greatest around the villages, rather than in the thick of the woods. Almost every area of pasture above villages such as Monodendri, has young suckering tree growth or saplings appearing at the edges of the woods or spreading out of the hedges. The afforestation is graphically illustrated by this old picture of the Vikos Gorge taken in the 1940s at Beloi, which offers one of the great panoramas in all Europe. Compare this image with the one I opened my post with (click to enlarge)

Greek friends, who are Zagorian residents and professional ecologists, spelled out some of the consequences of this process. Wild boar populations have massively increased as the tree cover expands and this, in turn, has led to increases in wolves and bears. It is not possible to find bee hives in the area that are not encircled by electric fences. One consequence of  the increases in some mammal predators has been the widespread use of poison baits. This has had dramatic negative effects on vultures and large birds of prey. As one ecologist friend announced to us: ‘What is so special about wolves’.

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Here is a huge male boar, whose balls were sliced off and fed to the hound in the box at the back of the pick-up

What he means is, why should we privilege one climax predator above the rest of an entire ecosystem whose ‘wildness’ and diversity is dependent upon humans and their management of grazing livestock? I stress that he is not a hunter or a shepherd; he is a modern sophisticated UK-educated ecologist with a passion for both Zagori’s wildlife and a deep love for the relationships between people and place in his home region.

Zagori raises fascinating questions. It is one of the most special parts of Europe that I have seen. It is now a fixture in our lives. I could not recommend a visit more highly.  If you would like to come with me, then watch this space!

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