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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24 Comments

  1. I’m interested in this – what kind of accommodation did you stay in? Do you think it would be suitable for a child who enjoys nature or is it a tricky place to visit with children?

    Reply
    • thank you we stayed in small hotels on all occasions. Yes you can take children. The Lonely Planet for Greece will provide you with all the practical information you will need. It wd be v straightforward to go with children but depending on age some of the walks might be a bit arduous.

      Reply
      • Charmagne Dutton

         /  November 4, 2017

        My daughter and I have traveled there since she was 7 and now she is 11. We have found hikes at all levels throughout Zagori. As well, local artisans offer classes appropriate for children. Ioannina has many museums for interpretation of cultural aspects. If your child is very social, i recommend travel in August when more children are in the villages.

      • many thanks Charmagne

  2. Jez Dagley

     /  July 7, 2017

    Thanks Mark. A truly evocative, stirring and stimulating blog. The questions you and your Zagorian ecologist friend raise are amongst the key questions of the moment. We face some of these choices and issues, on a much smaller and less biodiverse scale of course, in our wood-pasture landscapes in the UK. These same or similar questions hang over the extraordinary wood-pasture landscapes of Transylvania and southern Turkey. Trees and reafforestation seem to mesmerise many. Mosaics are often just ‘too difficult’.
    And the challenges of convincing others, as the baselines of our collective memories shift tectonically beneath us, are daunting.
    I really hope I can come and sharing this would be very special. So glad your 30-year ambition has been realised and that it was as special as you might have hoped.

    Reply
    • thanks Jez i think it is this balance between the hugely creative aspects of human interventions and letting nature takes its course. But the place has gone from one extreme to the other over the last century and a quarter and we are seeing now what happens when people withdraw with landscapes. The conventional picture of rewilding is highly simplified and one of the things that i love about Zagori is the chance to explore the issue up close. All i things that i find wonderful about it – the abundances of insects and flowering plants particularly – are at risk from blanket afforestation.

      Reply
  3. I’ll be ‘watching this space’. We lived recently in the French Pyrenees, and while it was far less isolated, far more developed than Zagori seems to be from your account, I recognise the rich diversity, the sheer abundance that you write about: dozens of varieties of orchid, of butterflies and so on. I’d love the opportunity to explore the area.

    Reply
    • thanks Margaret i am developing several courses there but the first will be a writing course. However straight wildlife exploration is definitely also something i wd like to do. But i will notify you if you like

      Reply
      • Ooh, yes please. I’m interested in both writing and wildlife, so I’d like to hear about anything in the pipeline. Should I send my email address?

  4. Emily – taking children to Zagori is great because the paths are graded for mules [so not too steep] and there are plenty of small things on the way to aim for – such as exoklisi [tiny wayside chapels]. Details of walks in the Papingo area – and their child-friendliness – can be found in my small guide book – Exploring Papingo [see www,papingo.net], It s a wonderful place – do go there!

    Reply
  5. Thanks Margaret no need i have your email address already. Will be in touch asap. warmest wishes

    Reply
  6. I spent a few wonderful days in Zagoria in the late 1980 while backpack ING around Greece. We stayed in Monodendri and walked the gorge path from there and descended to the valley floor. How extraordinary that people from quite an isolated mountainous area became such good travellers and linguists.

    Monodendri was very quiet in early autumn with just a couple of guest houses/lodgings and not more than a couple of restaurant, only one of them open.

    The buildings were beautiful with many substantial houses but looking at my handful of photos, I can see that many were empty and maintenance of paths was a clearly a struggle. The river bed was completely dry.

    So how must that be now? Under 1000 people in all of the Zagoria villages doesn’t seem sustainable, for the communities, the structures or the wildlife. How very sad.

    As you say it raises it raises interesting questions about our simplistic and romanticised views about all this and highlights the need for balance. We could probably learn a lot with respect to managing the Lake District, recently designated a World Heritage site but possibly in danger from a lack of such balance in the opposite direction. Have you read George Monbiot’s piece on that in the Guardian? I am sure he would be interested to see your blog on the Zagoria.

    It seems unlikely Greece will be affording a push to preserve it any time soon, but at least Zagoria is now a National Park, so some good news. Thanks for a great post.

    Reply
    • Many thanks Alison
      Monodendri is the one quite developed village that we have visited but it is still surrounded by great countryside and has the wonderful Rizareios Centre. I agree it sheds light on the whole issue of what is and what makes for a great environment. It raises the issue of human creativity with regard to biodiversity and withdrawing our impact completely is not always the best thing. But i agree also that the Lake District is a different case where human effects are over impactful and destructive. But i must read the Monniot piece as you recommend. Thank you

      Reply
  7. murray marr

     /  July 30, 2017

    Mark, thanks for this dizzying and spectacular account. It induced these semi-parallel thoughts regarding the painful Zagori ecological conundrum
    The 18th and 19th century Highland Clearances resulted in the enforced removal of people from the glens. Those disgorged gorges are now being considered for rewilding. That means restarting the process of ecological succession, aided and accelerated by careful keystone large fauna re-introductions. An extra and vital way to achieve this is to take a humanitarian approach as well. That is to allow the empty Highlands to be settled and worked once again. There is good reason to believe that biodiversity in the glens used to be far higher before the Clearances – houses; gardens; ponds; farmyards; small livestock herds; meadows; arable fields; extensive birch wood pastures and less uniform upland pasture and moorland. In addition, there was a mosaic of continuity and disturbance alongside tradition and innovation. In short, there was the constant buzz of unaffected living with all the wildlife benefits that accrue from edgeland habitat. Where do we find that today? Most commonly on the outskirts of towns and cities or in brown field and post-industrial sites.
    To put it in a nutshell society should copy Nature – the lover of paradox. Which means that ecologists and planners should be the lovers of rewilding and ‘unwilding’ at the same time.

    Reply
    • thank you Murray yes the Highlands are probably a good example where people were a positive for nature and we overlook how creative our own inputs can be. Thank you for your interest and your comments

      Reply
  8. That’s a great post! The whole area of “Zagorochoria” (villages of Zagori) is an amazing one. Also, the Pindos mountain range and especially mount Tymfi is perhaps one of the last real wilderness area in Europe.

    Perhaps is not as well as organized as for example the Alps, but for sure is more authentic and there are areas with breathtaking views!

    Again, thanks for the nice post.

    Reply
    • many thanks for the correction on the technical names and also i am delighted you love the area. It is fabulous

      Reply
      • Hi Mark, I did not mean to “correct” any name. 🙂 and indeed, I really like this area of Greece. In fact, in the coming days, I have arranged to do a through hike of the whole mount Tymfi (about 58km) and I really forward to be back to that area once again.

  9. mark cocker

     /  August 2, 2017

    i was not worried i am glad you pointed out that the villages are called ‘Zagorochoria’. But your walk sounds wonderful. I wished i could join you. Just this second I am writing a piece on Lake Prespa for a magazine, to encourage visitors to explore this wonderful region.

    Reply
  10. Very interesting and reminiscent of parts of Northern Spain too, with shrinking human populations and issues of how best to manage the wolves, boars (and even bears) and other wildlife in a changing landscape. I walked the gorge once; ended up carrying someone – with a broken ankle – all the way out on a stretcher! I hope I get a chance to go back and revel in the ‘bioabundance’ you so vividly describe.

    Reply

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