Zagori and Lake Prespa, highlights of northern Greece

Wed 25 May- Wed 1 June 2022

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Zagori and Lake Prespa are two equally glorious but totally different landscapes of northern Greece. They are united in one detail. They are as steeped in wildlife abundance as they are rich in cultural history. This holiday will explore both places, capturing the best of them in one week. The outline presented here is very much shaped to be read in conjunction with separate, but detailed accounts of our Zagori (here) and Prespa (here) holidays in 2022.

Zagori

Zagori is a distinct region within Epirus and located close to the tallest peaks of the northern Pindos mountains. It is characterised by extensive new-growth oak forests interspersed with vast areas of grazed montane pasture. The roads are windy and slow and almost every bend seems to offer even more dramatic vistas. We will have four nights at our customary hotel Archontiko Dilofo, which is perfectly placed for us to reach both Beloi, the look-out that commands the most spectacular views over the Vikos Gorge, that is said to be the deepest in the world. We are also close to the tiny village of Vikos, giving us access to the gorge bottom and the exquisite Voidomatis springs, which are the origins of one of Europe’s most pristine river systems. Wildlife is present in abundance and the plan is to sample it all: birds, butterflies, flowers, insects, reptiles and mammals. Please note there is some fairly serious walking when we descend to the gorge bottom but it will be at an extremely comfortable pace and we can provide everyone with double sticks if required.

Prespa Lakes

Encircled by Balkan montains including those of Northern Macedonia and Albania, Lesser and Greater Prespa are part of the oldest lake system in Europe and one of the continent’s finest wetlands. Our week includes three nights staying at our customary hotel on the small island of Aghios Achillios. It is almost perfectly located to capture the never-ending traffic of large waterbirds as they move to feed in other parts of the lake from the main nest colonies nearby. It is immensely birdy at Lesser Prespa but the joy of this place is the completeness of its ecosystem, which is crowned by some of the healthiest bear and wolf populations in Europe. In late May the spring is in its pomp. The evenings are loud with the chorus of marsh frogs and nightingales (and great reed warblers), the insects are at their peak and the tortoises are breeding. Prespa could not be more different to Epirus and Zagori, but there is one key similarity: remarkable wildlife abundance.

The week is structured to give a sense of leisure in both places, to explore the deep contrasts between these radically different ecosystems and to see as much as we can of their remarkable wildlife.

Itinerary (this could vary a little with weather forecasts etc and wildlife news)

25 May Day 1: Wed, a pick up at Hotel Avalon and a morning and probably lunch at the superb wetlands of Kalichori close to Thessaloniki. These can be smothered in spring migrant waders, gulls, terns, ducks and flamingos. It is often the perfect start to our holiday and we then drive to Zagori for a late-afternoon exploration of Dilofo around the hotel. Night at Archontiko Dilofo.

26 May Day 2: Thurs, a day out to the Beloi lookout over Vikos and then the afternoon around the bridges at Kipi. Night at Archontiko Dilofo.

27 May Day 3: Fri a day exploring the lookout at Oxyia and the afternoon around Monodendri with a visit to the Rizario centre and Paraskevi Monastery. Night at Archontiko Dilofo.

28 May Day 4: Sat our day long walk into the Vikos gorge with a visit to Papigo if there is time in late afternoon. Night at Archontiko Dilofo

29 May Day 5: Sun, drive to Prespa stopping en route in the Pindos for black woodpeckers and cliff-nesting house martins. Late afternoon and evening around Krina and the causeway. Night on Aghios Achillios.

30 May Day 6: Mon, Prespa all day including visits to Panagyia Porphyria and Kula woods between Greater and Lesser Prespa Lakes. Night on Aghios Achillios.

31 May Day 7: Tues, boat trip our to the hermitages on the shore of Greater Prespa. Afternoon around Psarades and the juniper forest and return to Kula and Krina. Night on Aghios Achillios.

1 June Day 8: Wed, Last morning along the causeway and leisurely breakfast before heading back to Thessaloniki for the drop off.

The 360 Degree Approach

The week is co-organised and led with director of Balkan Tracks Chris Mounsey. He has lived in Greece for seven years, speaks Greek and is a mine of information on the culture and history of the area. I have visited Greece nearly 20 times since the 1970s. Our shared approach to the week has been worked out over many years of sharing wildlife and its place in human culture with others. The week is intended to be a form of alfresco salon where the landscapes and life of Prespa and Ohrid are a stimulation for reflection, thought, debate and unending conversation, as well as laughter and great fun.

We shall never be in a rush. There will be no concern whatsoever for listing. And while we are not experts in everything, we will look at everything. The aim is to pack each day with wonder so that you have the richest and most imaginative engagement with all parts, whether it is pelicans or wall paintings. It is not a writing trip in any sense but the approach lends itself to creative responses. If you feel inspired all the better, and impromptu readings in the evening are a routine part of the week.

Your Guides

Mark Cocker is an author and lifelong naturalist. For more than 30 years he has contributed to the Guardian country diary. His 12 books of creative non-fiction, including Our PlaceBirds and People and Crow Country,  have been shortlisted for many awards including the Samuel Johnson Prize. Crow Country won the New Angle Prize in 2008. In a previous life he led wildlife holidays all over the world and the 360 Degree approach is a distillation of that experience.

Originally a lawyer in London, Chris Mounsey worked for an environmental NGO in Greece. He and his father Richard then founded their dedicated travel company when they judged that it probably wasn’t just them who enjoyed walking among unknown lakes and mountains and spending time with the local shepherds or fishermen. Balkan Tracks was thus born with Chris swapping office life for ‘responsible tourism’; connecting visitors with some of Europe’s finest nature and, importantly, the people who live among it.

Our Hotels

In Zagori we stay (25-28 May) in Archontiko Dilofo, a 400-year-old country house that has been restored to its original condition by the owner Giorgis Kontaxis. It is probably the most beautiful hotel we have found in an area not short of superb accommodation and Giorgis rightly gets rave reviews in the Lonely Planet guide. The rooms are extremely well equipped and have very good wifi. The food is excellent, the breakfasts remarkably generous and varied and we will take our evening meals between Archontiko and a local restuarant five minutes walk away. Dilofo has no roads or cars and is immensely peaceful but there is a short walk to the hotel.

Our Greek Prespa base (29-31 May) is on the little island of Aghios Achillios at its eponymous hotel (below). It is hard to imagine a location that more completely immerses you in a sense of natural abundance. Even after dark, when the ‘rush hour’ traffic of the herons and pelicans has ended, there is a night shift of frogs and great reed warblers to remind us that we are surrounded by one of Europe’s great wildlife locations. We must underline that the hotel is a simple, clean establishment with varied menu, excellent food, decent wifi connection & spectacular views. But it is chosen for its unparalleled location, not for its luxuries. The rooms are spacious and have en suite facilities but they are simple. It has a Greek website (www.agiosahilios.gr).

Prices and Arrangements

Single    £1595  Shared: £1495                  Dates:   Wed 25 – Wed 1 June May 2022

Included are all transfers to/from Thessaloniki airport, all transport, all guiding and entry fees, all meals including daily packed lunches, all accommodation. Chris and Mark will be with you on all excursions. The only additional costs are your flights to/from Thessaloniki, drinks or snacks during the day, evening drinks with your dinners. The group will be a maximum of ten. Our programme is based on 9am – 6pm excursions, although sometimes we might be later back from more distant locations. We will provide a detailed daily plan closer to departure including recommendations for where to stay in Thessaloniki before or after the trip. We can make reading and equipment recommendations. Thessaloniki is a superb regional capital and many previous participants have booked additional nights before or after the holidays. A £300 deposit is payable on booking. See our websites for additional details but don’t hesitate to ask us for more information.

If you wish to go straight to making a booking you can do that here. To contact MC for advice on wildlife, places, equipment and other aspects of the tour click here. To email Chris concerning logistics and advice on accommodation, click here.

“I thought the trip was fantastic, a good balance of nature and the culture”

Ed, Epirus 360 Degrees 2019

“Thank you both so much for a wonderful week – so full of richness and food for thought – the 360 degree experience is not only wide but also deep!”

Sheila, Epirus 360 Degrees 2019

“I think the makings of your trip, arranged along with Balkan Tracks, are the variety – in the birds, the wild flowers, the other wildlife – tortoise, snakes, mammals and insects etc., the landscapes and habitats, the cultural experiences – the folk music, ancient history and the food etc. I also particularly appreciated the walks – down into the gorge and to the view point over it…”

Arne, Epirus 360 Degrees 2019

Lester Hartmann: the man with many arms

Imagine climbing a ladder so that you are resting against the gable end of a two-storey house a cool 4m above the ground, but a full 10m above the level of the road on which the house stands. In one arm you’re carrying a nine-pair swift nest-box that’s over a metre across and weighs about 10 kg. Then you have to place a backing panel against the wall, drill the securing holes to fix that with your handheld electric drill, hold the screws in place and tighten the whole structure home. It is the sort of technical, practical task I would struggle to achieve while standing on terra firma. And not before a lot of swearing. Lester Hartmann is the sort of friend who does these things in his sleep. I think of him as one of those Hindu deities, Vishnu perhaps, with more limbs than the average mortal.

On another occasion I had him 6m up our extension ladders against a big sycamore near the house while doing much the same trick with a 70x50x40 cm double-storey owl box. In fact most of my pictures of Lester are from behind and at angle of c65 degrees while he is balanced on a ladder step 50mm across. But then he is my go-to man for all things bird box.

Lester is the founder of Peak Boxes which has expanded its production and delivery almost exponentially in the last few years. Based near his home village of Hathersage, Derbyshire, he has just assembled a state-of-the-art workshop to a design of his own making out of the wonder product that he uses in the bird houses, a enormously longlasting material called duraply. Lester’s speciality is swift boxes. It is how I got to meet him, courtesy of a fabulous scheme to boost the bird’s fortunes Buxton-wide, which is overseen by a friend Simon Fussell and financed by Simon’s employers the Buxton Civic Association.

The boxes not only look splendid – and I like to watch passing folk stop to admire ours – but they are very effective. Lester loves to ponder how a box can actually be made to meet the birds precise needs. Much of the information has come from one of the gurus on breeding swifts in Britain Mark Glanville (here). Together they have devised a structure with the entrance, as in our unit, on the underside. This mimics natural rock cavities and has so far served to exclude starlings, which are competitors-in-chief for these sorts of manmade swift sites.

The owl box is similarly innovative because the upper hole has an S-shaped entrance ‘lobby’ that is sufficiently narrow to prevent jackdaws – equally keen to occupy boxes made for owls – transporting their long nest sticks to the interior of the box. The baffle, in effect, stops them. Another smart innovation is that the box has a lower floor with separate entrance. You could think of it as a ‘bachelor pad’, because female owls with chicks will bar entry to a partner in case he takes to eating his own young. The male is vulnerable in these circumstances, especially in wet conditions, given that the birds have little weatherproofing against rain. The annex meets his needs as well as those of the owl family, when weather stops the adults from hunting.

Lester has already made huge changes to how things are ‘done’ in the realm of nest boxes..He’s now looking at self-assembly flat-pack boxes for a range of birds. However his next wave of innovations promises to be very exciting. I will be fascinated to see his proposed multiple-nest structures that mimic the colonial conditions beloved of birds such as sparrows. Another speculative project could be luring house martins and swifts back to cliff-face nest sites.

It is interesting to reflect that nest-box technology has been pretty much static from the time I first got interested in birds 50 years ago. Since then things have been much the same, except perhaps for innovations in the material used for construction. May be what we needed was someone like Lester, someone with more arms than the average designer.

Zagori through 360 Degrees

Monday 16-23 May 2022

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Zagori is a distinct area of the northern Pindos mountains in Greece close to the western city of Ioannina, the regional capital. It is a landscape of high peaks, extensive new-growth oak forest and grazed pasture. The roads are windy and slow and almost every bend seems to offer a more dramatic vista. At Zagori’s heart is the Vikos Gorge, reputedly the deepest in the world and certainly one of the most spectacular natural features I have seen anywhere in Europe.

The encircling mountains now support important populations of wolf and brown bear, yet the northern Pindos also hold some of the highest levels of biodiversity enjoyed by any European region. As an example, the Vikos-Aoos national park, on which we focus for the week, has as many plant species and more mammals than in the entire British Isles. It is to boot among the most natural river systems found on the continent.

As if that this were not enough, Zagori has a remarkable human story. Remittance payments from its historical Greek communities, who travelled and worked all over Europe and the Near East, supported the creation of some of the most striking vernacular architecture you will find anywhere in the Mediterranean. The life of the villages was also interwoven with the yearly migrations of transhumance pastoralists – the Vlachs and Sarakatsani herders – whose sheep flocks kept the slopes open and the flowers in abundance.

Now some of this has gone and Zagori has endured a long period of abandonment, which has led to forest encroachment and a period of inadvertent ‘rewilding’. Yet it has also been the focus of some of the most sympathetic eco-tourism you will find anywhere. With a total population of under 1000 people it feels like a place where nature is in charge. Our holiday is shaped to ensure we enjoy an encounter with all of Zagori’s elements: mountains, rivers, forest trails, meadows, soaring crags, eagles, orchids, insects,  butterflies, tortoises, yellow-bellied toads, leopard snakes and snakes’ head fritillaries.

There are some fixtures which we make sure we include in the week: such as the cultural centre at Monodendri, the cliff-edge Paraskevi monastery; the old stone bridges near Kipi; the viewpoints of Oxyia and Beloi, which offer the defining images of this whole landscape; the glorious vernacular architecture at Dilofo (where we stay) and Papigo; the slow descent to the shrine at Vikos to see the waters pouring out of the Voidomatis springs, which are so pure and preternaturally aquamarine-blue that you could almost imagine Naiads bathing on their banks. So much of Zagori is breathtakingly beautiful and the sense of wildlife abundance can be exhilarating. If you wish to read a little more about it and the wildlife then see my blogpost here.

We also spend an entire day in and around Ioannina. It’s a busy city but set amid the most dramatic scenery on the northern shores of Lake Pamvotis. It also has several lovely museums, including Ali Pasha’s mausoleum (below left) and just a ten minute ferry ride is a small island in the lake. It is the location for several monasteries and the sixteenth century images in Philanthropiki monastery are some of the most beautiful Orthodox paintings you will see anywhere in Greece. The island is an excellent wildlife locality with a huge number of breeding great crested grebes and often the odd visiting pelican …

Another goal for our combined day of culture and nature is a visit to the ancient oracular shrine of Dodona close to Ioannina. We also have our lunch near these fifth century BC ruins, perched high above the site with spectacular views over the shrine and the encircling mountains. It seems almost a rule of the Hellenic world that these archeological sites are also great for wildlife. Dodona is full of singing nightingales and turtle doves, and the open spaces between the remaining stonework, including a rather beautifully restored open-air theatre, can be superb for flowers and butterflies.

The 360 Degree Approach

The week is co-organised and led with director of Balkan Tracks Chris Mounsey. He has lived in Greece for years, speaks Greek and is a mine of information on the culture and history of the area. I have visited Greece 20 times since the 1970s. Our joint approach to the week has been worked out over many years of sharing wildlife and its place in human culture with others. The week is intended to be a form of alfresco salon where the landscapes and life of Epirus are a stimulation for reflection, thought, debate and unending conversation, as well as laughter and great fun. We shall never be in a rush. There will be no concern whatsoever for listing. And while we are not experts in everything, we will look at everything. The aim is to pack each day with wonder so that you have the richest and most imaginative engagement with all parts, whether it is pelicans or al fresco paintings. It is not a writing trip in any sense but the approach lends itself to creative responses. If you feel inspired all the better, and impromptu readings in the evening are a routine part of the holiday.

The week includes moderate walking, some of it involving quite steep climbs and descents (especially the walk into Vikos). However we will provide everyone with walking sticks and really take our time, so all the walks should be perfectly achievable for a reasonably fit person of any age.

Your Guides

Mark Cocker is an author and lifelong naturalist. For more than 30 years he has contributed to the Guardian country diary. His 12 books of creative non-fiction, including Our Place, Birds and People and Crow Country, have been shortlisted for many awards including the Samuel Johnson Prize. Crow Country won the New Angle Prize in 2008. In 2019 A Claxton Diary won the East Anglian Book Award. Mark led wildlife holidays all over the world in a previous life and the 360 Degree approach is a distillation of that experience.

Originally a lawyer in London, Chris Mounsey worked for an environmental NGO in Greece. He and his father Richard then founded their dedicated travel company when they judged that it probably wasn’t just them who enjoyed walking among unknown lakes and mountains and having dinner and drinks with the local shepherds and fishermen. Balkan Tracks was thus born with Chris swapping office life for ‘responsible tourism’; connecting visitors with some of Europe’s finest nature and, importantly, the people who live among it.

Our Hotel

In Zagoria we stay (16-22 May) in Archontiko Dilofo, a 400-year-old country house that has been restored to its original condition by the owner Giorgis Kontaxis. It is probably the most beautiful hotel we have found in an area not short of superb accommodation and Giorgis rightly gets rave reviews in the Lonely Planet guide. The rooms are extremely well equipped and have very good wifi. The food is excellent, the breakfasts remarkably generous and varied and we will take our evening meals between Archontiko and a local restuarant five minutes walk away. Dilofo has no roads or cars and is immensely peaceful but there is a short walk to the hotel.

Prices and Arrangements

Single    £1495  Shared: £1395                  Dates:   Mon 16- Mon 23 May 2022

Included are all transfers to/from Thessaloniki airport, all transport, all guiding and entry fees, all meals including daily packed lunches, all accommodation. Chris and Mark will be with you on all excursions. The only additional costs are your flights to/from Thessaloniki, drinks or snacks during the day, evening drinks with your dinners. The group will be a maximum of ten. Our programme is based on 9am – 6pm excursions, although sometimes we might be later back from more distant locations. We will provide a detailed daily plan closer to departure including recommendations for where to stay in Thessaloniki before or after the trip. We can make reading and equipment recommendations. Thessaloniki is a superb regional capital and many previous participants have booked additional nights before or after the holidays. A £300 deposit is payable on booking. See our websites for additional details but don’t hesitate to ask us for more information.

“I thought the trip was fantastic, a good balance of nature and the culture”

Ed, Epirus 360 Degrees 2019

“Thank you both so much for a wonderful week – so full of richness and food for thought – the 360 degree experience is not only wide but also deep!”

Sheila, Epirus 360 Degrees 2019

“I think the makings of your trip, arranged along with Balkan Tracks, are the variety – in the birds, the wild flowers, the other wildlife – tortoise, snakes, mammals and insects etc., the landscapes and habitats, the cultural experiences – the folk music, ancient history and the food etc. I also particularly appreciated the walks – down into the gorge and to the view point over it…”

Arne, Epirus 360 Degrees 2019