If You Go Down to the Bourazani Woods Today You'll be in for a Great Surprise!
Driving is my least favourite thing to do when visiting Greece. It's not that Greeks are bad drivers it's that they don't follow the rules ... or to be more exact, they have their own set of rules which aren't the same as the official rules. On this particular day, after being tail-gated at 120km an hour for a fair stretch of the road between Ioannina and Konista , I was roughly reminded of how dangerous this cultural difference is.
Such a contrast to the earlier part of the morning spent mooching along quiet country lanes to the very sleepy stone village of Dilofo (population 39). Tbere, in almost absolute solitude, we had wandered up and down beautifully paved paths between firmly shuttered stone houses, meeting dead ends, locked gates and tumbledown ruins but nary a soul save two elderly women, some nervous cats and a few friendly dogs. As we walked back to our car in the parking area just outside the village (no cars allowed in), we saw that the two elderly women had met up and were sitting in the bus shelter chatting in the sun. Whether they were heading off somewhere or the bus stop was the the designated gossip stop it was hard to say ... . But with its sad, empty expanse of tarmac, edged with scratchy weeds and a broken down shelter it looked a dismal meeting place so we joked that maybe these two ladies were the last people here and that even they had had enough and were on their way.
I mentioned in an earlier post that some of the traditional villages were fated for abandonment as the old people pass away and the thread that ties successive generations to them stretches to breaking point and finally snaps.
It would seem that Dilofo may be one of these. For while charming, it doesn't appear to be going anywhere, or to offer anything else but its charm, and on this morning it was still asleep.
After being locked on like an EXOCET missile, for what seemed like an eternity, the driver of the van (we have a standing joke now about white vans and road rage) finally turned off on a country lane. Greeks drive as if they believe the road in front of them is about to evaporate .... but I digress. Once free of our white menace we were able to concentrate on more pleasant and interesting things and on this beautiful early summer's day we were in the most northern area of the Vikos Aoos National Park near the Albanian border heading towards an area known as Bourazani Woods.
This is a very remote area, scenically very lush and dramatic, and apparently 'thar be bears!' as well as the occasional lynx. Our plant hunting destination was an area just south of the village but our directions required a detour to Konista where we circled in frustration a few times trying to find the correct road west, Susan muttering to herself about more straight forward routes. However during the confusion we did find a lovely arched bridge to admire. These beautiful little structures are a feature of the region, and are often found on many of the old walking trails that snake their way through the myriad of canyons and gorges found there.
Bourazani isn't really a village but more an aggregation of business interests!. There is a hotel, a taverna, a wild animal farm (venison, boar) and eco product shop, all set up by a local vet whose family apparently run the whole show. We stopped for a drink at the taverna, already populated with a group of men drinking frappes and beer and a couple of tables of local worthies on their way home from church, and of course the usual bevvy of local dogs hanging around just being friendly. As we left we noticed a big tank of trout outside on the veranda. The poor spotted creatures were swimming interminably round and round their glass cage, each turn bringing them ever closer to ending up as someone's table fare, and this gave us cause to muse on the nature of existential fate and lunch.
After a brief drive south through hazelnut and hornbeam forest we found the turnoff to the track we were looking for. At first glance it looked disappointingly unpromising. The grassy banks had already taken on the blond tints of high summer and the trail was a ribbon of dry rubble and dust, the shrubs lining it were coated in its fine white farina. However, as we walked in, a transformation took place, and a plethora of plants sprang out at us from every possibility. Such exhilaration! Such a revelation to encounter so many species in their native range and to have the opportunity to observe and to be grateful for nature's bountiful elaborations.
We found Fritillaria thessala subspecies ionica from the very beginning and it became astonishingly abundant the further we went, occuring in vast numbers, often growing, intermixed with the Balkan paeony, Paeonia peregrina. Why there are large aggregations like this at one place and not at another equally suitable site has always been an intriguing question for me. Some slight variation in aspect, elevation, temperature, moisture perhaps or just plain luck?
The plants once listed under the Greek fritillary, F. graeca, has expanded into a number of confusing permutations with F. thessala being elevated to species level. As a general rule I am not a disciple of the "Splitters" approach to taxonomy but in this case I find myself in agreement. It is utterly distinct from the type species, being much larger and more robust, the flower is also more square-shouldered, they dont have the definitive peppermint green stripe down each petal, and its bracts are always in a whorl of three. To my eyes it's a bit coarse, but as they say, "where you puts it you will find it", so it's a good garden plant .... a real bonus with fritillaries.
At home I would rate Paeonia peregrina as one of my least favourite, its blood-red flowers a little too harsh, and its foliage more like celery stalks than leaves, but here it was a welcome sight, even if a little brash, amongst the green. Who couldnt help but admire its cock a hoop self assuredness in such muted company?
Surprisingly, we found many orchids still in flower, including two rarer Ophrys species, O. grammica with its large, shiny chocolate labellum (looking a bit like an upmarket malteeser), and O. hebes sporting a smart filagree one with a gold tip and very pale green sepals. Our old friend the Pyramid Orchid, Anacamptis pyramidalis, was still keeping us company, as was the delicate, sugary-pink Helleborine, Cephalanthera rubra, and a new companion, one of the Marsh Orchids, Dactylorhiza sulphurea, its loose flower head like a cascade of tiny creamy-white comets.
But the star of the show was undoubtedly, Himantoglossum caprinum, the Lizard Orchid. This giant often reaches a height of one metre and it's distinguished by its boldly marked green and red, distinctively-shaped flowers, which grow in a loose inflorescence along almost the entire length of the stem. From each one of these protrudes a long, strap-like, undulating, red tongue, much like a length of twirling decorative ribbon, which I am told helps to guide in pollinators. It is a late flowerer and in the past we have always met it in bud rather than in spectacular bloom, but on this occasion, after a couple of false starts, we finally came face to face with the real deal.
Greece has its fair share of Grape Hyacinths, and we have encountered most of them, from the diminutive, pale blue plumed Muscari spreitzenhoferi on Crete to the largest, M. dionysicum, on the Northern Agean islands but we didn't expect to find the latter here in wet and wooded Epirus. But there it was, pushing up its as yet unopened greenish-yellow buds on stems in excess of a metre. This is a spledid plant and quite spectacular when in full flight, the top third of the flowers are stained bluish-purple at their tips and are crowned by a tassel of long-stemmed glowing purple, infertile ones. This species is now considered synonymous with M. weissii, which I had always thought of as a plant of dry hillsides further south, and is a worthy rival of Admiral Paul Furse's, "Blue Hot Poker", M. tenuifolium, for majesty and poise.
Another group of plants commonly encountered in Greece are the asphodelus and asphodelines, commonly called "Kings Spears". Both belong to the lily family and typically have long slender leaves, and pink, white or yellow flowers borne on a tall spike. They are very much part of the folkloric tradition as plants of magic and intoxication and as such carry many cultural and historical references. For example, they are considered in literary circles, the everlasting flower said to grow in the Elysian Fields of Greek mythology, and in Corsica and many parts of Italy it is popularly known as, fiori di morti, or "Flower of the Dead". They even get a run in the more recent fantasy fiction of the Harry Potter series! Some species make very impressive garden plants but in Greece, where whole hillsides are taken over by their weedy sprawl, they tend to become a tad monotonous and, well, frankly, a bit blah. However I have developed a soft spot for one of the more delicate and refined members of their clan, Asphodeline liburnica. I have previously found it in Crete and have it growing happily in my garden at home, and here it was again, camped at the edges of forest clearings, cutting a rather demure figure, with its brush of narrow, linear leaves and its clutch of pale, as yet unopened, buds atop a slender stem.
Wild roses are common in Northern Greece, in fact there are some fifteen species throughout the country. They are mostly small, pink or white flowered scramblers or climbers and grow in mountainous zones. Here at Bourazani we found the delightful Rosa arvensis trailing through shrubby, wet flushes, its long purple branches no thicker than stout string, armed with a scattering of short, curved thorns and clothed with deep green, notched leaves. Its pure white flowers are musk scented, usually scattered singly across the entire plant, with red hips in the autumn.
Also around those wetter sites grew sprawling clumps of the common primrose, Primula vulgaris. These formed huge rosettes of crinkly, mid-green leaves over which hovered dense sprays of buttery yellow flowers with bright orange throats. Like tiny sunbeams they shimmered and danced across the woodland floor, a procession of light, a celebration of the rising season, and for us, a pure delight that we could bear witness to.
We never have enough time so after two hours of traipsing it was back through Bourazani and along the multi-toned flowering cotinus-lined road that follows beside the Aoos river toward the small village of Molyvdoskepastos.
Molyvdoskepastos, (just had to write it again!) sits high on a hill right on the border with Albania and is surrounded by several Mediaeval churches of importance that we hoped to investigate. The village seemed sleepy, (it was mid afternoon) but there was a large board listing all of the churches with the directions to follow. There are a plethora of them in this area because the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV used it as a summer retreat in the early days of Christianity. Looking across this tiny village now, with its scattering of commonplace dwellings, overgrown yards and fretted porticos it was hard to imagine this was once a centre of such pomp and power, for nearly all trace had been swept aside by the fate of history and the ravages of time. Standing there on this humble grassy knoll, both of us, almost in unison, were moved to intone the words from Percy Shelley's, Ozymandias,
"Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away"
We did, however find two of the churches, but sadly it was too far down a hill (and therefore back up again) to the others. The first, the Church of St Demetrius from the 11th or 13th centuries, was small and charming but in ruins. The second, the very much alive and kicking Church of the Holy Apostles, was easily found as it sits up high on a little ridge a small distance away from the village right on a border site (in fact the border observation post is in the church grounds!) that offers fabulous views of the country all around.
The church architecture in this area is very different to the gingerbread, cookie cutter style more common further south. Following the basic basilica plan they are built of grey unadorned stone, slate roofs, wide and low with a generous open roofed and colonnaded area along the long side side that protects the main entrance. Apparently this church has full wall frescoes of high quality but of course it was locked ... and knows who holds the keys?
The only taverna appeared closed, so no obligatory afternoon frappe to pick flagging bodies (temperature over the century mark), and we waited for a posse of bikies (bike club, not bikie gang) to leave, then wound back down the road to find, the Holy Royal and Cross Founded Monastery of Virgin Mary of Molyvdoskepasto, originally built in 670. Cross-founded means the Grand Patriarch of the Church, or his agent had placed an iron cross in the foundations and the monastery was therefore under the auspices of the Patriarchate of Constantinople -- fascinating stuff. However we were not sure exactly where it was and after following a number of roads until they began to resemble a goat track we gave up and headed back to Bourzani for another drink. Of course Google has since helped us find it sitting out as large as life in a big meadow but in a hire car with a Greek map ... not easy!
Back at the Bourzani taverna the bikies were settled in and we looked on in awe at the huge plates of steak and chips being carried out to them. The fellows who were enjoying beers earlier were still ensconced and had become decidedly loud and merry (the entire scene not very much different to an Aussie one really), the number of trout in the tank had been halved, and the local dogs still came up hopefully for handouts.
A thunderstorm was rumbling so we dropped our anthropological musings and quickly drove out of there to try to stay ahead of the impending deluge. Summer storms in this part of the world are often swift, violent affairs accompanied by lightning bolts strikes that can drill serious holes in anything that stands in the way, and sheets of rain that make driving feel like crashing through panes of falling glass!
As we dog-legged south at Konista we finally came clear of its path, the storm front continued due east, the sky a boiling mass of bruised black clouds, lit up at intervals by flashes of incandescent light, and there followed a low rumbling growl that shook the air.
Feeling safe at last we stopped to get a better look and it was then my eye caught hold of some dabs of pale blue a little further along the edge of the road. On closer inspection these proved to be beautiful clumps of Salvia virgata, their stiff, many-branched spikes festooned with a myriad of periwinkle blue Punch's hats. This species is one of my favourites and while it is widespread throughout Southern Europe we have only occasionally encountered it so were delighted by its presence.
At Monodendri, after the mandatory recovery shower, we reflected on what an incredibly rich and interesting day we had just spent ... plants, history, architecture, sociology, poetry, metaphysics, meteorology, eating, drinking, escaping, looking .... the list just goes on! But there was no time for too much self indulgence because we owed a debt which we felt obliged to repay, so we packed ourselves off and ate at the nice Shouting Woman's taverna (remember her from the Monodendri post?).
The previous evening we had gone there and rather than eat out on the veranda because it was cool, we had ventured inside. Big mistake ... when she disappeared to fetch the obligatory paper tablecloth we realised we just couldn't cope with the blaring television, an unfortunate feature of many Greek tavernas. With our Greek was too poor to explain the problem and her English mininal, we had taken the coward's way out and just disappeared up the road to a taverna where they played pleasant Greek music but were responsible for one of the most frightful souvenir walls on the face of the planet.
Then of course we felt awfully guilty about walking out and with our conscience pricked we had to come back to make amends. She greeted us at the door wth her usual easy-going cheeriness with not a hint of the consternation that we must have caused her the night before ... we even got a serve of her complimentary post meal orange cake!