Fritillaria and Lake Aoos
Clouds of fleecy white sheep drifted and dawdled across a vast expanse of green. The green was so green it looked like a pelt of emeralds, and the hummocks and hills like the heaving swell in a moss green sea. At the lowest point a blue reflective mirror of a lake, its shoreline hemmed by a dark feathery cross stitch of pine trees, stretched out towards distant heights that were gleaming with an ice-bright fall of recent snow.
It could easily have been the Scottish Highlands, or the uplands of the Appalachians but unlikely as it may seem, we were in the north of Greece, and a world away from its more familiar face of rocky islands and lapis blue seas. The Aoos River arises in these mountains from the springs and tiny feeder steams that abound there. Its headwaters are backed up by a hydro dam to form the convoluted Lake Aoos before plunging down through a chain of gorges to emerge in the flatlands around Konista as a broad, muscular, mature river, which crosses into Albania at Çarçovë.
We had set off from Metsovo earlier in the day to look for Fritillaria montana, which we had been told grew in the thousands through the lush grassland around the lake. Somehow we were looking in the wrong direction and sailed past the turnoff, driving on for several kilometres muttering things like 'it didn't seen this far the other day' and 'I don't remember these hills' -- when we finally reached a village we had never seen the penny finally dropped and we turned back to retrace our steps. Moral: Never trust a navigator who says, "It's all Greek to me!"
Fritillaria montana is widespread in southern and central Europe growing in scattered colonies from southeastern France, to Italy and into the Balkans. In Greece it was once thought to occur only in the north but further field work has revealed very local populations throughout the country. It is an adaptive species equally at home on rocky hillsides, in deciduous forests or even subalpine grasslands. The numbers occurring around Lake Aoos certainly represent the largest aggregation known and quite possibly at one of the highest elevations. Why they are there in such large numbers despite sustained grazing pressure is anyone's guess but it is pleasing to note that they have not diminished despite this.
It is an elegant plant bearing up to three lime green flowers that are so heavily tessellated in blackish purple or brown they appear as solid, lustrous, dark bells. Its leaves are linear, the lower ones opposite, the upper in a group of three, and the rest whorled. Here in lies the nub of a long standing taxonomic problem: there are a number of other species, including F. tenella and F. orientalis from the Caucasus, and the spuriously named F. nigra that all share very similar characteristics and are hard to distinguish. However in this brave new world of gene sequencing these phylogenic impasses have become mere trifles and phylogenetics assures us that the subject of our hunt is a "good" species and not just a dubious outlier of another.
We had been told to watch out for a particular meadow with a stream and two sheds but of course there turned out to be several meadows with streams and sheds that fitted the location description perfectly! We checked a few out and found cattle had been everywhere and that there were flocks of sheep eating their way through everything in sight. Despite this the country around Lake Aoos is lovely, great expanses of grassland strewn with flowers leading to shady foothills clothed with pines and beech, and braided with the many streams that feed the lake.
The meadows were full of Narcissus poeticus, the Poet's Daffodil, one of the last of its tribe to flower, their pretty white faces staring back at us with a brightly contrasting red and yellow "eye". Dancing through the swales was another committed ditch dweller, Gladiolus imbricatus or the Marsh Gladiolus. It makes dense spikes of large, richly coloured flowers in shades of purple to carmine, the lower petals printed with white and dark wine guide markings. Although once widespread in Europe this species has become rare due to habitat destruction and over grazing. Despite the remote location, both landscape and daffodil have suffered from draining and other agricultural 'improvements. Greece has a number of gladiolus species all of which have been avidly collected for their decorative blooms since ancient times. The same practice continues today and this has added further to pressure on wild populations. Greeks and Romans, who used them as decorative motifs in their buildings, paintings, and everyday objects called them Xiphion, or Sword Lilies, from the Greek word xiphos, meaning sword, with obvious reference to their leaves.
In a previous post I mentioned that Asphodels feature in Greek Mythology as the everlasting flower in the Elysian Fields of the Underworld. These comprise of two genera, the asphodelus and the asphodeline, both commonly known as Kings Spears. While they are very similar and hard to tell apart one giveaway is that the former have all of their leaves concentrated at the base of the stem, while the latter have them along their entire length. On open hillsides aound the lake one of the prettiest of the asphodelus, A. albus grew, each tall stem of zebra-striped, white, starry flowers spearing up out of a thicket of lush green leaves looking like a garlanded lance. It was an impressive sight, not dissimilar to A. aestivus from the islands much further south. Both species often occur in large populations in the wild and, once accustomed to, seem humdrum and nondescript. It seems ironic then, that they make such a dramatic statement as specimen plants in a garden setting.
Our morning's search was strewn with a plethora of wildflowers, lovely clumps of pink thrift, filagreed geraniums, sprawling thymes and buttercups, the pink and white helmeted flowers of thready lamiums, a cornucopia of orchids ... but of the thousands of fritillaria we found but one surviving pod ... . We concluded that they had all fallen victim to the shepherds' flocks and hoped that this wholesale destruction of breeding plants year after year does not continue unabated.
Ajuga reptans, commonly known as Blue Bugle, is considered an invasive weed in many places, including my home state of Tasmania. It is a spreading, stoloniferous perennial forming a wide mat of dark green leaves, with erect spikes of attractive, dark blue flowers. It makes a great ground cover, that is most often cultivated for its coloured-leaf forms, and is valued for its ability to grow in poor soil and low light - it's obviously far too successful for the authorities back home! In the meadows around Lake Aoos it looked perfectly at home gently spreading through a thick thatch of grass which no doubt kept its thuggish intent respectably in check!
A surprise find was Thalictrum aquilegifolium, its lacy, fern-like, slightly bluish foliage, and soft, dainty, thistle down flowers a lovely reminder of summery garden days back home. It loitered in moist, shady places as an understorey plant growing to luxuriant proportions amid hellebores and hornbeams. Its flowers were a drab, uninspiring dirty white and not a patch on the lovely pink selections already in cultivation. We encountered another old friend, the Common Rock Rose, helianthemum nummularium, growing on occasional outcrops, its golden-yellow, disk-like flowers like scattered pirates treasure amongst the rocks and rubble
Geraniums are a constant friend wherever one travels through Greece and here in abundantly verdant Epirus we found several. The spicy-leafed Geranium macrorrhizum with its large, jagged leaves and magenta-pink flowers scrambled over rock stacks and mossy embankments always hiding from the full force of the sun. G. reflexum is another shade dweller that we hadn't come across before. It is very similar to the Mourning Widow Geranium, G. phaeum with the same strongly blotched, deeply lobed leaves but its flowers are smaller, more reflexed and dusky rose-pink to purple with a distinct white base. Like G. phaeum they are borne on slender, willowy stems, like fairy wands, and though they lack the purple-black and squid ink blue of the darkest forms of that species they certainly convey that same sombre air.
The Cranesbill tribe includes tuberous species, a number of which grow in Greece. Out on the grasslands we were delighted to find one of these, G. macrostylum, making patches of finely cut, greyish-green leaves and bearing clusters of pretty lilac-pink flowers with crimson veins on robust stems. This species leafs up on late winter, flowers in spring, and when finished the whole plant dies back to a series of dormant tubers to survive the summer heat. Similar to it, but not of tuberous habit, is G. asphodeloides. As the name implies, its pink flowers are starry and darkly veined, like those of the asphodels, and are produced in dense sheets over a mat of feathery leaves.
With the afternoon in front of us we decided to leave Lake Aoos and drive to Vouvousa, the most eastern of the Zagori villages. We knew little of these and had hoped to be able to explore more of them but as usual we were running out of time so this was our only chance. The road east from the lake started well, winding through thick forest and following the loop of the lake, but as we dropped down from the plateau some sections became so rutted and potholed we could do little more than inch ourselves forward and pray that we didn't end up at the bottom of a road slump sink hole!
We finally reached tiny Vouvousa in the early afternoon and pulled into the only place that looked as though it was occupied, a spacious newly built, (or rebuilt) taverna beautifully situated by the river. No English was spoken and the atmosphere was not especially welcoming. All the same we ordered two frappes but decided against asking about food as there was no menu or food in evidence. Although an impressive amount of stone paving had been laid down over a couple of levels beside the river and many of the homes had clearly been restored or rebuilt, we saw no-one (this appears to have been the experience of others travellers there) ... maybe they were peering at us from behind curtains?? Or was it a ghostly hamlet? ... a sort of "Marie Celeste" village floating, unmanned, through the forest?
Vouvousa is halfway to nowhere along a long and winding, at times decidedly dodgy road; not an easy place to just pop down to, so was hard to fathom the justification for the considerable amount of rebuilding. The large and predominantly placed signs listing those organisations that were involved in the restoration pointed to government funding, presumably due to the Historic Settlement status of the whole Zagori area. Vouvousa was burned by the Germans in 1943 so it was surprising to notice an "Achtung" sign on the locked gate of a restored house. It would be strange irony to have the village rebuilt by them!
Despite a long history of human habitation this northern region of the Pindus Mountains is remarkably wild and untrammeled. The tiny road on which we travelled was often crowded in on both sides with large tracts of pine forest and at times it felt as if we could barely squeeze through between the trees. Bears are said to still roam these wooded hills but given their reputation for raiding beehives and henhouses one wonders if many have survived the Greek farmers' guns. To our eyes the pine forests all over Greece appear to be devoid of wildlife and while this may be their natural state it’s more likely the result of a prolonged human presence. This is in such contrast to the Australian bushland which bustles with a profusion of life, and a rather dispiriting reminder of what a destructive force our species is.
Heading on up beyond Vouvousa, we pulled over at one point to explore a lightly wooded hillside and we're delighted to find many beautiful orchids growing around clearings in the pines with hardly another flowering plant in sight. Travelling on, we reached the crest of the pass where we stopped to watch a flock of sheep and goats meandering their way across the road and down the slope with their shepherd. It was a joy to watch: the bronzed man, the leading wethers with their tinkling bells, the emerald sea of grass .... a bucolic scene repeated across the Old World for thousands of years. It brought to mind some wonderful lines from Rainer Maria Rilke's poem The Spanish Trilogy:
"When I re-enter, alone, the city's crush
and its chaos of noise
and the fury of traffic surrounds me,
may I, above the hammering confusion,
remember sky and the mountain slopes
where the herds are still descending homeward"
Headed back towards Lake Aoos but not before a small detour to visit yet another bridge .... this time Roman. On the first attempt we missed the turnoff and found ourselves creaking through yet another mountain village, although this one seemed alive and busy with plenty of rusty trucks and agricultural machinery dotted along the road verges. Retracing our steps we finally found the turnoff, not without some difficulty, and set off on a long hot drive down another narrow winding road until we reached a monastery. The main buildings were some way from the road and beyond them an extensive vineyard tumbled down a gentle slope towards a river that we could hear in the distance.
Stumbling across an impressive looking monastery in these backwoods was not quite what we had expected but even more surprises were in store. As we perused the material posted on the main gate, apart from general information on its history, etc., we discovered that the monks offered cellar door tastings and wine sales! I could be wrong but it might have even have said they provided accommodation.... just imagine ... cheese and bikkies and a nice red Instead of vespers!
By now it was late in the afternoon and there was still no sign of the bridge. The road looked to amble on for miles beside the river so we finally gave up and swung back through the forest towards Lake Aoos. By early evening we had made our way back to Metsovo but not before several brief diversions, the consequence of some slapdash navigation and creative signposting.