In the Southern Zagori with Gipsies, Plants and Bridges
Thunder had threatened all day, and then the rain started to fall just as we stopped near Doliana to photograph a little church sporting an outrageously tall tower that almost hid it from view. It begun as a few random drops and gradually became a steady patter as we wound our way down on a glass-slick road through Fragades clinging to the side of the mountain.
It finally started raining heavily as we came through the pot-holed old road around the northern end of Lake Aoos, slowing to a snail's pace to work our way through a herd of cattle that were not in the slightest bit bothered about getting out of our way. Unhurried, two young bulls decided to camp right in front of us to engage in a head butting contest and completely blocked the road for what seemed like an eternity. We were cautiously weaving our way through the melee, very conscious of the damage a challenged bull could make to a rather meagre Nissan Micra, when a big black ute barged past us, horn blaring, and cleared a path through the herd. We did our best to follow but the cows flowed in together behind it like the Red Sea. Clearly our Micra lacked the authority of a big 4x4 pickup!
With some deft maneuvering we finally broke free of the cows and then the hail started. It belted down: Wave after cacophonous wave of hail stones as big as marbles drummed the top of the car and smacked into the windscreen, then, finished with terrorizing us, bounced off onto the road to join the swelling drifts that threatened to block our progress. Water spouted from everywhere, streaming across the road in dark, sinuous skeins, bubbling and spilling down banks, tearing and roaring through drains and culverts. It seemed the whole world was awash and we were right in the middle of it!
With so much sudden water on the road and reduced visibility I gritted my teeth and gripped the wheel and pushed on - stopping was not an option. We sped through fords where the water was already overflowing onto the road and shimmied around damaged sections that threatened to slide off down the slope. More than once the navigator was forced out into the tumult to "pole" the depth of more dubious crossings.
As we reached the end of the lake where the country opens out into lush plains the deluge eased, but before we could breathe a sigh of relief, our Micra was set upon by a pack of wolf dogs rushing out from some cattle sheds adjacent to the road. The great lolloping beasts bared their teeth as they leapt at the sides of our car and bayed mayhem and blood-thirsty intent but a few bursts of sustained horn blowing fortuitously put paid to their attacks. When we looked back they had all flopped down onto the wet grass with what looked to us like a collective air of satisfaction in a job well done. Pity our fate if we had just happened to be riding bikes! Thankfully the last few kilometres of our journey were uneventful and as we finally nosed out onto the Katara Pass the rain eased off and we drove down into Metsovo with the sun peeping through.
It had all started so differently! After admiring the busy frescoes at the church of Agias Minas at Monodendri we had set out for Metsovo in bright morning sunshine, to drive east through Kipi, following the mountain roads through the southern end of the Zagori, to the little mountain villages of Fragades and Doliana and then onto the Katara Pass.
Kipi is famous for its arched bridges. There are 47 scattered over the entire Zagori with eight of them occurring around this village alone making it a popular spot to visit. Flung out like stone parabolas across water or ravine, many date to the 18th century and were built local benefactors. Often they replaced older bridges that spanned the streams and rivers that cut through the many gorges in this region thus linking solitary stone villages. Most were built with a single arch but one near Kipi, the Kalogeriko Bridge, spans a wide area with three arches and these are locally known as three stringers. Its top is not level but traces the up and down of the arches, this loopy, hooping shape reminiscent of the undulating movement of a caterpillar. Most of the bridges are sharply steep and narrow and while none have guard rails (these may have rotted off ages ago) many sport bands of short guard stones on each side, making them look vaguely like the spine of that prehistoric creature, the Stegosaurus.
At each of our stone bridge stops we were delighted to find plants not previously encountered and stachys were a feature in the dryland pastures. This is one of the largest and widely distributed genera of the Labiatae family and hence known by many names including, Betony, Woundwort, Hedgenettle, and as many of us would know it, Lamb's Ears. The genus name, stachys is from the Greek meaning "ear of grain", in reference to the shape and character of the flower spike found in many members. In Greece these are used widely as herbal teas, and sometimes as food, and are part of the "old ways" tradition that is still so strong in rural life here. We found the Downy Woundwort, Stachys germanica often growing close to abandoned farm houses and country buildings, which bears out this claim. It's an impressive species, rather than a beautiful one, with its pinkish purple flowers appearing in whorls on an upright tall stem clothed in silky, white hairs. Its heart-shaped leaves are similarly hirsute giving the plant an attractive silvery greyish-green appearance. In open spaces we found the Balkan endemic, S. plumosa its stouter, sparser, spires are even more silvery and more densely packed with its larger, purplish flowers. But our favourite was the rare S. tymphaea, which we found in wetter soaks and sedge land and this was a stand out. Its more richly coloured flowers are held in dense whorls in the top third of their tall stems and from a distance look like clusters of smouldering fire brands.
Salvias are a closely related group and we reacquainted with some of our old friends along the way, including the beautiful pink and lilac flowered Clary Sage, S. sclarea, and the astoundingly floriferous, S. virgata, with plumes of pale blue flowers like gushing fountains of light. We also found occasional drifts of S. verbenaca, a very robust, multi-branching species bearing whorls of dark purple, hooded flowers in dense clusters over crinkly, toothed green leaves. These Greek salvias are strongly aromatic and make wonderful garden plants yet I have heard so many gardeners decry them as almost worthless because they are too short lived. We personally think that this is a gross oversight because these species offer so much (at least a 3 month flowering period, repeated replacement blooms, and the ability to self sow) and demand little in return. In a few places we found a little brilliant blue salvia which neither of us had seen before so we sent some pictures back home to get a name. Apparently it is an annual and called, S. viridis ... and yes, it used to be available in Australian nurseries. Its intensely saturated flowers are the colour of cornflowers striated with threads of deep purple and they have that slightly surreal look of a character from an anime cartoon!
At the edge of forest clearings and on moist roadside verges grew a vibrantly beautiful perennial with willow-like leaves and tall red stems but it was its stunning magenta blossoms, arranged in dense clusters in the upper half of large spikes, that stole the show. Commonly known as the Great Willow Weed or Fire Weed and taxonomically as, Epilobium angustifolium it is widespread across the Northern Hemisphere. A friend of mine and resident perennial expert, described epilobiums as, "probably well behaved in a dryer climate but going psycho in moist conditions", so one would do well to bear this in mind if seeking it out as a garden subject.
Drifts of Lysimachia atropurpurea were present in areas of disturbed ground alongside the road. Commonly known as Loosestrife, they are distinct and fascinating plants. Their dark burgundy flowers and pointed, pewter leaves confer an interesting contrast, while a serpentine twist to the stem conveys a sense of rhythm and movement to the clumps. On a dry cliff face we found a scattering of the scarce Balkan endemic, Campanula versicolor, alongside another committed rock dweller, Petromarula pinnata. The campanula is a lovely species little seen in gardens because, I suspect, it is not widely known how to grow it. Here it was happiest clinging to a dry, stony bank, its clusters of widely bell-shaped flowers an intricate confection of deep blue at the centre, paler at the circumference, with a dark eye. The dark leathery leaves are heart-shaped and apparently excellent in a salad!
Euphorbia polychroma, the Cushion Spurge, appeared as dabs of colour throughout pockets of dry woodlands. Its acid yellow flowers are held as flattened clusters or cymes over mounds of dark green leaves remaining fresh and vibrant for about a month. Like all euphorbias their intense colour is not that of the flowers, but of the long-lasting bracts that enclose them, and like all of its tribe they are poisonous and remain happily unmolested by grazing beasts. Keeping it company was an even deadlier companion in Digitalis lanata, to my eye, its tall spires of densely packed fawn-coloured flowers lack the elegance of its rusty cousin, D. ferrunginea, each individual blossom is a jewel box of delicately patterned darker veining reminiscent of a ptarmigan's egg. It is commonly known as the Woolly Foxglove because it produces dense hairs on its spikes and leaves; whilst usually white these can be a striking red.
Knapweeds have always been a firm favourite of ours and although Susan and I don't grow many in our own gardens we both love to see them in their natural state. There are a plethora of species in the Balkans, and while we struggled with the names, for what it’s worth we present two very contrasting species that endeared themselves. Centaurea triumfetti is a medium-sized plant with an erect stem, silvery, downy-covered leaves and subtly shaded flowers that are bright purple at their centre and with outer petals of azure blue. It favours shaded grassy slopes where as the rarer and much taller Centaurea thracica grew in forest clearings, often between taller grasses that provided support for their long stems. A deliciously pale lemon, their feathery, shuttlecock flowers and silvery bracts appear kissed by moonlight.
After a very exciting morning photographing arched bridges and dashing about chasing after plants we made our way along to Kipi for a celebratory drink. It was a Sunday and most of the village's population were out in the tavernas for lunch. We had only just settled in amongst the gaggle of Mums and Dads, Grandmas and Pappas, aunts and uncles, waywards kids and nervous dogs when an ancient combi playing loud gypsy music swayed into town and stopped outside the main taverna. A short, swarthy woman in red and gold folds, her arms hooped in gold and silver bands, opened the back doors, dragged out clumps of shirts, skirts, and other apparel and flinging them onto canvas sheets and dilapidated stands set up an instant clothes shop. She then did a round of the taverna tables, locking eyes with anyone who showed interest, or were unfortunate enough to be caught in her gaze. There followed a spate of animated discussion, much gesticulation and head tilting and if the gipsy won the battle she would accompany the vanquished to her "shop" to select her purchase. Once uprooted from their seat no woman returned from the gypsy woman's clutches empty handed. Not one man entered into the contest remaining as mirthful onlookers in what was no doubt regular Sunday village entertainment
Whether it was that the gypsy woman had caught a glimpse of the taverna owner's impatient shuffling feet and knitted brow, or that she divined no further interest, it was impossible to say, but in a flash she had rolled up her travelling caravan, and taken off for a stop higher up in the village ... from whence we soon heard the music issuing forth yet again ...