Metsovo and the Katara Pass
Metsovo was teeming with people, the main square chaotic with cars and tour buses. After driving through an almost peopleless landscape on near deserted roads for the previous three hours the bustling crowd, came as quite a shock, for Metsovo is a remote, high mountain town well away from the major population centres ... so where did they all come from? Greeks often return to their ancestral towns and villages on holidays, especially for religious and cultural festivals and traditional villages like Metsovo draw many who, while living modern lives, wish to experience something of their rich past cultural heritage. More often than not this involves a lot of eating and some drinking and a little bit of walking or volta, where the whole family get dressed up in their best threads and do a once around the square or main street.
A quick consultation with our trusty traveling calendar told us that the crowd had arrived to celebrate the long weekend (Holy Spirit Monday). It was not the first time that, in our rather freewheeling way, we had been caught out by local customs and traditions. Thank heavens, having stayed here before, we knew the layout of the village and the location of our desired hotel. So after a couple of false starts, a tiny car space was found and we quickly booked in at the lovely Apollon Hotel, then headed off for a drink. At the top of the square we rediscovered our favourite kafenaion from which we spent the rest of the afternoon watching the comings and goings of both visitor and resident alike, amazed at the determination of some women to face the challenge of uneven cobbled stones in towering platform sandals.
Metsovo nestles below the Katara Pass tumbling down a precipitous slope into a natural depression shaped like a little amphitheatre. The cobbled access road is predictably steep and narrow, restricted by a medley of hotels, cafes and shops, its narrowness exacerbated by casual parking, wayward livestock, building works and sleeping dogs. The same clutter carries on into the large bustling square at the foot of the slope where cow herders in their utes dual with squads of huge tour buses for available parking spaces, while both conciliate the casual approach insouciant pedestrians take to sharing the road with others. It's a sort of ordered chaos based on a village mentality from a time when the road was just for people and donkeys.
Metsovo is especially well known for its traditional architecture, cheeses, local wine and livestock industry. It is the largest centre of Vlach life in Greece, these are descendents of a nomadic sheep-hearding people speaking the Arromanian language, which has its roots in Latin. Some believe the Vlachs descended from Ancient Roman soldiers who were sent to guard the mountain passes and stayed! I made mention of them in an early post on the Vikos Gorge.
Despite its strongly agrarian character, Metsovo is one of the wealthiest towns per capita in Europe with a unique history manifest in beautifully restored mansions and churches. In Ottoman times the Metsovites were granted extensive privileges in return for guarding the Katara Pass (1700m), the only east-west route across the Pindos Mountains in Northern Greece. These privileges were eventually withdrawn when the locals fell foul of the Turks but not before considerable wealth had been built and invested into commerce and other non-livestock related enterprises.
Nowadays the locals have turned their characteristic shrewdness towards tourism, transforming old mansions and some cottages into hotels and guest houses and opening rather twee, repetitive tourist shops. Perhaps this explains why the town is so ridiculously crowded at times and has lost some of its authenticity. Certainly, over the years much of its traditional spinning, dyeing and weaving has moved upcountry in the Zagoria, especially to the remote district of Samarina, which has a better claim to be the true heart of the Vlachs nowadays. But despite these things Metsovo, with its magnificent setting, colourful history, and living traditions still exerts a powerful and attractive presence.
We had come there to visit the Katara Pass and to explore the lush meadows around Lake Aoos, each a very different habitat with a bounty of plants to offer. The Katara Pass used to be the highest main road in Greece, and one of the most dangerous, but has been made virtually obsolete by a new four lane national highway called the Egnatia. Nevertheless the old road is still maintained and one can take a leisurely drive along its curves and corners, skirting around great, gaunt, spires of rock fringed with the feathery dark green of pine and fir trees, through wild, flower-strewn meadows and beech woodlands that blaze with autumn flames.
On this visit we had set our sights on some large green hummocks not far out of the town. Green in this instance doesn't refer to the grass but to the curiously aqua green shale-like rocks that form them. The rock is serpentine and it carries a distinctive flora adapted to its rather toxic make up. These plants are often referred to as "metal miners" and the theory goes that they have hit upon a strategy to accumulate various toxic metals, especially nickel and antimony, to discourage grazing animals. Serpentine is rich in these, and many other toxic elements, such as chromium, and as so many plants are unable to grow such soils, this has led to very open communities of a handful of "specialists".
The locally endemic Fritillaria epirotica is one that has solved the serpentine puzzle and is a committed scree dweller on these hummocks though it took some time and a good deal of luck to find it! We hoped to photograph a few late flowerers and were encouraged by a few fat pinky-toned seed pods on the first little rocky climb near the main road but after a good start the plants dried up and we spent the next two hours exploring all the steeper ridges with little result. As the day heated up scrambling around on these loose, stony slopes became hot and hard work (water must be carried at all times in the field). The colour of the rocks, their casting shadows and the midday dazzle played tricks with our eyes and the colour and size of our quarry conspired against us. So we decided we had enough and started making our way back towards the car along a shallow gully strewn with a trove of lustrous serpentine rocks from onyx black to milky opalescent green. Susan, forever the magpie, could't resist and stuffed as many as she could into every pocket, bag and piece of apparel available. We came out of the gully up over a scruffy little rise, and as so often happens on plant hunting trips, we walked straight into a swarm of Fritillaria epirotica all carrying huge seedheads but alas no flowers. Still it was better than we had hoped after stumbling about this area all morning with almost no success!
Growing alongside in threads and drifts was Tulipa sylvestris ssp australis. This is daintier than the type with dazzling, golden-yellow, open-cupped flowers, stained violet or crimson on the outside and held on tall, slender stems. It is a plant of the mountains but it's more catholic in its choice of habitats than the fritillary with bogs, screes, woodland or pasture all being equally accepted. We met another yellow bloomer out on the serpentines. Verbascum undulatum or the Wavy Leafed Mullien has wavy leaf rosettes densely covered in golden hairs and carries on branching upright stems many large, open-faced flowers, each with a raspberry-blotched eye. This species is widespread and, although short-lived, is a valued garden plant because of its architectural qualities, its long flowering period and ability to grow in dry soils.
Campanulas were thus named because their flowers resemble little bells. These are nearly always light blue or violet in colour or only rarely white. This is a very large genus and is represented in Greece by more than 70 species and subspecies, of which quite a number are endemic and narrowly distributed. Campanula hawkinsiana is one of those that has found a home at the Katara and its very attractive and long-flowering mats can be found growing right to the edges of the road. In late spring they are smothered with deep violet-blue, widely bowl-shaped flowers each with striking white eye. These are held on erect, wiry stems above beautifully crafted ferny leaves, a perfect jewel in lapis lazuli and ivory. It is one of my absolute favourite bell flowers but alas it is tricky to grow and can collapse without warning. In my own garden I have treated it as a very welcome annual however seed must be collected and sown to ensure next year's return.
There were two other more companionable campanulas growing alongside their miffy relation. C. glomerata ssp hispida carries dense clusters of dark violet tubular bells atop of an upright flower stem growing to 35cm. The species is widespread throughout the temperate zones of Eurasia, and represented by a plethora of subspecies, and there are many cultivated forms, including a fine purple form, "Superba" and lovely icy-white selection, named "Crown of Snow". The Spreading Bell Flower, C. patula, is another widespread species but because it is short-lived one is far less likely to find it in cultivation. Nevertheless its a charming thing and in this hostile, almost lunar landscape its showers of large, blue, star-like flowers held on delicately branching stems were compellingly beautiful.
Neither of us are experts on grasses but we did come across a particularly gorgeous fluttering grass that Susan had noticed was also arranged in vases in the Hotel Apollon. This is the European Feather Grass, or Stipa pennata, one of the most graceful of its tribe. In summer long, twisting, feathery awns rise up above sheaths of dark green, narrow leaves to float on the breeze like the trailing silver-grey tail feathers of a lyre bird. Nearby clouds of the Heath Fritillary, Mellicta athalia, were feeding on the highly scented, nectar-rich flowers of the Common Valeria, Valeria officinalis, their deftly patterned wings gleaming flashes of spangled light.
Lurking in nearby branches is another not so welcome member of the Lepidoptera tribe. The Pine Processionary Moth, Thaumetopoea pityocampa, is a seriously destructive pest to pines and cedars throughout southern Europe and North Africa with an intriguingly intricate life cycle. The species is notable for the private life of its caterpillars, which display cooperative social behaviour for the benefit of the group, rather like the superorganism behaviour of ants and bees. Together they build tent-like structures high in pine trees to overwinter in, they mark trails with pheromones to enable large numbers to aggregate at feeding sites and to find their way back to their wigwams, and they travel through the woods in spectacularly long nose to tail processions. Like thuggish gangs they carry the equivalent of a switch blade knife in the form of bundles of toxic hairs which cause harmful reactions to humans and other mammals. They really are not pleasant company!
As we worked our way back towards the car a friendly young wolf dog came down the gully to greet us. He appeared harmless enough but looking up to the top of the cutting we saw the more senior members of the pack sitting up there watching us in silence like a pride of lions. To avoid a possible showdown we decided to move further along and approach our car in a more roundabout fashion. While we were so occupied a cowherd drove down a track to a rough shelter in the meadow below us, the dogs came belting down after him and argued lustily over whatever meat he threw out from the back of his pickup. We took this opportunity to high tail it out of there as quickly as we could.
Greek shepherds raise these dogs to protect their livestock from predators (wolves, jackals, bears and Golden Eagles still exist in Greece). The dogs are introduced to livestock as puppies so that they can imprint on and bond with them (I have come across quite tiny puppies spilling out of high mountain cow sheds or sitting plaintively on remote roadside verges waiting for their masters' return). Once bonded, they will stay and protect their group as full time members, blending in with them, and watching for intruders. They are very aggressive and will attack with little provocation so when confronted the golden rule is to move away slowly, maintain direct visual contact, quickly find some rocks or a big stick, and never run away! The dogs found in Epirus are the most dangerous and their handlers the least sympathetic that I have encountered anywhere in Greece.
We returned hot and dishevelled to Metsovo but once refreshed, we were off uphill and down dale to pay the Hotel Victoria a visit. We had it on good authority, a rare hybrid fritillaria had been seen growing in its grounds but we could not see anything promising from the road. A charmingly scruffy dog joined us as we left the main square and continued to accompany us the whole way, waiting each time we stopped to sticky beak into someone's backyard or garden. He had clearly set himself up as our local guide for the afternoon and his bent hind leg hinted at some earlier altercation with a vehicle while on tourist duty. We continued on doing a tour of the lower part of Metsovo, walking a full circle below the main square and back up the other side, admiring vegetable gardens, contemplating the complexity of boundaries between properties that jumble on top of each other and amazing at the ingenuity of parking solutions in the steep narrow streets. As we found our way up the last curving cobbled street our doggy companion suddenly trotted off ahead and disappeared. Over the next few days we noticed he was always somewhere around the square, and last time we saw him he was taking another couple off on one of his exclusive guided tours of the town.