At the beginning of this month I was privileged to spend a week leading a tour to the Peloponnese in southwest Greece for Greentours. It was ostensibly to see the autumn bulbs there, and indeed the display was wonderful, but of course we saw lots more lovely things too so I thought I’d take a moment to share it with you. I had intended to write this a lot sooner but the last couple of weeks have been rather hectic so apologies for the gap between posts!
We flew from Heathrow into Athens, arriving mid-afternoon. Having collected luggage and vehicles we set off northwards across the Corinth Isthmus, crossing the impressive Corinth Canal whilst on the motorway, towards our hotel for the first night. We arrived just as darkness descended to a wonderfully warm welcome.
The following morning we woke to church bells and beautiful sunshine glowing through the leaves of an ancient Plane tree on the village square. Filled with home-cooked breakfast delights and anticipation for the rest of the trip, we were soon on our way again towards our base for the week in the seaside town of Gytheio. Our route took us down in to the valley below which was full of vineyards all displaying wonderful autumn hues. I managed to grab a quick phone-snap having pulled over to take in the scenery for a moment.
Continuing on, we climbed through a hillside village and soon came over the summit of the mountain beyond. The vista which greeted us was incredible, if slightly hazy, with vertiginous slopes giving way to rough woodland lower down where a local goatherd tended his flock and the valley floor below laid out like an interlocking jigsaw of fields, olive groves and vineyards. In the distance the Taygetos mountain rose in a shimmering silhouette among the clouds on the horizon. The road wound its way around a series of sharp hairpin bends and having navigated a couple, we stopped below the summit to admire our first bulbs of the trip, tiny Colchicum cupanii and Cyclamen graecum growing in the crevices between rocks in the verge.
The rich rust-red soil was still damp from an overnight rain shower and the air was thick with aromatic scents of sage and thyme. The sun was warm on our backs and the tiny flowers at our feet were dwarfed by a nectaring Painted Lady, while overhead a pair of Ravens tumbled on the updraft. A Sparrowhawk soared over and the Sardinian Warbler which had been singing from the depths of a nearby Carob tree fell silent. We tore ourselves away from the flowers and clambered back into the vans to continue on down the mountain. It wasn’t long before we stopped again to catch our first glimpse of Sternbergia lutea ssp. sicula beside the road. We had inadvertently found a sheltered spot and there were masses of butterflies making the most of the pocket of warmth; Common Blue, Large and Small White, Brown Argus and a tiny Geranium Bronze – a new species in the area having spread across the mediterranean from northern Africa.
The next stop on our journey was a longer one at the ancient ruins of Mycenae where we marvelled at the epic proportions of the Lion Gate while looking for flowers among the excavations. There were swathes of Field Marigold (Calendula arvensis) among the stones as well as more Cyclamen graecum, lovely clusters of the nodding green-humbug-striped Friar’s Cowl (Arisarum vulgare) and the tall seed heads of Sea Squill (Urginea maritima) were interspersed with the much smaller blooms of Autumn Squill (Scilla autumnalis).
After lunch in the modern village of Mycenae below, we moved on once more. We made one more stop in the hills above Sparta where we had hoped for masses more Sternbergia. Sadly we realised that it had been an early autumn and the majority had been and gone but there were plenty of other interesting things to see such as Crocus biflorus melatherus which has characteristic black anthers and a few lone blooms of Iris unguicularis cratensis in more sheltered spots. A Leopard Snake was spotted basking against a rock. It stuck around just long enough for a few people to take photos before beating a hasty retreat. There were masses of Earth Star Fungi among the lichen underfoot and I was a little surprised to stumble upon a very large Centipede (Scolopendra cingulata).
We were now on the last leg of our journey to the coast and had soon made it to the seaside town in which we would be based for the next few days. We checked into our hotel overlooking the harbour and walked out along the water’s edge to a restaurant for dinner.
The next morning we woke to a torrential downpour and a an uninspiring weather forecast for the rest of the day. After some discussion we decided to head further east for the day to try and avoid the worst of the weather. Having stocked up with picnic provisions we set out and made our first stop just outside town. The spot we had chosen was a good one for Narcissus tazetta among other things but we made it a fairly brief pause due to the poor weather and because we knew that we would have time to stop again later in the week when we hoped it would be sunny!
Heading further east we passed the fortified town of Monemvassia and headed south a short way. We found a spot to stop for lunch on the coast. It was still blustery and the waves in the bay were crashing over a narrow causeway leading to a tiny chapel. This phone-snap captures the atmosphere perfectly!
Having enjoyed an only slightly dampened picnic we headed up into the hills above us. Here we were treated to carpets of sweet scented Cyclamen hederifolium sap. crassifolium under the olive groves and delicate Crocus goulimyi in both purple and white colour forms. Although many were closed up tight against the cooler weather there were a few just open and the views back over the coast from our lofty viewpoint were well worth it too.
Heading back down to sea level we stopped in at Monemvassia. The name means “one entrance” and indeed there is only one way in to this walled town: On foot. We parked up and wandered in to be greeted with narrow cobbled streets and manicured window boxes reminiscent of Mont St Michel. Having explored a little and visited the beautiful church, we retired to a cafe to warm up before heading back to Gytheio.
The following day dawned a lot clearer and we headed south into the northern Mani. The first stop we made was a roadside spot where Colchicum psaridis grew in the verge. Initially our attention was drawn by some rather handsome looking goats being herded into an enclosure further down the hill – every bit the picture of rural Grecian life. We were soon looking at the flowers again though. The Colchicums were joined by Crocus boryii and Crocus goulimyi, Allium callimischon and more of the Friar’s Cowl all among the spiny scrub.
Along with beautiful bulbs we also came across lots of insect life here; Dor Beetles, large millipedes, Glow Worms an uncommon Cedrio sp. beetle and a particularly large and impressive Carabid beetle among others.
Moving on we made another stop only a short distance away to admire a good display of Crocus niveus among the terrace walls of old olive groves beside the road. Most were white but there were a few bicolour forms which were particularly pretty.
Our next stop was possibly one of my favourites of the whole trip; a little chapel among olive groves where we had a lovely picnic in the sunshine before enjoying incredible colourful carpets of flowers under the trees. Here, Sternbergia lutea ssp. sicula mingled with Cyclamen graecum, Crocus niveus and Scilla autumnalis in a stunning display while birds sang around us, huge beetles buzzed clumsily through the air and butterflies flitted past. I also came across a jumping spider which had taken up residence in my van. I moved it carefully out into the open air and it sat on a stone wall while I photographed it – I’ve wanted to find one to photograph for a long time so I was thrilled. After my last guest, Matt’s fantastic post about spiders I couldn’t not share!
With some difficulty we left the floral spectacle behind us and drove to a lovely spot a short distance away where we were looking for Narcissus serotinus. These tiny daffodils are incredibly dainty and pretty, a similar size to the Tête à tête that we grow in our gardens in spring but without a pronounced trumpet. Alongside these there were a few Autumn Lady’s Tresses Orchids and among the Crocus boryii one particularly unusual form of the flower with beautiful purple feathering up the petals. There were also several different beetles, Praying Mantises and a colourful Red Veined Darter dragonfly among the scrub.
Our final stop was on the tiny island by Gytheio harbour where the lighthouse stands guard over the rocky coast. The light was beginning to fade but there were still a few things to see there too including Black Redstart and a Kingfisher with its catch. It made for a lovely end to the day.
I realise I’ve been waffling on for a while now and there are still a couple of days and lots more beautiful autumn bulbs to tell you about so I’ll leave those till next week – watch this space!