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Autumn sunshine in Greece

Following on from last week’s post, this week I’m sharing the rest of my autumn trip leading a tour for Greentours to sunny Greece. Our first couple of days had been most enjoyable and there was plenty more to come. We piled into vehicles after yet another delicious breakfast and set off for our third full day of exploring. This time, we headed uphill, through the town and up to the higher slopes of Mount Parnassus.

Our first stop was near the ski resort and for the first time on the trip, we were glad of our jumpers as the morning air was quite crisp and cool. There were a few birds in the trees around us, mostly Coal tits and Great tits but a Treecreeper was spotted too and a Robin was singing somewhere nearby. It was here that we had our first glimpse of a lizard – it was far too quick for us to get a good look as it darted back into the undergrowth from its basking spot but it was encouraging nevertheless. I had been surprised not to have found them at Delphi. Anyhow, the reason for our stop here was Crocus cancellatus ssp. mazziaricus which we found in small numbers and a possibility of finding Sternbergia colchiciflora which is harder to find. We were successful though with 3 good specimens and a couple going over. We moved on in energetic spirits and continued uphill.

Our next stop was at the tiny woodland chapel of Agios Nikolaos where we wandered for a while among pine trees covered in mistletoe (Viscum album ssp. abietis). In the clearing by the chapel we found Colchicum bossieri alongside leaves of Digitalis ferruginea and Helleborus cyclophyllus. We found a Common Earth Star fungus in perfect condition nestled among the pine needles too and, here and there, remnants of summer flowers as well as emerging cyclamen. There were lots of birds here too with Jays and Green Woodpeckers being particularly noisy and the trees were full of foraging Blue tits and Coal tits. The highlight was a flock of six Hawfinches flying over.

We made another stop nearer the top of the mountain to look at the Colchicum boissieri which were flourishing here in larger numbers and being visited by Wall butterflies while Linnets chattered as they flew overhead. Moving on once more we made an unscheduled brief stop to look at some lovely examples of Campanula versicolor growing on a rock face by the road.

Our next stop was for a picnic lunch by the delightful chapel of Agia Marina above the town of Amfikleia. There were some good clumps of Cyclamen hederifolia under the trees of a walnut grove on the opposite side of the road. The Calamintha nepeta which adorned the roadside was covered in insect life and we got a brief glimpse of a Large Tortoiseshell butterfly as it came to take sap from a tree trunk.

Suitably replete, we drove on to a roadside spot just outside the village of Stromi where we found Colchicum bivonae. Interestingly the best specimen was growing up through the gravel almost on the road but the beautifully patterned petals looked resplendent in the sunshine regardless of its location.

Clambering further up the verge, we were rewarded not only with a lovely view across the mountains, but with a good number of Spiranthes spiralis, the Autumn Ladies’ Tresses Orchid.

We were debating which route to take back when one of my co-leader’s mentioned that we had passed some lovely cyclamen in the woods and our path was decided for us. We turned around and headed the short distance back to where they had been spotted. This turned out to be the absolute highlight of the day for me. I could not possibly have imagined the sheer volume of Cyclamen hederifolium that we would see in one place. The floor of this beautiful oak wood was carpeted with them, much like an English Bluebell wood and it turns out that the equivalent in Greece is just as good! They stretched almost as far as the eye could see on both sides of the road and the air was thick with their delicate scent.

Needless to say, the journey home to our hotel was undertaken with a buzz of chatter about the wonderful spectacle we had witnessed and the talk continued on around the dinner table that evening.

The next morning we were departing our lovely hotel for a new base and having said our farewells to the wonderful proprietors we set out. The first part of our journey was slightly contrary to our intended direction as we wanted to visit Hosios Loukas Monastery before leaving the area. I took this phone snap before we went through the small archway into the courtyard complex to explore further.

Hosios Loukas Monastery, Greece

The monastery is one of the best surviving examples of middle Byzantine art in the form of mosaics. We were given a taster as we entered with this little restored piece above the archway.

The main church there is quite extraordinary. It reminded me a little of the interior of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice – lots of scenes on a gold ground, mostly depicting pertinent saints and parts of the story of Jesus’ life. It was a beautiful and very serene space, quite a change to what we had been seeing over the previous days.

Needless to say, some parts were in better condition than others, clearly a few of the mosaics had received some extensive TLC but the overall effect was stunning. The crypt was equally decorated but with less of the gold hues.

I also came across a monk doing some watering and asked if I could take his photo. He was very obliging and I was quite pleased with the result as the architecture was lovely on it’s own but adding a figure to the image gives the whole thing a sense of scale and reverence.

Having done my degree in Art History (and thoroughly enjoyed it) before realising that it was nature and photography that I was passionate about, Hosios Loukas was a delightful interlude. There was plenty more to see there too. In the orchard by the car park there were Cirl Buntings singing and Colchicum cupanii flowering under the trees. Walking the short distance to another outlying chapel we found the small churchyard to be absolutely full of Sternbergia lutea ssp. sicula in prime condition. There was a juvenile Balkan Whip Snake there too and a Greek Stream Frog sheltering in the shade of a small spring.

In addition to this, there was a huge Rosemary bush flowering which absolutely hummed with life including Hummingbird Hawkmoth, Lang’s Short Tailed Blue, Krueper’s Small White and various other butterflies. Several types of seed bug joined the mix and a loud, deep buzz warned of an incoming Violet Carpenter Bee.

We were reluctant to leave this haven but eventually had to and so we were back on the road once more. We drove West along the coast to the small coastal town of Galaxidi where we stopped for lunch in a waterside restaurant. Of course, this didn’t mean that we would stop watching the world around us and we watched Yellow Legged Gulls flapping lazily over the water and a White Wagtail catching insects from the sea wall. The most interesting thing though was the number and variety of small fish in the water which was crystal clear. You could be forgiven for thinking that the next photo was taken at an aquarium but this is a phone grab looking straight down into the waters of the harbour!

The afternoon was spent travelling towards Diakopto on the Northern shore of the Peloponnese. The route took us along the coast to Rio Antirrio, past masses of Sea Squill and with odd glimpses of birds like Goldfinch and Crested Lark, to the bridge over the Gulf of Corinth. The last part of our journey was less interesting being on the motorway but we were soon checking into our new base for the rest of the trip before heading to dinner in a local restaurant.

Another clear sky greeted us the next day and we set out away from the coast following roughly the direction of the rack railway which runs from Diakopto to Kalavryta. We paused briefly on the way to look at Crocus hadriaticus and Crocus cancellatus ssp. mazziaricus growing together in the verge. Passing through Kalavryta we headed up to the ski centre on Mount Chelmos. Here we would spend a couple of hours exploring and enjoying the sunshine with spectacular views over the valley of the River Styx. There were quite a lots of birds around even at this high altitude; Ravens crocking above, Linnets gathering in large flocks in the trees by the car park as well as Northern Wheatear, Black Redstart and Sombre Tit flitting about between the pine trees. We found good numbers of Crocus cancellatus ssp. mazziaricus growing among the wiry grasses and a couple more Sternbergia colchiciflora. There was also a new butterfly for the trip in the shape of a Mountain Small White which has a rather weak and flimsy flight, somewhat reminiscent of the Wood Whites back home.

After a lovely picnic up here, we returned to Kalavryta and stopped for a lovely stroll round town and a coffee on the town square. Continuing on downhill, some of the group chose to return to the hotel while the rest of us took a short journey back out of town to walk up a steep track to look for Colchicum peloponnesiacum. There was lots of Coridothymus capitatus flowering in the track and we found a few lovely Praying Mantis in the low growing shrubs to either side but to begin with we were not seeing any of these endemic bulbs. Nearing the top, we finally found one growing on the edge of the track and reaching the top we were rewarded with fantastic views back towards Mount Parnassus – you could just make out Delphi and Arahova. On the way back down, our luck changed further as I found a whole lot more of the little Colchicums and we returned to the hotel to cool down a happy bunch.

The next day we took a similar route out of town but this time we followed the Kerenitis river valley. Our first stop was another rock face where there were more lovely Campanula versicolor but the most surprising thing there greeted us as soon as we stepped from the vehicles. In the middle of the road was a freshwater crab which took one look at us and went for cover – initially under my walking boot (which I was wearing!) and then under my car tyre. Not wanting it to get squashed I carefully moved it to the verge.

Our next stop was by another chapel, Agios Georgios, which had beautiful views over the hills which were blanketed in vineyards rich with autumn colours. Here we found lots more Crocus cancellatus ssp. mazziaricus.

There were also quite a few dung beetles here, demonstrating perfectly how the pack their prize into a neat ball before rolling it away, making sure to stop and stand on top to gauge the direction periodically. It was fascinating to watch.

After lunch, we made another afternoon coffee stop, this time in the village of Plataniotissa which is home to the most incredible church inside an ancient Plane Tree with the church bells hung from the branches. I snapped a couple of photos on my phone so you can get an idea of scale.

There is a little stained glass door leading into the tree and once inside there is space for several people to sit and stand around a tiny altar. It is a very unusual, beautiful place and very tranquil too.

Having enjoyed our coffee we meandered back down the hill making a couple more roadside stops along the way to investigate different flowers that we had spotted. It was a leisurely trip back to the hotel where, having packed our bags ready for the morning, a few of us decided to take a wander down to the sea front. In the low afternoon light it was another tranquil spot and a lovely walk to end the day.

The following morning it was time to head back to Athens for our flight home. We made one last stop on the way to marvel at the Corinth Canal, an impressive piece of engineering that was dug by hand at the end of the nineteenth century.

We had had a wonderful week in gloriously sunny Greece, it was time to go home and hope that the British weather would not be too unkind on our return.

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Delphi: Autumn among the ruins

Once again this year I’ve found myself leading a Greentours autumn tour to Greece – what a treat to escape the gloomy British weather! This time, we were not travelling to the Southern Peloponnese but further north to the area around the historical site of Delphi. Having landed safely at Athens, we drove the couple of hours to the hillside town of Arahova where we were to base ourselves for the first few days. On the way, we marvelled at the volume of cotton being grown in the flat, fertile valleys, and more so at the quantity shed by the transporting trucks and trailers which left the roadsides marked by a continuous trail of white fluff. Having settled in to our hotel and watched bats flit around above us while the sun set over the mountains, we retired for the evening ready for the tour to begin in earnest the next day.

We woke the following morning to beautiful clear skies and set out for our first destination; the archaeological site of Ancient Delphi. Entering the ruins relatively early to try and escape the inevitable crowds that would arrive later in the day, we heard the distinctive chittering call of the Western Rock Nuthatch within moments of our arrival. Sure enough, looking up to locate the bird, we found one sitting atop a small column and it was quickly joined by a second. They chased each other around for some time and eventually came to rest on a wall where they were beautifully lit by the rising sun.

A lovely male Blue Rock Thrush watched on and we later found a female further up the hill. One of the more interesting sights in terms of birds was a flock of Crag Martins. They, in themselves, were a typical bird of this sort of habitat, particularly as the archaeology backs on to enormous cliffs rising to lofty peaks. Their behaviour was what drew my attention, they were gathering around the top of an Italian Cypress tree. I can only assume that they were after insects there but it was not apparent, even through binoculars, that there were many insects in the air, so either they were plucking them from the foliage or the prey was smaller than I would have expected. Either way, it made for interesting watching and a different shot.

Against the cliffs themselves we spotted a flock of Rock Doves settling on a ledge and soon we were finding our first flowers among the ruins. Verbascum sinuatum clung on in the dry conditions and near the Temple of Apollo we were particularly surprised to find a single flower spike of Asphodelus fistulosus which was either very early or exceedingly late as it usually flowers between March and June.

Delphi Temple of Apollo

We could see a flock of birds in the distance too (in this image just a cluster of dots above the tallest pillar), we would later establish them to be Alpine Chough and Jackdaws. Here and there a few more flowers started to appear including the narrow leaved Centranthus ruber ssp. sibthorpii and lots of Calamintha nepeta which was a magnet for butterflies like Pigmy Skipper. These are a puzzle for me, I’d love to know why they were named “Pigmy” when they are much larger than our Small Skippers at home!

The most common butterfly was the Wall Brown which would continue to be so for the rest of the tour. They were joined by plenty of others though including Clouded Yellow with a good proportion of the pale helice form females and one that we don’t see in the UK much, Lang’s Short-Tailed Blue with it’s unmistakeable and very pretty underwing markings. They were mostly nectaring on Heliotropium hirsutissimum  which you barely noticed until you got closer as the foliage was so dry and brown that it blended with its equally desiccated surroundings.

Continuing to climb, the views over the site and beyond got better and better. It really is a wonderful place to mix culture and history with nature and wildlife.

Above the amphitheatre we started to find clumps of Sternbergia lutea ssp. sicula in the shadier spots. There was a single Autumn Squill budding and growing in the gravel path beside the impressive stadium under the shade of a pine tree, we came across a couple of Colchicum cupanii.

It was soon time to head back down the hill and regroup for a picnic lunch in a shady grotto below the archaeological site. From here we had a good view of the Alpine Chough wheeling and turning as they played on the breeze. We found a large Jewel beetle and had a brief glimpse of a Common Swallowtail between feasting on the local delights and fending off the local stray dog.

Having packed up, we moved on to our afternoon stop a couple of miles down the hill below Dephi itself on a rough track clinging to the hillside below some slightly smaller cliffs. It was a lovely spot to while away the time in the sun with the calls of Rock Nuthatch echoing around us and lovely view of the Gulf of Corinth which brought a cooling breeze with it. We had more good views of Blue Rock Thrush as well as the Nuthatches and a dark coloured Rock Partridge. We also had some rather better views of Common Swallowtail butterflies and found an uncommon endemic plant, Daphne jasminea growing on the rock face.

 

 

The main highlight here though had to be the sheer volume of butterflies which were congregating around the large patches of Dittrichia viscosa, seemingly a magnet to them. There were a variety of species, including a few familiar faces like Common Blue and Small Copper…

…there were a few more exotic species too though and one in particular which is always a joy to see; the Queen of Spain Fritillary.

There were also a couple of much smaller butterflies there, the smallest in Europe to be precise, the Grass Jewel which has a wingspan of just over a centimetre. Unfortunately for me, the only one that would stay still long enough for a photo was slightly tattered, but it’s always nice to see these tiny beauties!

 

Having enjoyed the butterflies we made our way back to the hotel and a few of us ventured out for a more local walk to a small chapel a little further up the road. Once again we were treated to a lovely sunset and delicious meal in good company. We went to bed a happy bunch after a long but thoroughly enjoyable day.

The following morning dawned sunny and I enjoyed a lovely view over the outskirts of town and the valley beyond which I snapped with my phone as I walked down from where I was staying to meet with the rest of the group in the hotel (I had forgotten to mention until now that unfortunately for me there were not enough rooms for us all and so I was put up in a very pleasant apartment about a mile away).

After another lovely breakfast we set out for the day, heading beyond Delphi to a spot on a hillside between the coastal towns of Itea and Galaxidi. Here, we were teaching among the dry scrubby landscape for more Colchicum cupanii like those we had seen the day before. They were tricky to find but eventually after much hunting around we came across a few very small specimens nestling in the shade of Sage and Spiny Burnet bushes. We also found a few rather lacklustre Autumn Squill and a small clump of Cyclamen but the lack of flowers was compensated by the view which I grabbed on my phone.

We did have a few birds to watch too, the so far ever present Rock Nuthatch was noisily going about it’s business and a Sardinian Warbler sung from the depths of a Kermes Oak tree up the bank. A star find though was a lovely spider, Argiope lobata, which is related to the Wasp Spider which we see in Britain, and equally striking although perhaps just a tiny bit larger.

From here we walked a short way down the hill to a spot near the bottom where we found the smelly but impressive Biarum tenuifolium and a few more cyclamen. On the way, we marvelled at more butterflies enjoying the Dittrichia viscosa on the roadside and came across an enormous and aptly named Handsome Cross Grasshopper.

Having made one more stop before rejoining the main road to see some particularly fine specimens of Sea Squill (which I neglected to take a photo of – d’oh!) we drove along the coast and up into the hills towards the Koutsourou Monastery, below which we would stop for a picnic under an ancient Plane tree. It was a lovely setting but once again the flowers were lacking. We found scant few of the Crocus hadriaticus which we had been hoping to find. Nevertheless, a Black Redstart buoyed our spirits and having spent some time happily exploring the bank we continued on. We drove part of the way round the Mornos Reservoir which made for an interesting change of scenery and we particularly enjoyed some spectacular autumn colours. Unfortunately, the spot where we stopped to look for Crocus robertianus was completely devoid of Crocuses although there were quite a few Cyclamen hederifolium and a Hummingbird Hawkmoth among the butterflies to keep us entertained. We also came across a rather lovely Jumping Spider which was on the roof of my hire car and which amused us greatly by jumping in and out of my lens hood!

Heading back to the hotel we had our best sunset yet (captured again on my phone) which rounded off the day with a good splash of colour over the tawny landscape. It seems the perfect way to round of this post too so if you want to find out what else we saw, you’ll have to tune in next week for the next instalment!

 

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