One would think that I should be familiar with my country’s beauty. And, yet, I was overwhelmed by the allurement of the landscapes discovered during my recent trip to Thrace (*). As Thrace is quite far from Attica, we, Athenians, are rather reluctant to spend our holidays there, hence, to my shame, this was my first visit to this province. I was relatively acquainted with its history and archaeological treasures but was unprepared for the vast valleys covered in ancient olive groves, blossoming sunflowers, vineyards, crops, and fruit trees. There are richness and abundance in the land, expressed not only in its fertility but the cordiality of the locals as well who often go out of their way to make the visitor feel at home.
To any nature lover who would be interested in connecting with this corner of Europe that is still pristine and emanates a rare welcoming energy, I would suggest just hiring a car and roaming around. The distances are small, so don’t be afraid to explore unmarked dirt roads or follow undecipherable traces. From the fir-covered mountains around the Pomakohoria villages close to the Bulgarian borders in the North to the azure beaches on the south; from the rich banks of Evros River on the East to the lush riverside of Nestos River on the West: be adventurous and bold, you won’t be disappointed.
There are six destinations, though, that should be on your agenda, so plan accordingly to enjoy them to the maximum.
Evros Delta National Park
Evros river springs in the Bulgarian mountains and flows into the Thracian Sea, acting, for a large part, as a natural border between Greece and Turkey. The materials brought down with the waters along with the activity in the sea have created at the river’s estuaries one of the most important wetlands in Europe: the Evros Delta.
Because of its location and climate, this delta is an ideal environment for birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Either a mere stopover for the migrating birds or a wintering station, this area has evolved over hundreds of years into a fascinating ecosystem. It is worth noting that 324 species of birds have been recorded there (from a total of 449 species found in Greece), several of which are not only rare but also threatened at a global scale. During winter, one can admire hundreds of flamingos, thousands and thousands of ducks and geese, the three species of European swans, as well as predators like the Greater Spotted Eagles, White-tailed Eagles, and Imperial Eagles hunting together.
The easiest (and rather touristic) activity is to book a guided tour with a plava (the local wooden boat that is flat enough to float in the shallow waters) and, with the help of the expert guides, explore the wildlife. I was told that one could also be allowed to drive around an additional part of the park (open to the public) and, thus, spend more time observing nature unraveling its secrets. Even non-birdwatchers (like me) cannot but get enchanted by the complexity of such an enthralling ecological community.
Winter is the best time to visit Evros Delta as it is full of life and activity. Spring, being a wet season, can also be interesting. Unfortunately, my visit was in mid-June, so there were scarcely any birds left. Still, besides several cormorants, we were lucky to spot a white pelican who initially posed for us before opening his large wings to fly away in majestic glory.
The National Park of Dadia-Lefkimi-Soufli (or, just, Dadia Forest)
It is a large forest area stretching from the town of Lefkimi in the south to Soufli in the north, located a few kilometers (about a one-hour drive) northern the Delta of Evros. It has recently developed into a beloved destination for numerous visitors who can explore it by car, by bicycle, or on foot. One can enjoy magical landscapes of pine and oak forests, alternating with various geological formations, clearings, pastures, and fields, or visit sites of archaeological interest, deserted settlements, stone bridges, historical monasteries as well as the oldest fossilized forest of Greece.
Above all, Dadia National Park is famous for hosting three out of the four Vulture species of Europe (the Black Vulture, the Griffon Vulture, and the Egyptian Vulture), while it is home to the only breeding population of Black Vultures in the Balkans. Hence, booking a tour to the observatory is recommended, as the local experts share more information about flora and fauna, the habits of the prey birds, and interesting details that the amateur visitor would otherwise miss. There are frequent buses from the Information Center to the observatory, or one can hike for about 1.5 hours under shaded paths. Naturally, one can see more birds in the morning as opposed to the afternoon, so, although distance-wise and time-wise both Evros Delta and Dadia Forest can be explored in one day, it is best to allow for two days, so that each site can be visited early in the morning, when most birds are active. As expected, my afternoon visit in mid-June was not very successful as far as wildlife is concerned; still, I was lucky to, at least, see three black kites. Unfortunately, there was no sign of the famous vultures anywhere close, since, we were told, they use the warm currents in the air to move towards Bulgaria in the north, to hunt.
Straits of Nestos River
Although Evros Delta and Dadia Forest are quite renowned, the Nestos Straits (or, otherwise referred to as the Thracian Tempe) is a hidden gem that remains unknown to many visitors. Nestos River is one of the top five biotopes in Europe, encompassing rich forests, rare wetlands, and imposing geological formations. It leisurely flows through the Rhodope mountain-range drawing curvy meanders on the way; the Nestos Straits – this large botanical garden often designated as an “aesthetic forest” – is, undeniably, its most beautiful part.
A well-defined path extends next to the river where one can hike for just a couple of hours or till the end of the road at Stavroupoli town (a 7-8 hours’ hike). In addition to an impressive variety of water birds perching by the riverbanks, one finds turtles, snakes, and hedgehogs sharing the trail, while eagles and wild horses can also be occasionally spotted. The landscape is enhanced by the presence of the railway that was built at the end of the 19th century connecting Europe with the East. The train passes through several tunnels (or “galaries” as they are locally called), its sound blending with the scenery in a harmonious co-existence of nature and human intervention which, somehow, provokes a nostalgic reaction in the heart.
Besides hiking, there are several alternative tourism activities available, including mountaineering, canoe kayak, horse-back riding, mountain biking, 4×4 off-road driving, and bird-watching. Finally, one can explore the straits by train (make sure to book a seat next to the windows) – or choose a combined solution, i.e., hike towards one way and take the train on the way back.
During my last visit, due to time constraints, I only managed hike for a few kilometers on the cobbled path. The location though deserves much more attention: it is ideal to spend at least a couple of days, either using as base the city of Xanthi (12 kilometers away) or maybe even camping next to the water (I noticed a few tents pitched by the river, however, I am not sure if camping is officially allowed).
Ismarida Lake (locally often called “Mitriko” or “Mana” which means “mother”) is part of a larger complex of lagoons and river falls that, all together, create another ecosystem of significant value and incredible beauty. The specific lake is one of the rarest shallow lakes with fresh water and the only one left in Northern Greece – even though I was informed by locals that salt water had been introduced into the lake for fishing purposes, this representing a major threat to the environment. Given its minimal depth, the lake is ideal for the development of aquatic vegetation. In springtime, blossoming Water Lilies and Water Chestnuts cover the surface of the water offering a stunning sight. Additionally, the imposing presence of a reed bed plays an important role as, on the one hand, it feeds the ecosystem with organic matter originating from the rotting of the reeds, and, on the other hand, it entraps nutrients coming from the nearby cultivation. Finally, the lake, along with the extensive marshes and the wet meadows that surround it, create a large wetland for birds. 190 species have been discovered there, including the oystercatcher, the little egret, the Kentish plover, the spoonbill, the glossy ibis, the avocet, the black-winged stilt, the stone curlew, and the collared pratincole, to name a few of the rarest species found in the area.
Unfortunately, I did not have the chance to explore the lake in depth. The observatory was locked, the marshlands were covered in thigh-tall grass, I was not properly equipped to walk on the few muddy paths, and the day was drawing to its end. This is a destination that requires ample time on its own, along with the help of an expert who can highlight the uniqueness of some of the discoveries.
Ptelea Lake is part of the bigger Ismarida complex and is located next to the seashore. Although I was told it is very special as it represents an ideal place to see flamingos (and I was not disappointed), its location was relatively difficult to find since, surprisingly, most locals did not seem to know the name and could not give me proper directions.
Despite the few challenges, we finally arrived, having less than an hour before the sun would set. In the middle of the water, there were hundreds and hundreds of flamingos (forming three different communities) and, given the limited wildlife we had seen so far because of the summer season and the heat, the abundance of birds found there was a breathtaking surprise. Our small car could not roam on the marshlands surrounding the lake, but the famous Thracian hospitality came to our rescue as a cattleman (who happened to be in the proximity attending to his cows) offered us a drive close to the lake on his 4×4 vehicle.
The heart always quivers at the sight of flamingos’ flocks: the curves of their necks, their elegance, the synchronicity of their movements, their massive number, maybe even their connotation as a symbol of romance and love, everything merges into an experience that is memorable and unique. And then, while I was still standing mesmerized by the sight, they all opened their wings – as if nudged by a soft blow of the wind – and flew a bit further away, their bright fuchsia feathers shimmering under the crimson rays of the setting sun: a fleeting vision, a figment of imagination put on fire, a flaming fantasy floating above the water. The moment lasted for only a few seconds, but, in my mind, it remains as the most striking memory of my brief expedition in Thrace.
Vistonida is the fourth largest lake in Greece and one of the most beautiful wetlands in the country, with both lagoon and lake features of exceptional ecological value. It provides shelter to rare species of endemic fish as well as to one of the rarest birds in the world, the White-Headed duck, while it is a reproduction site of the Common Shelduck. The lake demonstrates a unique feature for Greece: in its north, the waters are fresh coming from the rivers, while in its south and due to the proximity to the sea and the Vistonikos Bay, the waters are brackish.
We crossed Vistonida Lake on our way from Ptelea Lake to Xanthi City. The sun had finally set, a few playful clouds had turned into cotton candy, and the reflections on the water were so unworldly that we quickly pulled the car to the side and jumped on rocks and fences to admire the sight in all its deserved glory and tranquility. Soon, we realized that, by a fortunate stroke of serendipity, we had stopped at the entrance of the Agios Nikolas little church on the islet of Porto Lagos lagoon. It was already past the visiting hours, but a kind monk let us in and guided us around. Seagulls were resting on the pier, the surrounding reflections were blurring the boundaries between dream and reality, and peace found a resting place in our hearts – a harmony that only nature and reverence have the power to instill.
Photo credits: © Konstantina Sakellariou (unless otherwise stated)
(*) Region in North-East Greece defined by the Evros River on the East and Nestos River on the West.