But it’s not what you think.
But it is another diversion before I finally confront my embarrassing and revealing little adventure at the back of Olympus. After staying for a few days in Litochoro and walking in the Papa Rema valley, the Enipeas valley and on the lower slopes of Olympus up as far as the first refuge; after my time at the front of Olympus in other words, I travelled east – but that’s a pretentious phrase – I drove to the east, towards Turkey, towards Bulgaria, and while visiting the two mountains of Falakro and Pangeo I stayed in the town of Drama which lies between the two of them. Drama is a fair sized scruffy town built on a grid. Piecemeal development has left elegant, plain, late 19th century houses oddly squeezed by recent concrete apartment blocks. Bigger, ruined villas are decorated with bold graffiti. Extensive marble quarrying in the surrounding mountains accounts partly for the town’s relative prosperity and liveliness. The chief beauty of the town, which I discovered on my first evening there, the only occasion when I spent any time in the town such was my devotion to the mountains, is a tranquil, winding park which follows a slow, clear river edged with board walks and wooden platforms extending over the stream. People sat with their toes in the water. There are two or three bars. From huge plane trees the chattering of crowds of sparrows accompanied the cries and laughter of children. I thought that would be a good little video but I didn’t want to be seen to be filming children, so I pointed my phone up into the trees.
Any sensible tourist would have spent much longer by that river.
I stayed in an airbnb flat in a substantial, impressively marbled house on the edge of town. Sperchiou, the last street, stopped and became a track with no name, leading to other tracks. New houses and their gardens sat among little fields on the edge of town like opposing pieces in a board game. It wasn’t easy to find. Christos sent me this code:
https:/www.google.com/maps?q=41.1592285,24.1291342&hl=en- GR&gl=gr&shorturl=1 This is the exact location of our house. The street has no name, since it is a private one. Our lot is the very last one on this street and has two similar houses built on it. The gray one is ours. See you soon!
Sorry! I couldn’t do anything with that code! I got to the end of Sperchiou then got lost. Is it one of the little roads at the end?
Can you see a big pink house with a pink and white fence at the end of Sperchiou? At that point where the end of Sperchiou is, you have two options. You can either turn left on the bigger road called Kosti Palama or turn slightly left and immediately right on a smaller one. The second option is the one you need. Move on this road for about 200 meters and then turn right on our street.
(Finally, when that didn’t work – I think I’d moved on and got lost, but whatever communication I had with Christos at that point is missing – he sent me this message:)
Please come to the crossing point of K. Palama and Sperchiou. I will be waiting there in a silver-gray Fiat Bravo.
I was rescued.
At moments like that I feel like the representative of a more primitive, or archaic culture. It’s easy in Greece to think, our roads have fewer potholes than theirs, we have very few modern ruins, our rubbish dumps are less conspicuous, our bureaucracies more efficient, our signs and maps are clearer, but I’m condemned to backwardness and under-development as an IT clown. It seems that in Greece many people have embraced google geography because it works well in a country with misleading road signs and unplanned housing development and inadequate maps. Thank god I can speak and write good English, sometimes it’s the only thing that stops me from going under in the 21st century.
Christos had been the manager of a marble quarry until he left to go into buying and selling it. He explained to me that China, which he has visited about 90 times on business, is both the biggest exporter and importer of marble in the world. This is because there are so many fascinating varieties that not even China is satisfied with its own stone, they covet a particularly desirable white marble from Thrace. (see the marble cliff in stepping aside from Olympus….)
Christos and Eleftheria’s house was quite new and I think they were new to airbnb. He was alarmed when he realised that I was going to do a little cooking, because the marble had not yet been sealed. Even a few drops of coffee can leave a permanent stain on unsealed marble. I hadn’t realised that marble is porous. The floors the stairs the kitchen worktops – I had my own little kitchen – and of course everything in the bathroom, all was white marble. I think I made them terribly anxious, but partly because of this anxiety they invited me downstairs several times to eat with them, and even brought me breakfast upstairs a couple of times, and were kind and interesting. They were both from villages not too far away in the hills. Eleftheria visited her mother every week. They both spoke of ‘my village’. I’ve noticed that before in Greece. Where we might say, the place where I grew up or the village I come from, for them, no matter how long ago they left, it’s always ‘my village.’ There was lots of room in the house, and lots of clean unsealed marble, since their three daughters had all left home. One was in Thessaloniki, one in Vienna, and one in Brighton.
One thing really surprised me. You might remember Jankaea heldreichii, Olympus’s glamorous endemic with the double german name and apparently no greek name. see A day on Olympus. On a few mountains in Thrace and over the border in Bulgaria is another rare plant in the same largely tropical family. Like janmkaea it grows on shady, damp rocks and I was delighted to find just the right kind of dark, wooded ravine in the foothills of Falakro.
What surprised me is that Christos and Eleftheria had never seen or heard of this flower. Maybe I shouldn’t have been. It also seems to lack a vernacular name. Its botanical name is Haberlea rhodopensis. Carl Constantin Haberle was a professor of botany in Budapest in the early 19th century. The internet gives no hint that he might ever have visited Greece or Bulgaria. At least the other part of the name is local: it refers to the Rhodope mountains which straddle the border between Greece and Bulgaria.
I was lucky to visit Falakro at a perfect moment. As with Pangeo (see stepping aside from Olympus….) a road takes you high. Many Greek mountains have dirt roads on which you wouldn’t want to risk a hire car, but if there’s a ski centre there will generally be a decent or half decent road. The term ski-centre is misleading though, if you’re thinking of skiing in the west. There will generally be a big car park and one or two ski-tow things. On Falakro my little red car was the only one in a two acre car park which sits neatly in a bowl at about 2000 metres with gentle slopes going up to the summits at 2200 metres. I was early enough to see the last of the fritillaries lower down and late enough to see the first of the mountain avens high up on the edge of cliffs which drop away to the forested ravines where haberlea grows. And in between were dozens of beautiful flowers in their primetime.
I’ve never seen such variety of flowers in such a small area. and there’s more! I haven’t shown any photos from lower down, for example. I spent two days up on Falakro and probably never went more than a mile from where I’d parked the car. It’s not the most exciting mountain, maybe, though the south ridge has great folding amphitheatres of cliffs. If you enjoy the plants it’s like being in an art gallery – you don’t care that much about the architecture of the gallery as long as the pictures are well displayed. If you don’t like plants, it’s a bit like a tour of an art gallery without any pictures, if you see what I mean. My perfect time was – May 29th and June 1st. there would be other flowers to see earlier and later. If you are more familiar with the islands and the Peloponnese, then northern Greece is like another country. Few of the plants in the slide show grow south of the gulf of Corinth. The dryas – mountain avens – and the gentian – or a very very close relative of it – also grow in Ireland and in the Alps. The orchid is common all over the Alps. Most of them are Balkan specialists, found also in Bulgaria or former Yugoslavia, and some are found further east in Turkey. The erythronium grows on the Alps, in the Pyrenees and in the Massif Central (and in our gardens) but in Greece is only found on Falakro. So the mountain can be seen as the centrepiece of a series of patterns. The traveller meets the new and the familiar, and the familiar can seem new for being unexpected. What are you doing here! I said to the mountain avens. And in the secret folds of the lower mountain the haberlea holds on, and the locals don’t seem to know it. It’s cut off from its distant cousin on Olympus and the rest of the family has moved to the tropics. When I came across the first few flowers in its narrow ravine I was overcome by John Clare’s urge to intervene. (see Garden notes number ten, the itch to intervene, a few lines from John Clare, Adam in Eden and DH Lawrence) Long stems of smothering ivy hung down the rock faces to which it was rooted. They looked like paratroopers abseiling down to attack. So I attacked them. I scrambled up and ripped out some six and seven feet lengths of ivy. A bit further on I came across more and more haberleas until finally one section of rock had hundreds. And I thought well, if it’s survived the last ice age there, and the thousands of years since the ice age, it probably doesn’t need my help. But you never know. Sometimes it seems as if everything needs our help now – that nature can’t survive without help from the very creatures who have damaged it so badly. At least not in its present form.
On coming upon that ravine there was such a sense of entering a different world. Outside it was a hot day. Late May and already a general browning of the heavily grazed vegetation. A dry stream bed with dazzling marble boulders. Then suddenly ivy, hazel, cool deep damp leaf litter – it was as if I’d come home – until I saw the haberlea. I’ll find you one or two more pictures……
here you can see the ivy leaves:
Geranium macrorhizum, familiar in our gardens, also grew here, (and so did Helleborus cyclophyllus, Greece’s only hellebore, but it had finished flowering):
Finally I found the haberlea in such numbers that I stopped worrying:
But I know so little. Maybe there is some reason why the ivy has just recently begun to dominate? Maybe the haberlea is seriously threatened? Who would save it if the locals don’t even know about it? Yes of course my sample of locals is precisely two people….
Take the main road out of Drama going west. Turn off to the right for the village of Pyrgoi where the road ends. Follow a track towards the mountains for about a mile and you come to the ravine. It might be worth skirting a small holding where the dogs are fierce.