We could see nothing for miles, not even a shepherd’s hut. Only mountains and forests. How different from our own crowded island! Here there was space for wildlife to prosper, remote from human contact.
What I loved most were the flowers. I’ll never forget the first few days walk through the Maytime meadows, like wandering through the idyllic pastoral of a John Clare poem. Familiar English wildflowers sparkled in a profusion long lost in our over-farmed and fertilised land: buttercups, cowslips, wild roses and forget-me-nots. They mingled with old friends from the gardening catalogues, set free in their natural habitat: lilies, wild pansies, tulips and orchids from palest yellow to deep maroon.
We passed through different mountain zones, from the high alpine pastures with crocuses and gentians at the edge of the snow melt, to the lower slopes, lush and green as the English countryside, complete with elderflowers and wild roses. As the seasons changed, the wild abandon of early summer was replaced by the cyclamen and crocuses of autumn, and weird fungi bursting up through the earth.
Charismatic megafauna? They were there, too. We found unmistakable bear footprints, heard plenty of tales of bears coming down to the villages, and let our imaginations run riot as to what might be lurking in the woods all around. Once, we lay and shivered in our tents as something big prowled around outside. A bear or a wild boar?
And as for the birds…. I’m not a birdwatcher. I lack the talent and patience to spot and identify fast moving objects. But you couldn’t miss the incessant call of the cuckoo and the tap tap of a woodpecker somewhere nearby, while overhead soared large birds of prey: eagles or griffon vultures. In the North, there were squads of pelicans flying from lake to lake, or fishing near the shore. The call of the owls, perched near our campsite, made the night-times special. And for the first time in my life, I heard nightingales.
Traditional agriculture has been kind to nature. We saw corncockles and cornflowers among the crops, and the forests were being logged selectively, using mules to extract the
timber, rather than clear felled. Yet there are all the usual threats with which British
conservationists are so familiar. New foreign invaders, disrupting local ecosystems, like the escaped mink around Lake Kastoria. New diseases, like the one threatening the plane trees that shade so many village squares. Forest fires, that rage over huge areas of southern Greece. And of course, badly-sited development, including the EU funded white elephants that have devastated some of the most sensitive areas.