A visit to the Greek Rhodopi, including Mounts Falakro and Orvilos, in July 2013 with long-time fellow-traveller Alan Bernard

Wednesday 3 July

Thessaloniki. Our Honda Civic was the 4-door variety. Our passage to the E90 eastwards went remarkably well and the occasional €2.40 tolls were good value for a traffic-free highway. The services at Moustheni provided a snack lunch (tasteless baguette) from where we continued on the 'B' road turning left in Akrovouni following signs for the ski station. Half a dozen stops on this road produced 24 species, the best being a Nettle-tree (Libythea celtis) showing its upperside for Alan's Lumix, and it was good to get into action.

 

Back to the E90 following the signs for Xanthi helped us make good progress but we made a customary muddle of things in the town getting off-track in the delightful old centre before re-finding the Drama road. Drama itself is a large, sprawling agricultural town with little to commend it and we seemed to find our way through the middle of this one too. The Nestos valley now appeared ahead and the turning into the Archontiko accommodation in Stavroupoli located easily enough. By now it was 7pm and our host, Pantelis, awaited us. He was keen to rattle through his 25-minute marketing spiel, maps and all, deaf to my comments that we were only here for butterflies, not kayaks, caves, walks, and museums. But a glass of sipporo - non-chemical ouzo - went some way to making amends. Having dumped our bags in our very pleasant rooms Alan and I strolled into the old town to have dinner at the Steki taverna/restaurant and despite a nondescript meal and a couple of beers felt better for it. 

 

Thursday 4 July

At 8am Pantelis laid-on a lovely breakfast al fresco under the two fir trees but there was far too much variety and quantity! On a lovely sunny morning we walked to the small supermarket just off the town square for lunch - 2 tins of sardines, 2 tomatoes, 2 peaches, 2 x 1½ litres of water and a bunch of bananas, pretty standard fayre. Today we planned to stay local so I made the short drive to the Nestos bridge on the Lekani road. All morning was spent there in good habitat although species and numbers were slow. Before lunch we checked-out the wetter meadows across the river where an Eastern Festoon (Zerynthia cerisy) was the surprise pick. Unimaginatively we ate our lunch sitting in the car in full sun.

 

The afternoon would be spent around Komnina: having passed through the quiet village I parked when the tarmac ran out and we continued up the track spending a good bit of time at a long water trough that attracted Common Glider (Neptis sappho), Southern White Admiral (Limenitis reducta), Silver-washed Fritillaries (Argynnis paphia) including a f.valezina, and several lycaenids. Troughs are generally good value. Where the track met the road we found another hot-spot and were delighted to see, but not to photograph, Chequered Blue (Scolitantides orion) staying there until we'd had enough. Archontiko was reached around 5.30 . Visited Steki again, simply no other show in town. 

 

Friday 5 July

A bit cloudy, but still a very nice day. Mozzies were a nuisance under the trees during breakfast so we took our coffee inside. Shopped for lunch, as yesterday. Away just gone 9am towards Xanthi taking a left turn just through Sminthi and its very agricultural landscape into the Muslim 'Potak' ethnic group area. We continued to Echinos through a still blitzed landscape taking a right turn towards Potamochori but stopped short at the riverside having already gone on too long. Marbled Fritillary (Brenthis daphne) and Sooty Coppers (Lyvaena tityrus) nectared on mint that had managed to escape the overgrazing. Disappointed we returned all the way to Sminthi turning right just before the town in the direction of Oreo. A picnic hut on an exposed windy hairpin became our lunch venue.  Now that we were in better habitat we stopped frequently and butterflying was good beyond Oreo compensating somewhat for the poor morning.  We followed the road as far as we could, until the asphalt ran out, then retraced the route all the way back to Archontiko, taking about an hour, arriving at 6pm. Black clouds were building, thunder and lightning threatening but only a few drops of rain fell. Stella, Pantelis' wife, had cooked some small river fish with aubergines for us as a snack treat (though they were rather dry and fiddly) helped down with a welcome Amstel. Once again headed for Steki, first trying the ouzo under the huge plane tree in the central oval. Our meals were lighter than last night's. 

 

Saturday 6 July

 An overcast, still morning, but dry. Pantelis served up a couple of excellent omelettes under the fir trees, devoid of mozzies today. Our destination today was to be the Nestos dam north of Paranesti, a sleepy bit of ribbon development where we stopped to buy lunch necessitating visits to three different shops. The locals were uncommunicative and a bit dour on this extremely quiet Saturday morning.

 

I took the road north towards Thermia making the first stop just beyond the barrage at, we think, one of Tristan Lafranchi's recommended spots. The forest track produced a Woodland? Grayling (Hipparchia fagi), Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides poalirius) and Southern White Admiral but the best surprise came from a family of wild boar, mum and kids, who quietly appeared on the scene close to us - she was clearly used to taking tit-bits from picnickers. The dry sandy habitat supported a forest of green trees extending to the skyline but butterflies were 'thin'. We pushed on, stopping now and then, continuing to find numbers low. Beyond the backwoods hamlet of Thermia the tarmac stops but the gravelled track was drive-able. As we lunched a few drops of rain fell. Our last stop turned out to be dramatic as a Poplar Admiral (Limenitis populi) circled overhead, very large and unmistakable but offering no chance of a photo. Alan tracked down a Heath Fritillary (Melitaea athalia), another singleton on the day.

 

Under generally overcast skies we retraced our route down the valley stopping to inspect a flowery bank during a sunny spell and were pleased to get some shots of a Chequered Blue, although the specimen wasn't in particularly good nick. Back on the main road we crossed the railway line to find some beer at Neochori and decided to drink it under a huge spreading tree where about 20 local men, mostly old and occasionally cantankerous, sat at half a dozen tables playing cards and backgammon. A service taking place at the nearby church was being broadcast through speakers but the men under the tree seemed oblivious to it.

 

Archontiko Guest House was reached around 7pm and the sequence of day-list, shower, and at 8.30 off to Steki again, fell neatly into place. The menu had a couple of traditional items this evening and we each chose the excellent stuffed marrow. This had been a good evening in an eventually busy restaurant delaying 'lights out' until midnight.

 

Sunday 7 July

As Pantelis would not be around in the morning we agreed to settle our bill this morning before he heads south to the coast to join Stella and their two daughters at the beach. Given the fantastic hospitality we'd enjoyed we decided to slip him an extra €50 - in return he equipped us with two cheesy rolls and two slices of cake for lunch! Today Al would drive west for a few kilometres before turning right towards Livaditis. The vegetation alongside this road is excellent and we soon made our first stop picking up Pearly Heath (Coenonympha arcania), Purple-shot Copper (Lycaena alciphron), Green-underside Blue (Glaucopsyche alexis) and Long-tailed Blues (Lampides boeticus), Eastern Bath White (Pontia edusa) etc but sweat-type flies made a real nuisance of themselves. We continued uphill through the pines spotting our firs erebias not too far from the Environmental Centre atop the hill where we parked. It was windy here but the vegetation was unusual - damp ground beneath pine and mixed deciduous forest carrying a fairly rich plant cover. Strolling down the road to the bend where we'd seen the erebias proved fruitful Arran Brown (Erebia ligea) and Scotch Argus (Erebia aethiops) were here along with Olive Skipper (Pyrgus serratulae) and Large Grizzled Skippers (Pyrgus alveus). A lovely spot.

 

Lunch at the much signposted 'waterfall' seemed like a good idea but the track leading to it was far too rough for the car so we pulled into the shade of a beech forest and made do with that. After lunch we retraced our route diverting to follow the road loop towards the virgin forest World Heritage Site and stopped soon after. Alan saw another Nettle-tree in addition to many Queen of Spain Fritillaries (Issoria lathonia) and further along a woodland track Poplar Admiral #2 circled overhead, much closer than previously - but still no chance of a photo. A Dark-green Fritillary (Argynnis aglaja) was netted for id'ing. The last stop of the day was at our bend near Komnina and a visit to the trough was essential - three Common Gliders, a Twin-spot Fritillary (Brenthis hecate) and Silver-washed Fritillary form valezina plus Southern White Admirals and a few blues appeared to be regulars. The end of the road at Livera proved disappointing as there were no stopping places and the land had been heavily grazed. At least we had nice panoramic views on the descent! We replenished our Amstels and nuts in Komnina and got back to the Guest House around 7pm. Made our final visit to Steki and enjoyed another good traditional meal.

 

Monday 8 July

A transit day to destination no 2, Volakas at the foot of Falakro. A young mum and her little boy arrived to prepare breakfast as Pantelis was away with his family. I drove off at 9am returning on the fast road (west side) up to the Nestos dam hoping to go over the top to Sidhironera. But the 'road' was undriveable declared as 50:50 by two guys at the dam and as 'dangerous' for us by another security worker who stopped us to note our number plate. So there was no option but to return to the main road to Drama, continuing through the middle of this big sprawling industrial town following the signs for Bulgaria. We traversed a wide, hot plain with mountains surrounding it as the road veered north at Prosotsani. Not long afterwards our junction to Volakas was reached and now that a marked improvement in habitat occurred we pulled in at the roadside at the first opportunity. In the dry stream/drainage channel running parallel to the road through paliuris and ilex scrub we were surprised to find a strong colony of Silver-washed Fritillaries and also Little Tiger Blues (Tarucus balkanicus) , buggers to track as they flew across gravelly backgrounds. Anomalous Blues (Polyommatus admetus) were also here, equally tricky.

 

The centre of Volakas on a hot weekday lunchtime was a pretty deserted place but we managed to find some food at the only half-decent looking hotel on the northern edge of the town square and, to be fair, the staff jumped into animated action to rustle something up for us, a tomato salad with spiced sausages. I was quite taken by the show of hospitality conducted in the absence of any English (except ours). The Aloni Hotel lay on the southern edge of town and took some finding as the Slav translated name bore no resemblance to its name outside! But what a lovely place! Struck lucky for a second time. By now it was 3pm so we dumped our bags and headed straight out down the road going north towards Mikroklisoura. After some 10km we stopped at a right hairpin where a small stream ran under the road. An amazing number of blues were puddling and flying along with Great-banded Grayling (Brintesia circe), Balkan Grayling (Hipparchia senthes), and Eastern Rock? Graylings (Hipparchia syriaca), a solitary Lesser Fiery Copper (Lycaena thersamon), a sole High Brown Fritillary (Argynnis adippe) nectaring on thistles, and Alan reckoned he saw another Poplar Admiral circling a willow. 

 

Downstairs and outside under our hotel verandah we ordered our beers and set about the day list but were interrupted by one of the hotel staff (turned out to be the cousin of the owner) who insisted on showing us his rather poor photo albums with great enthusiasm. We thought he had learning difficulties but was a cheerful chap. To my surprise I recognised a member of the Spatia Wildlife group and surprised 'Dave the Dog' when calling him by this tag. (We'd met in Sikkim and Assam in April). Alan and I decided to leave the choice of food to the kitchen staff requesting traditional dishes, and we weren't disappointed, but I pretended to have eaten my large hot chilli but hid most of it in my napkin. A bottle of locally produced red wine accompanied the feast. Dave joined us after his group had finished their meal and we had a good natter - he's a good bloke and hopefully our paths will cross again sometime. Our friend showed off some more of his albums with plenty of hand gestures and facial expressions but he didn't prevent us from reaching our rooms by 10.30, nice and early for a change. This had been a very good evening.

 

Tuesday 9 July

A huge breakfast at 8am - such variety and volume, enough for 6 people at least! Today we would be staying local, up Mount Falakro, with high expectations on this iconic and famous mountain. Lunch would be a partial repeat off breakfast as we took a few items with us from the table wrapped in foil. Got away just after 9am in sunny weather despite some rain in the night. The start of the ski station road was quickly reached and our first stop was at a picnic area surrounded by large pollarded beech trees. The day was still cool and quite breezy but Chapman's Blue (Polyommatus thersites) and Marbled White (Melanargia galathea) were about, as well as a cowering cow dog which appeared hoping for food. Stop #2 was made on a windy bend at a clearing towards the top of the tree-line and was very quiet at first. Many Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui) were here and also Oriental Meadow Browns (Hyponephele lupina) - you can tell how quiet it was when we were reduced to checking out Meadow Browns (Maniola jurtina)! Stop #3 had even more Painted Ladies and my visit to a trough down the hillside revealed even more and nothing else. The ski station is a desolate, semi-derelict place and grazed to hell by cattle and horses. Our tramp northwards failed to produce a single butterfly for a considerable time not helped by the fact that we had difficulty locating the track to the SE as mentioned by Tristan. The view to the north over the Nestos ribbon lakes was superb. Alan is sure he set up a Camberwell Beauty (Nymphalis antiopa) from the track given the size and colouration of the insect and as the grazing impact became less so the butterflies began to appear. Our first Small Tortoiseshells (Aglais urticae) showed as did Phalakron Blues (Polyommatus andronicus) but a small lush gully to the left of the track caught our eye and quickly added Eastern Large Heath (Coenonympha rhodopensis), Woodland Ringlet (Erebia medusa) and Heath Fritillary (Melitaea athalia) to the tally. We continued this clockwise loop back to the car and lunched inside the car to escape the flies with the aircon blowing. The sun had gone now and clouds were building all around.

 

However, the south-ish facing slope below the ski centre looked enticing and in patchy sun we spent the rest of the afternoon there mostly in superb gully habitat. Species found included Mountain Alcon (Phengaris ssp.rebeli), Mazarine (Cyaniris semiargus), Turquoise (Polyommatus dorylas), Adonis (Polyommatus bellargus), Phalakron, and Osiris Blues (Cupido osiris) plus Geranium Argus (Aricia eumedon) and Dark Green Fritilaries. But the clouds hadn't gone away and by mid-afternoon distant thunder was heard. The rain could then be seen making its way steadily towards us so around 4.30 we clambered up the steep slope and made our way back to the car. A few spots of rain fell, but not much. Near the bottom of the descent we investigated a clump of dwarf elder at a sharp bend and found four Silver-washed Fritillaries on it. Given the relatively early hour we detoured to inspect the marble quarry gouging the hillside above Volakas - interesting geologically to see the regular block formations - and reached the hotel by 5pm. Under the verandah we completed our list accompanied by a Fix beer (new brand) and a couple of hours later went to shower etc before dinner at 8.

 

Today had failed to live up to its billing overall, but we didn't really mind. There's always tomorrow!

 

Wednesday 10 July

Panagonis, abbreviated to Panos, offered us a cool box to put our breakfast cum picnic in, much appreciated. Today we headed north stopping at 'our' bend before Mikroklisoura where there was much activity - Great-banded Graylings, a Dryad (Minois dryad), Marbled Fritillary (Brenthis daphne), several blues, and a Common Glider. Al saw a Large Copper (Lycaena dispar) down by the stream but was unable to get a photo. Our journey reached the junction where we turned right towards Potami crossing the reservoir bridge. On the other side we were in a land of sunflowers and corn, very agricultural. This soon gave way to more grazed shrubland and a couple of lanes were explored without much success. So we continued north heading for Micromillia and found a track leading off on our right almost parallel to the road. In lovely habitat we came across Lulworth Skipper (Thymelicus acteon), Scarce Swallowtail and an evasive Anomalous Blue. Thunder rumbled distantly. Lunch was taken down another track, this time to the left, with the car in the shade of a cliff. Sandy Grizzled Skippers (Pyrgus cinarae) took salts on the track and another Anomalous Blue gave us the run around. Then the rain came, quickly turning into a very heavy - almost tropical - thunderstorm and soon our track became a watercourse. Time to get back onto the tarmac. Al still had a Sandy Grizzled Skipper in a pillbox and for a while we drove aimlessly on dipped headlights towards Micromillia in very poor visibility and with the rain noisy inside the car. As we were going nowhere I did a u-turn and we returned to our most recent track and waited for the rain to stop.

 

After about an hour and a half the rain ceased and Skipper was released. Interestingly, a number of butterflies were braving the light drizzle including a Great Sooty Satyr (Satyrus ferula) with wings wide open, Gatekeepers (Pyronia tithonus), a Marbled White form leucomelas, and some blues. On the way back we inspected Mikroklisoura, a small farmy hamlet tumbling down a hillside, but nothing special, and soon 'our' bend received its third visit. A freshly emerged Chalkhill Blue (Lysandra coridon) was found resting on a grass stem and when it flew we noticed that it was very pale and concluded that it must be a Macedonian Chalk-hill Blue (Lysandra philippi) - on release from a pill-box it flew high to the top of a large willow. A few drops of rain kept us fresh!

 

Panos had banged on about taking us out in his 4x4 and we thought this would happen at 6pm today so we got back in time. Fortunately he/we seemed to have got the day wrong so we were pleased about the confusion. Our list session assisted by Fix beer and crisps took about 90 minutes what with frequent referrals to the books. It emerged that Maria's husband works/lives in Drama and that Panos is her brother-in-law; Costa is the cousin - a proper family business. Tonight Panos had prepared an excellent fish chowder followed by a couple of grilled sea fish, peaches and melon, all washed down with a bottle of the local white. 

 

Thursday 11 July

Alan took the wheel with Mount Orvilos the target today. We had some difficulty in Kato Nevrokopi due to the absence of any relevant road signs but we duly arrived at the dam beyond Katafyto as suggested by Tristan. The habitat here looked very different to Falakro being white sand yet somehow supporting a rich and varied range of plants. In hot sun we began a steady up-slope stroll but after half-an-hour, around 11am, the sun was lost behind clouds. Butterflies included a Cardinal (Argynnis pandora), Anomalous and Higgin's Anomalous Blues (Polyommatus nephohiptamenos), many Marbled Whites and Great-banded Graylings. The landscape became lunar with deep rainwater channels cut into the white quartz outwash from the granite mountain: in vain we searched for Eastern Greenish Black-tip (Euchloe penia) concluding that it's first brood had been and gone. Low cloud now sat atop the mountain but didn't deter us from continuing up the track for another km or so. Weaver's Fritillary (Boloria dia), Sandy Grizzled Skipper, and a Ripart's Anomalous Blue (Polyommatus ripartii) boosted the day's tally but the first drops of rain and growing hunger told us that it was time to head back to the car.

 

We timed it well reaching the car at 2.30 just as a short shower started, sitting in the car with doors open to eat our lunch. Afterwards we wandered around the base of the dam where I found an exquisite female Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus) splashed with iridescent blues on all four wings. A circuit of the lake followed, more superb habitat, which must harbour Freyer's Purple Emperor (Apatura metis), Poplar Admiral etc, but neither put in an appearance for us. In heavy rain we left around 4.30 having decided to take the northerly route from Kato Nevrokopi via Achladia to Mikroklissoura to complete the loop. This looks like another road full of promise and we made a couple of stops. But it was getting late and the sun had gone and a final stop across from the church at Livadaki (nice pair of mating Small Heaths (Coenonympha pamphilus)) preceded our arrival at the hotel around 7pm. The standard routine ensued and dinner was superb - wild boar, another bottle of red - and was finished by 10pm. This had been the best species day so far despite the generally poor weather.

 

Friday 12 July

A bright but overcast start to the day. The plan was to stay fairly local today and explore the track from Volakas to Pyrgi lying to the south of Falakro. We set off around 9am with the cool box taking the ski station road for a short way before turning right by a small chapel down a gravel track. We soon made the first of several stops in superb mixed woodland picking up a mint male Escher's Blue (Polyommatus escheri), Silver-washed Fritillaries and many Marbled Whites. As the road emerged from the woods into open hillsides several stops were made, often at bends in the road where streams had run down and where tongues of woodland followed the gullies. Here we found Dil's Grayling (Pseudochazara orestes), Balkan Marbled White (Melanargia larissa) - both lone specimens, Hermit (Chazara briseis) and a very pale female Great Sooty Satyr, a surprising haul given this exposed habitat. Southern white Admirals joined Silver-washed on the thistles where these tongues crossed the track. A bit lower down Alan caught a Mountain Small White (Pieris ergane), pristine and with a butter-yellow hindwing underside. Sadly, it made a vertical take-off upon release from its pot! Ripart's Anomalous Blue was also here, and photographed this time.

 

We had arrived just above Pyrgi and lunched at the roadside after which we pushed on through the quiet village and parked by the church. The footpath that ran on up the valley was chosen - another Tristan recommendation - and as the sun had now gone butterfly activity had also diminished, but a pair of in-cop Chapman's Blues and Wall Browns (Lasiommata megera) created a sense of siesta. Later, an Anomalous Blue, tricky to photograph as usual, turned out to be a Grecian Anomalous Blue (Polyommatus araoniensis) thereby completing the set of four. Our journey continued down the wide valley, wooded to the east, but the habitat didn't induce a further stop until we had by-passed Petroussa and even Volakas and reached 'our' bend near Mikroklissoura on by now wet roads. Alan saw an Eastern Short-tailed Blue (Cupido decoloratus) amongst other puddlers down by the stream, including Lang's Short-tailed (Leptotes pirithous), Meleager's (Polyommatis daphnis), Chapman's and Silver-studded Blues (Plebejus argus)). Soon everything had taken shelter so we departed in a stiff shower most of the way back to the hotel, delayed only by the usual palava of pushing our way through a large herd of cows.

 

Back by 5pm we sat on our balcony to do the day list, with a beer as usual, as a thunderstorm continued to build, now obscuring the mountains completely, followed by a violent downpour accompanied by ferocious cold winds forcing us inside my room! My list was plucked from the table and stuck on the balustrade - fortunately I was able to grab it, soaking wet, before it disappeared. Oh for a proper English summer! The storm soon passed through though. Dinner was a tad disappointing as the staff were entertaining some friends and forgot about our meat dish until reminded - shame. 

Saturday 13 July

Cloudless sky, just as forecast, for our final full day with a trip up Falakro planned, and hopes were high. But at the ski station we were met by low swirling cloud and hardly any sun. The hillside to the north was in sun so we set-off to pay it a visit despite it being heavily grazed. A tired Safflower Skipper (Pyrgus carthami) was identified and a solitary Clouded Apollo (Parnassius mnemosyne) struggled through. We think we saw Phalakron Blues too. Our walk continued roughly southwards following the ridge so that we'd intersect with the 'SE' path from Tuesday. Low cloud accompanied us all the way. A moment of excitement occurred when I thought I'd found an Almond-eyed Ringlet (Erebia alberganus) but it turned out to be a Woodland Ringlet (Erebia medusa) instead. A couple of Large Ringlets (Erebia euryale) were pursued, both choosing to rest on the top of dwarf junipers. The lush gully enjoyed on Tuesday was now being enjoyed by cattle adding further gloom to a poor morning. At 1pm we turned back to find the car and lunch. This morning I had not worn my hat nor needed any water - kind of sums things up.

 

We lunched at the southern end of the loop in cool, grey weather and whilst Alan disappeared to go plant hunting I stayed in the car reviewing my photos. On the descent we stopped at the sharp left-hand hairpin, still in open country, and on a lovely south-facing slope immediately found ourselves amongst butterflies. Dusky Meadow Brown (Hyponephele lycaon) and Tufted Marbled Skipper (Carcharodus flocciferus) were photographed, and several small frits succeeded in evading capture and mugshots. As the pines came into view we stopped again and discovered Great Sooty Satyr, Turquiose Blue (a female behaving like a male - perching on a stem then dashing off to chase anything that came past) and Great Banded Graylings. On my way back to the car down the steep grassy slope my left leg shot out from underneath me as my foot slipped on pine cones, like ball bearings. Painful initially, the soreness soon eased. A final stop at the dwarf elder bend had its usual 5 or 6 Silver-washed Frilillaries plus 2 f.valezina, a Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria) and a pair of Large Whites (Pieris brassicae).

 

As we had been asked to pay the hotel in cash we had to drive south to Prosotsani to find an ATM. Down on the plain the temperature was oven-like - even at 6pm the chemist shop in the town square was showing 36°. The town felt desperate, being quiet, sad, depressed - a taste of the real Greece we suspected. The first ATM was out of order but a local lad helpfully directed us to another. On the shady side of the square we had an Amstel whilst some of the town's old boys played their various games, occasionally shouting as if WW3 was about to erupt. 

 

Sunday 14 July

Off at 7.30 for Drama, as advised, to pick-up the signs for Thessaloniki for our 12 noon departure back home. 

 

Another good trip with well in excess of 110 species.