Zagori is unusual in many ways, but none more so than its flora. In fact, the Vikos Gorge – which splits Zagori in two and is one of the highlights of the Slow Cyclist trip – is home to several species of flower found nowhere else in the world. The exceptional flora is down to the region’s unusual geology (the Vikos Gorge is, by some measures, the deepest in the world), abundant water and favourable climate.
Even those of us with a casual interest in botany can find excitement in Zagorian wildflowers. Almost any time of year can throw up unusual specimens: I have found ‘Queen Olga’s snowdrop’ in the woods near the village of Elafotopos in February, passing many flowering hellebores on the way. In late September the striking, yellow, crocus-like sternbergia lutea (winter daffodil) springs up along paths throughout the region: locals call it diochna (‘send-away’) because it flowers at the time when Zagorians traditionally left to work abroad. We have often seen it on Slow Cyclist trips, perched on the edge of the Vikos Gorge. At the same time of year, the woods of Zagori are carpeted with pink and purple cyclamen, and sprawling autumn crocus. These yellow and violet flowers lend a fairy-tale charm to our walks on still, misty autumn mornings through mossy woods.
For those who want to see the region in full bloom, however, late spring is the time to go. From May through to early July, the hillsides are painted with a palette of colour that changes literally from week to week: from poppies, daisies, dianthus, narcissus, star of Bethlehem and bell flowers to phlomis, purple-flowering sage, asphodel and acanthus, the scent and sight of the Zagorian meadows in spring is heady and mesmerising. The most impressive display is found on a walk near the village of Vradeto (the highest village in Zagori, at 1350m.): in late May and early June, the high pastures are covered with legions of elder-flowered and green-winged orchids. It is a rare delight to see so many of these beautiful flowers at once. Other orchids, such as the pyramidal orchid and bee orchid, are also a common sight at this season. The sheer abundance is staggering.
My favourite flower sighting, however, took place on the path to the ‘Beloi’ viewpoint of the Vikos Gorge: it was late April and I had stopped by the path to wait for my cohort of Slow Cyclists to gather. Looking down briefly at my feet, I noticed that I had narrowly avoided treading on the delicate, striped, camouflaged umbrella of a fritillary. A little research revealed that its scientific name was Fritillaria Thessala ssp. Ionica (quite a mouthful): an extremely rare fritillary endemic to northern Greece. We were all thrilled to see this fragile, unknown and untouched gem, clinging to a patch of grass on the edge of the Vikos Gorge: it seemed to represent the whole of Zagori to us.
Joshua Barley is an Athens-based musician, translator and Slow Cyclist guide. His latest book translations, Greek Folk Songs, was published by Aiora Press in 2022.