CULTURE

Beat the heat in the high country

Northern Greece’s landscape of mountains and lakes is a far cry from the hot, dry south. Nature lovers looking for a cooler change before leaving Greece might enjoy exploring some of the beauties of the regions of Macedonia and Thrace. Possibilities for exploring, relaxing and sightseeing in a natural environment include the Dadia Forest Reserve and wetland on the Evros River delta in Thrace or the Arcturos bear and wolf sanctuaries, and the nearby traditionally restored village of Nymphaio in a famous winegrowing area of Macedonia. Further north are the Prespes Lakes on the borders with Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), countries that have joined with Greece in a program to protect the lakes habitat. Dadia Forest Reserve The Ecotourist Center of Dadia is an ideal base to explore the Forest Reserve of Dadia, one of the last refuges for predatory birds in Europe. Native stands of pine forest cover the greatest part of the reserve, the habitat of 36 of 38 Europe’s predatory bird species. Feeding stations and observation posts have become the main attractions as it is one of the few places where protected species can be observed in the wild. Visitors keep to well-marked footpaths through the forest so as not to disturb wildlife or fragile plant habitats. A WWF International campaign begun in 1979 to save Greece’s predatory birds led to the proclamation of a Special Protection Area in 1980, which included a ban on logging, one of the main economic activities there. Ecotourism was suggested as an economic alternative. The center, providing comfortable accommodation, is run by the municipality of Dadia (tel 25540.322663) and built in the local architectural style. Facilities include a restaurant, coffee shop, an Information/Conference Center managed by the WWF and a gift shop. It is the best example of successful integration of tourism and conservation in Greece as proceeds support both the local community and the conservation of the Dadia Forest Reserve, and has come to serve as an example of what ecotourism means. There are special activities for children and a bicycle rental service, as well as detailed maps of all forest paths. Getting there: Nearest airport: Alexandroupolis (50km). Nearest train and bus terminus: Soufli (15km). There is a bus service from Soufli to Dadia three times a day. Arcturos Center In Florina, in the northwest of the country, is the Arcturos Environmental Center that includes a brown bear sanctuary, wolf sanctuary and information center. A Greek non-governmental organization, it is supported by funds from the European Union, government agencies, the World Wide Fund for Nature-Greece and the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature (tel 2310.554623/553932). The bears in the sanctuary are not wild bears but former «dancing bears» abandoned or confiscated when the practice was banned in 1969. These bears had been taught to «dance» by being forced to step on hot coals while their masters played the tambourine. Owners would sometimes break the animals’ teeth to prevent biting. Set in a famous winegrowing area, the bear sanctuary is near Nymphaio, the ancestral village of the Boutaris family, makers of some of Greece’s finest wines and the founders of La Moara, one of the best small hotels in Greece, just outside Nymphaio. In addition to its luxurious rooms and facilities, it has a stable of horses for visitors to explore the surrounding countryside. Winemaker Yiannis Boutaris was instrumental in helping set up the sanctuary and reviving Nymphaio as a charming historic town. In 1992, Arcturos was formed as a non-profit organization and the following year began programs to protect the brown bear, eventually attracting EU and private sector support, as well as funds from the WWF. The work entails protecting and managing the area’s natural environment and wildlife. The center also leads Balkan initiatives to monitor and protect the region’s bear population. In the nearby town of Aetos, there is a veterinary station and an innovative visitors center. Arcturos’s «sponsor a bear» program and educational programs have helped raise awareness of the problem. The sanctuary and center attract about 30,000-35,000 visitors per year. Arcturos also works with farming organizations to offer local farmers and beekeepers support and compensation for damage to their livelihoods by wild bears. In 1998, Arcturos began a similar program aimed at protecting the region’s wolves and has established a separate wolf sanctuary nearby. Getting there: Nearest airport: Kastoria. Nearest bus termini: Kozani, Florina, Kastoria (about equal distances away). There is a bus to the Aetos sanctuary every three or four hours from the village of Amyntaio. Prespes Lakes Great Prespa (the largest lake in the Balkans, divided between Greece, FYROM and Albania) has been designated a wetland of international significance for its flora and fauna, particularly pelicans, which breed in reedbeds around the lakes, and is protected by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. Little Prespa is almost wholly in Greece, with a small corner in Albania. The Society for the Protection of Prespa has been working successfully to develop ecotourism by promoting local agriculture and architecture, the lakes, and surrounding wetlands with their rich bird life. Boatmen ferry visitors out to visit sights on the lakeshore. A local women’s cooperative (tel 23850.51452) provides accommodation in traditional, renovated guesthouses in the village of Aghios Germanos (Aghios Germanos Traditional Hotel, Prespes, tel 23850.51397). Getting there: Nearest airport: Kastoria (50km). Nearest train station: Florina (50km). Buses from Florina every Monday, Wednesday, Friday.