NEWS

One of Greece’s greatest river systems

It’s unusual to see a brown bear in the Nestos valley, according to our guide Orestis, who commented on our luck in seeing one. Apparently, some people spend half their lives walking through the forest before spotting one. In the magical Fraktos Forest of central Rhodope, the bear appeared with its two cubs somewhere between the first and second waterfall on the Achladorema Stream. Throughout the labyrinth of streams that feed the Nestos, anything is possible. The Achladorema joins up with the Farasino and the Diavolorema streams shortly before it flows into the Nestos, which should be seen as a system rather than in isolation, according to Panayiotis Economidis, a biology professor from Thessaloniki who studied the Nestos’s riverine fauna back in 1974 and who has every reason to be annoyed at people’s ignorance of the river. «That’s the only way to understand it,» he said. At the observation point, visitors can gaze at the river to their heart’s content. Seven successive bends in the river make almost 180 degree turns. These are the famous Nestos Narrows (Stena) – 18 km long and covering an area of 2,380 ha, from Stavroupoli to Toxotes. Perhaps this is the heart of the Greek section of the Nestos. There is no road access, fortunately. Everything goes at nature’s pace. It is a refuge for otters, jackals and wildcats. Birds of prey wheel about its higher reaches. In Stavroupoli, visitors take off in canoes, others opt for horseback rides along the riverbanks. The hardier among them start from Toxotes for a hike along the stone path, stopping for breaks at one of the benches along the way. A train passes at intervals. Along the route, a shelter scattered with plastic bags strikes a jarring note among so much beauty. «The Narrows are classified as an aesthetic forest, that is, a protected area, just like national parks,» said the Kavala Chief Forester Ioannis Kapetan-Yiannis, who guides people along the track. «The Nestos is life here,» said Androniki, 73, one of the few residents of Aghios Cosmas, a settlement near Toxotes, who spoke to us while washing beans. «We don’t have much of a water supply,» she added, even though the Nestos flows quite close to their homes. At the nearby Birds of Prey Observatory, part of the Narrows is visible. With a bit of luck and some powerful binoculars, rare fauna can be seen. Alongside is a fenced-in feeding area for birds, particularly the vultures. The great forest alongside the banks is full of surprises. The path alongside the river is fairly accessible, apart from the occasional tree or branch that has fallen across it. Poplars of a variety that is indigenous to the area line the path. «We have a pair of eagles that we keep a close eye on,» said Kapetan-Yiannis. «People think that when we say the Nestos Delta we mean only the mouth of the river, but that isn’t the case. It includes a much broader area that also includes the forests along the riverbank that form a natural barrier protecting it.» To enter the area, a Forestry Service permit is required. No cars are allowed. Just inside the forest, a swarm of mosquitoes appears. Fallen tree trunks are an obstacle – branches need to be pushed aside to open a path. The ground shows traces of wild boars. An untouched, natural environment. Vladimiros and Eduardos have come down to the river to fish. Standing on the bridge at the Papades settlement (in Sidironero, Drama prefecture) the river water is so still one can almost see the mountains reflected in it. The dirt road leading to the Thisavros hydroelectric dam is steep. For Orestes, it is child’s play, guiding his jeep among the rocks and telling stories about the Pomak villages. Near the dam there is a sign put up by the Public Power Corporation, which manages the lake waters, warning people to keep away from its banks. «The dams turned part of the river into a lake system,» explained ichthyologist and researcher Manos Koutrakis, «so some species benefited and have increased their populations. However,ome others that migrate have suffered, as they could not reach their breeding grounds.» Near the dam, the village of Paranesti lies at the junction with the Arkoudorema, one of the Nestos’s most important tributaries. «The Nestos on its own would be nothing without its tributaries,» said Koutrakis. «They are its supply lines, particularly the Arkoudorema, which is the heart of the Nestos below the dams.» The Nestos actually rises north of the border with Bulgaria and descends into two waterfalls on its southward course. The Arkoudorema winds through gorges, its clear water flowing over smooth pebbles of all sizes. The vegetation is multicolored. An arched stone bridge crosses the stream not far from a picturesque chapel. A Drama forestry service sign points the way to the Lepida waterfall, through 700 meters of thick vegetation. From the Narrows to the Delta, from Sidironero to Paranesti, and from the most distant waterfall to the last tributary, the Nestos River retains its sense of mystery. This article first appeared in the July 22 edition of K, Kathimerini’s Sunday supplement.