Walking on Zakythos, where it’s easy to encounter wildlife

wildflife in zante

My adopted island is unique in the entire Mediterranean because it contains important habitats for many endangered, endemic and charismatic species that are actually quite easy to see when you are out walking on Zakynthos (Zante). Over the years, I’ve built up a list of ‘hotspots’, where there is a high chance of encountering certain reptiles, birds, mammals, amphibians and fishes. These feature in my book Zakynthos, A Complete Guide with Walks.

I hope to share them with you in a series of articles, beginning with the threatened loggerhead sea turtle (Latin: Caretta caretta), an animal I’ve been researching and protecting for 20 years. You can of course view them on organised boat trips endorsed by the National Marine Park of Zakynthos. But nothing beats coming upon a metre-long sea turtle in its natural habitat!

First, try the Hipsolithos Rock at Kalamaki (Walk 6), particularly when the sea is clear and there is a gentle south wind. Here, as well as the fantastic reef, you have a good chance of seeing turtles swimming and basking in the waters below.

For a closer encounter, visit Agios Sostis Port (Walk 8), where “Sotiris”, one of several year-round resident male loggerheads (identifiable by their very long tails), regularly comes in, particularly when the fishermen return to port at about eight in the morning.

Or head down to one of the nesting beaches – especially any stretch of beach from Vrondonero to Agios Sostis Port (Walks 6 to 8) between 5 and 7 in the evening. Keep within 5 metres of the sea, so as not to disturb any nests, and just watch the surface of the sea. Turtles breathe more frequently at this time of day, so you should see many heads popping up above the water to breathe!

If you get up early enough after the beaches have opened to the public (about 7am), you may spot the tracks of adult females (May to August) or baby turtles (“hatchlings”, July to October) on the six key nesting beaches in Laganas Bay described in Walks 1-4 and 6-7.

If you encounter a sea turtle on the beach, please remain at least 10 metres away to allow it to complete nesting and/or return to the sea undisturbed. If you happen to meet one while swimming, keep a good distance away. The female turtles rest in the nearshore waters of Laganas Bay to prepare their eggs for laying. This final stage of the development process requires about 17 days between each clutch of 120 eggs, with females laying around 3 clutches. So any disturbance causing the turtle to move wastes energy required for egg development. As only 1 in every 1000 hatchlings survive, the optimal development of every egg is essential!

Walking in Sorrento, Amalfi and Capri – Landslips

sorrento amalfi capri landslide

Last month on my latest visit to La Costiera Divina amongst other things to check out were news of two landslips affecting walks in Landscapes of Sorrento, Amalfi and Capri. Occasionally in winter quite horrendous storms can hit, often causing very localised flash flooding. Reports of damage to paths filter out to me from various sources.

Landslip One had reportedly happened on path Segment 36, on the steps down into the gorge of Furore, the so-called Path of the Mad Bats. On arrival in Amalfi I organised with friends to check this out, but we were astonished to go down perfectly normally with nary a sign of loose rocks or bits nibbled out of the side of the path. False alarm.

Much more serious were reports of a large landslip near the start of Segment 50 near Pantano.  A hefty length of road had fallen away, supposedly barring all access. It seems the usual local practice of finding a way to hop round would not work, so a proper detour was needed.

Taking the local footpath map (issued free at local tourist offices  — a real snip) I alighted from the Amalfi bus and fiddled my way on minor paths to the site of the rockfall, here to be gobsmacked by sight of its extent (see photo) and to be surprised to meet two bewildered walkers wondering how they could get across.

I had already worked out from the map a detour that should work, but which needed checking on the ground. Before doing this myself I talked the detour through with our baffled friends who even took a picture of the map on their iPad.

After looking at something else, I followed them up to the hamlet of Li Simoni and checked out the routes from there round the landslip. It transpired that these followed fine narrow paved tracks. Details noted, these changes were posted in the online update as soon as I returned home.  Job done.

Back To Collioure

Collioure

Photo: Luc Viatour/www.lucnix.be

We’ve always loved the area where the Pyrenees come down to the Mediterranean. Not only do you get the best of both environments but there’s a very special quality to the light – an intensity you get in few other places (especially after the famous north wind known as the tramuntana has blown through). We’ve particularly liked Collioure, a seaside village featured in Walk 3 of our Landscapes Of The Pyrenees. So when we had the chance to buy a studio in Collioure we decided to go for it. It’s an idyllic spot to be based for any kind of holiday because the area has just about anything you could want.

From our studio we’ve been discovering some great hiking. Of course we’ve retraced the walk we feature in the book, which climbs from Collioure to the old hermitage of Notre-Dame-de-Consolation and the 13th century Tour Madeloc before descending to Banyuls-sur-Mer. That was a great day out with fabulous views all along the Côte Vermeille, capped by a visit to the studio where the sculptor Maillol (1861 – 1944) produced many of his works. So far we’ve discovered two more beautiful walks, and no doubt there are others. The first is an easy stroll along the clifftops to Racou, which is about 4km away to the north. At the little Ouille cove we stopped for a swim (bracing in May) and had a second from the wide sandy beach at Racou before returning by the same route. The second is one of the most exhilarating walks we’ve ever done, blue sky above, blue sea below. We started in Port-Vendres (1km south of Collioure) and followed the coastal path out along the promontory to Cap Béar. From there the path traces the south side of the promontory to the superb Paulilles cove, which really is a gem. The bay was never developed because it was the site of a dynamite factory. In 2005 the General Council of the Pyrénées-Orientales demolished nearly 70 buildings, cleaned it all up and turned the bay into a protected area. It’s as special a cove as you’ll ever find in Europe.

Paul and Chrissie are making their studio in Collioure available to Landscapes readers. Their website for it will be going live during June at www.colliourestudio.com

Holidaying in Royal Style

IBIZA

Decades ago, when Mallorca was sneered at as a downmarket haven for lager louts, Sunflower noticed that King Juan Carlos of Spain holidayed there every summer. ‘If it’s good enough for the king, it’s got to be good enough for “Landscapers”’ we thought. And sure enough – Landscapes of Mallorca was the first ever walking guide to that island and became a bestseller, winning an ‘Oscar’ from the Sunday Times for best travel guide.

This time another Balearic island, Ibiza, has been in the news. Before their marriage, Prince William and Kate holidayed at the home of her wealthy (and rather controversial) uncle Gary, in the south of the island. The tabloid press made much of the name of his house – the ‘Maison de Bang Bang’ – and the goings-on there.

Now Kate’s uncle has been unable to sell the house, so is renting it out. So you really could holiday like the royals … for a mere £20,000 a week. To take a peek, log on to www.rentibizavilla.com.

You’ll pass the house if you do Walk 5 in Landscapes of Ibiza and Formentera, near the airport and the salt pans (where you’ll see huge piles of salt with cranes and caterpillar machines chomping away). The walk mostly follows the gorgeous coastline, sometimes at the foot of the striking red Jondal cliffs.

Just like Mallorca, Ibiza need be nothing like the descriptions in the popular press. Not only are the coastal walks glorious, but the rural inland routes are exceptionally beautiful and gentle. The book describes several cycle tours as well, both on Ibiza and the neighbouring island of Formentera. What’s more, the climate is suitable for year-round walking!

Winter Flights from Heathrow to Gran Canaria

gran canaria

As of 26 October British Airways will have a winter service from London Heathrow direct to Gran Canaria. It will be a weekly flight on Saturdays and will run until 29 March 2014. Fares start at £198.

The winter months are the ideal time to explore this captivating destination using Sunflower’s walking guide Landscapes of Gran Canaria. Every year millions of tourists flock to Gran Canaria, ‘the island of eternal spring’, to soak up the sun. But few of these sun-worshippers explore beyond the beaches.

The weather may be the island’s strong point, but by no means is it Gran Canaria’s only asset. A wealth of diverse landscapes and a wonderland of curious flora await the explorer. So special are these ecosystems, that almost half the island has been designated a nature protection or preservation area. It’s hard to believe that such a small island (1532 sq km/600 sq mi) has so much to offer. And yet it has often been referred to as a ‘continent in miniature’. Travel across Gran Canaria for a day, by car or on foot, and you will see for yourself! The view across the cumbre to Rocque Nublo seen in the photograph above is just one example of the stunning landscapes. (And that’s Tenerife, with El Teide mountain, visible in the distance.)

For car tours or walks in Gran Canaria there is no better guidebook than Sunflower’s Landscapes of Gran Canaria.

Walking in Lesvos

Lesvos

This is a very, very favourite island. The authors of Sunflower’s touring and walking guidebook “Landscapes of Lesvos” Brian & Eileen Anderson returned to Lesvos this year after a break of seven years and fell in love with it once again. They were delighted to find it hadn’t changed much and remains much like the Greek island we discovered almost thirty years ago, with a few tweaks, but not touristy, as you’ll see from the photo of Molyvos harbour above.

Brian and Eileen say: If we had forgotten how beautiful this island is in spring, we were reminded on our first walk through the olive groves. Rays of an early morning sun filtering softly down through the gnarled trunks of these ancient trees touched the bright red poppies and the mauve anemones adding a new brightness to these already colourful flowers. There are many walks like this on the slopes of Mount Olympos, not the famous Mount Olympos, but one of many of the same name. Entering the village of Agiassos, we stopped momentarily to absorb the sight of a thousand and one traditional houses painted in pastel shades clinging tightly to each other and the steep slopes of Mount Olympos, penetrated only by narrow, wisteria covered streets. Men sat at tables on the side of the street, drinking coffee or ouzo and perhaps playing tavla. Shopkeepers wandered out inviting you silently into their shops simply by pointing. We were tempted to join the drinkers and sometimes did just to sit, absorb the atmosphere and wonder if this simple lifestyle is the basis of all our dreams and desires.

The walking was going well, hindered only by the unusual, very hot for April, weather and so far we were finding few problems with our book. Today we completed a relatively short walk of 8km so we could get back early and relax a little. Tomorrow we’ll be back on the tough stuff and starting to plan our walking programme to accommodate Greek Easter which starts next weekend.

The rickety, rush-bottomed taverna chairs looked like an island of comfort as we gratefully sank into them. Another walk done. We had returned to the high mountain village of Agiassos to walk again on the slopes of Mount Olympos, one of our favourite walking areas and where there is so much variation to enjoy. We started early, so necessary in this hot weather, and walked down old trails through endless olive groves to the lower village of Asomatos, reached 90 minutes later. Any doubts about the island’s claim to 11 million olive trees would have faded by now.

Back in the 19th century when Charles Dickens was entertaining readers with Pickwick Papers and Charles Darwin was still developing his ideas on evolution, the people here on Lesvos had no such freedom. They were under the control of the Turks and restricted to farming. So they planted olive trees on any and every piece of land where they flourished, climbing higher and higher up the mountain sides. Cobbled trails for mules and donkeys were built by dint of hard manual labour. Many miles of these trails still exist, polished by  hooves over the years and looking so inviting to walkers.

The return from Asomatos back to Agiassos again followed old trails but by a different route this time leading upwards through olive groves into the higher sweet chestnut forests full of fritillaries and butterfly orchids. From here it was a relief to walk downwards back into Agiassos and to the same taverna we have frequented for almost 30 years and seen no perceptible change. The olive oil that gave the islanders a measure of prosperity under the Turks still does today. They have had little need to look beyond their own shores for inspiration or innovation. Lesvos is today an island content with itself and the old traditions which have served it well throughout its history. It’s a corner of Greece which defies progress and declines to move with time.

‘Landscapes of Lesvos’ (Third Edition) should be available by next spring 2014. In the mean time whilst the paperback version is out of print, the second edition is available as a pdf download from Sunflower’s website.

‘Come and join us next April on Lesvos for a gathering of orchid enthusiasts; a fantastic time to be there for Orchids, birds and walking. We will be on hand to advise re orchids and walks and to help people plan itineraries but we are not organising tours or walks ourselves.

Our base for two weeks from 5th-19th April 2014 will be at Malemi Hotel in Skala Kalloni. Interested parties will need to make their own travel arrangements. For further information, accommodation and car hire contact: malemi@otenet.gr

(Note:- Greek Easter is the 20th April so another possibility is to extend your stay to cover this time. )

What’s new in Kefalonia?

Fiskardo Kefalonia

Brian & Eileen Anderson, the authors of Sunflower’s popular island guidebook, are heading to Kefalonia soon to research a new edition of “Walk & Eat Kefalonia”.

The authors would appreciate any comments from readers who’ve recently been to the island re restaurants and walks etc. We know ‘Kaliva Taverna’ in Skala is no longer living up to expectations, so that will definitely not appear in the updated edition of the book, but they are planning to look at ‘Socrates Taverna’ in Skala as a possible replacement. Is ‘Socrates’ still up and running and, if so, could it be recommended? Or, are there anymore recommendations Brian and Eileen could follow up in Skala or anywhere else, walking and/or eating?

The authors say that they are really looking forward to returning to Kefalonia mainly because it’s still relatively unspoilt and has a lot to offer Grecophiles. It’s one of their favourite islands. They love the walking there and sampling local Kefalonian specialities in the tavernas and the wine of course!

If anyone sees Brian and Eileen clutching a copy of  “Walk & Eat Kefalonia”, during the middle two weeks of September, do stop to say hello and swap notes.

“We look forward to meeting some of you and thank you to all those readers who write in with constructive comments, they’re much appreciated.”

The new edition of Walk & Eat Kefalonia will be published early in 2014.

Festivals & Wildfires in Zakynthos

Zakynthos Fire

Holidaying in Zakynthos this month? Be sure to take a copy of Sunflower Books’ complete guide to the island. It’s got all the information you could need, plus a fine selection of walks and car tours. But be aware. August is the holiday season for Greeks, which means that most of the 10 million population of Athens disperses to the sea (islands) and mountains. This number is added to by Italian tourists hopping across the Mediterranean, particularly to the island of Zakynthos, which is still perceived as Italian (following the Venetian occupation, around the 15th century), and from which the name Zante derives. In Greece, August is the time for celebrations, feast days, name days and festivals, more than any other time of year. To Greeks, the “name day” is equally important, if not more so, to a birthday, and it is the saint day on which a person’s name falls (For a list of all name days see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Name_days_in_Greece). In Greece, everyone’s name is celebrated at some point of the year. The name day of “Maria” falls on the 15th August and, as many Greeks are called Maria (because a child is named after their grandparents, so names repeat through generations), it is a major celebration day throughout Greece, in addition to being a public holiday.

The Greek island of Zakynthos is no exception to this tradition, with many churches being named after the Virgin Mary (also Panagia). A unique place to visit on this special day is Mount Skopos in Vassilikos, which is one of the walks (Walk 5) described in the Sunflower Complete Guide for Zakynthos. An old byzantine church (reconstructed in the 1970s) surrounded by the ruins of a monastery sits at the top of this 500 metre mountain, which has views in every compass direction across the island. The church is called Panagia Skopiotissa (after the Virgin Mary), and this is the only day of the entire year that the church is opened. It is worth visiting just for this, if nothing else. The celebration starts early in the morning (around 0700/0800), with barbecues and food being shared by everyone (no charge), and lasts until the last person leaves. If you do not make it to Mount Skopos, you might find yourself on Marathonisi islet, where the local priest visits the sea turtle nesting beach on the north of the islet in the mid afternoon (around 1500 to 1800, variable), to give a blessing. The church is now placed on private land; however, in the past, the islet held a major monastery, and is considered sacred by the Greek Orthodox Church. This is also an event worth witnessing.  However, you will also find that many churches around the island and Zakynthos town are named after the Virgin Mary, so you are likely to stumble on a celebration somewhere, especially if you are following one of the Sunflower Complete Guide for Zakynthos car tours.

Another major event on Zakynthos island in August is the Patron Saint celebrations. The name day of the Patron Saint, Agios (Saint) Dionysios (Dennis) falls in December; however, the August event celebrates the transfer of his remains from the remote Strophades islands (2 islands about 30 miles south of Zakynthos with a single monastery and lighthouse, and one inhabitant, a priest). These celebrations are massive and span several days, culminating on the 24th August, when the patron saint is paraded about town in the late afternoon, followed by an amazing firework display. The town is decorated in flags, and the port is filled with market stalls selling all sorts of paraphernalia for the entire week from about the 17th August onwards.

On a more serious note, August is also a time that you should take especial care when exploring the island. An unfortunate fact, is that vegetation on all of the walks described in the Sunflower Complete Guide for Zakynthos have burnt to some degree over the last 15 years. Vast tracts of land are burnt each year on Zakynthos, and across the Mediterranean, of which less than 5% is due to natural causes. These fires are set to degrade land set aside for nature protection, to claim land for the planting of crops (usually olives or vines) or building, by hunters to clear land for the (illegal) bird hunting season (starting in September), among several other reasons. The risk of fire is particularly high in August, as, we have not had rain since March (this year), therefore, the land is extremely dry and susceptible. The photograph above shows the fire ravaged landscape that is left after a wildfire has broken out. Whatever the reason, it is extremely important that wherever you are on the island, you remain alert. This is important whether you are braving the summer heat to follow one of the 22 Sunflower walks for Zakynthos in any part of the island (even around Laganas Bay at Vassilikos or Marathia), but particularly along the west and north coast, or exploring the walks and secluded swim spots as extras on the Sunflower car tours in a four-wheel vehicle. Be alert for the smell of smoke, greyish looking clouds rising from the ground in the distance, the sound of crackling, and the droning sound of planes (yellow fireplanes) and helicopters flying overhead. Please do not drive towards what looks like a fire (or be deceived by the presence of olive trees as a safe haven – they are grown in nutrient rich gullies, surrounded by maquis, particularly on the west coast) even if it appears small, as these fires can suddenly spread very quickly, drive back to the nearest village and alert the locals, who will call the authorities.

Finally, make sure you have plenty of water with you, whether you are walking or driving, as the summer heat leads to dehydration very quickly, especially with temperatures currently reaching 40 degrees in the middle of the day. And be sure to have a copy of the Zakynthos Complete Guide from Sunflower Books with you!

Zakynthos’ Navagio beach named one of the most beautiful beaches in the world

Shipwreck Beach Zakynthos

Recently, National Geographic Nederland-België listed Zakynthos’ Navagio beach as one of the top 5 most beautiful beaches in the world. In fact, the first edition of the Sunflower Complete Guide for Zakynthos had an image of the shipwreck beach on the title page, it is a stunning view. If you wish to visit the beach, it can only be accessed by boat – such as an all day boat tour around the island, or if you follow one of the Sunflower ³car tour² 3 or 4 you could stop off at Skinari and take a boat trip along the north coast of the island to the shipwreck beach. It is in fact stony, so be certain to wear good shoes! If you take the boat trip from Skinari, you will also have the opportunity to visit the stunning Blue Caves.

Zakynthos has many beautiful swim spots off beaches with different types of sand, or off stunning cliffs, with the Sunflower Guide for Zakynthos describing almost every swim-spot on the island. Of note, the most amazing swim spots on the north to west coast of Zakynthos are at Limnionas (near Walk 17), with beautiful blue caves set in white limestone sea cliffs lined with green pines, and Korakonisi (Walk 16). There is now a tarmac road leading down to Korakonisi Islet; however, it is still one of the most isolated  swim spots on the island. The islet has an amazing arch from which you can dive, with deep cool waters to swim in.

The south coast of the island (Laganas Bay) is a combination of white sands from limestone (Marathonisi) to beautiful golden sands. Most of the beaches in Laganas Bay are used for nesting by loggerhead sea turtles, or Caretta caretta. Therefore, please be respectful and (1) sit within 5 metres of the sea to avoid damaging any nests which are usually placed above 5 metres; some nests are caged, but many are unprotected, so always be careful, and (2) do not visit these beaches at night, it is against the law, and you risk disturbing nesting loggerheads, which are internationally endangered. Do not be deterred by the golden sandy beach extending from Agios Sostis (Walk 8) to Laganas and beyond to Kalamaki (Walk 7) and Vrondonero (Walk 6) due to large numbers of tourists; if you are willing to walk along the mid section of beach backed by dunes, you will escape the hoards – and be certain to look out for the beautiful  sea daffodil, which is white and heavily scented. This is one of the few wild plants to flower in mid-summer, and only grows on natural shifting sand dune systems (an important and protected habitat type in Europe) – so take pictures, but leave the flowers in their native habitat! Further along is the beach of Sekania (walk 4 to viewpoints above the beach) to which all access is prohibited, except for research, as this beach has the greatest number of turtles nesting each year. Be certain to visit the Sea Turtle Exhibition (start of walk 3) to learn more about the sea turtles and other wildlife and habitats of Zakynthos. Daphni and Gerakas (walks 1 and 2) are the final 2 beaches of this bay. Daphni is fronted by amazing rocky reefs teaming with marine life, including sea turtles! Gerakas is famous for its amazing clay cliff formation, and worth visiting.

The east to north coast of the island is lined with many golden sandy beaches, which become white sand beaches as the lowlands meet the mountains. Along this coast, you will find crowded beaches, beaches with watersports, and quiet beaches known only to locals or the adventurous tourist. One of my favourite beaches along this coast is Ksigia, not the easy to access beach to the north of the restaurant (called Ksigia) but the one set to the south of the beach. Be warned, there are sulphur upwellings and it can be smelly! The upper part of this coast is lined with multiple sea caves worth exploring. However, keep your eyes open for the critically endangered Mediterranean monk seal (one of the top 10 most endangered wildlife species in the world); about 10 to 20 individuals inhabit the sea caves of the northern part of the Island (east to west coast). These animals grow up to 3 metres long, and are wild animals, so maintain a safe distance.

If you are uncertain of which beaches to visit, take one of the car tours in the Sunflower Complete Guide for Zakynthos, and follow the many roads or tracks leading to the coast, some will reward you with stunning views, others with beautiful locations to picnic and swim before continuing your exploration of this unique island.

A tragic warning on walking alone

Late July 2013. Both the UK and much of Europe were in the grip of a heat wave. Sunflower’s office received an urgent message one morning from a leading Mallorca luxury hotel in the Deia region. We were told that one of the hotel’s guests had on the previous day set out on one of the walks featured in our Landscapes of Mallorca walking guide. The territory to be covered included the rugged landscape seen in the photograph above. Apparently instead of having the complete book, he had torn out the relevant page describing the walk he intended to do and had taken it with him. But now, nearly 24 hours later, he had failed to return. The police intended to send out a search party to find him. We were asked if we could e-mail a pdf of the pages describing the walk. (This was because although the hotel had found the book, with the walk description torn out of the book it was not known precisely what route he would have taken.) Of course we immediately sent the necessary information and a map of the walk route.

Unfortunately, the hotel’s guest had ignored the advice in the book that one should never walk alone. He had also set off in conditions of extreme heat. (The hotel considered that the prevailing heat conditions were such that even an experienced walker could have run into difficulty in this mountainous region) So it proved. We later learned that the guest had sadly collapsed and died on the walk and the search party found his body.

Whether you’re walking in familiar territory or in a landscape that is new to you, and whether you walk in spring, summer, autumn or winter, avoid walking alone. Even in the most favourable conditions and in territory you know like the back of your hand, an accidental fall could leave you incapacitated and unable to reach help. (And a mobile phone so often proves to be without a signal just when it is most needed!) But especially in extremes of climate, whether it be bitterly cold in winter or abnormally hot in summer, think twice before setting off. Don’t ignore advice given by locals but above all, make sure you are accompanied by other walkers.

Enjoy your walking, but do follow the advice we offer to ensure the safety of both you and your fellow walkers. Comprehensive advice on safety while walking, appears in each guidebook published by Sunflower Books. Do take note of it.