The Vouraikos Gorge

Why visit the Vouraikos Gorge?

The spectacular scenery

The abundance of wildlflowers – including a few found only in Greece, and one found only in the Gorge itself.

A variety of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, and other insects.

The heritage railway and the Mega Spilio Monastery

There are two ways to see the Vouraikos Gorge – either you walk through it, or take the train. Or perhaps you take the train, and spend a couple of hours wandering around near each station until the next train comes. The latter is probably best done at weekends when there are five trains each way a day, rather than the three on weekdays.

Beginning near the village of Priolithos in the Aroania/Chelmos mountains, the Vouraikos river flows some 40km past the towns of Kalavryta and Diakopto to the Gulf of Corinth. The gorge itself is the last half of this journey, where the river has cut through limestone and conglomerates, and now passes through dense vegetation and tunnels with many caves, passes and crags.

Legend has it that the name derives from Boura, a mythological daughter of Ion and Helice. She was courted by Hercules who opened the gorge in order to get closer to her.

The river and gorge and part of the National Park of Chelmos-Vouraikos, which was established in 2009 to preserve the biodiversity, the natural resources, and the ecological value of the natural ecosystems in the area. The steep sides of the gorge provide a myriad of micro-climates, with plenty of opportunity for plants to evolve into endemic species, and for scarce animals to find refuge.

The endemic plants include Silene conglomeratica (endemic to the gorge), Aurinia moreana, and Campanula topaliana subsp. cordifolia (pictured left).

Otters Lutra lutra hunt along the river. Bats (Miniopterus sehreibasi, Myotis blythii, Myotis myotis, Rhinolophus blasii, Rhinolophus ferrumequinum) also live in the caves and the rock crevices.

Several birds of prey nest on the rock ledges higher up.

The railway line dates from the 1890s. Charilaos Trikinos was the Greek prime minister at the time, and he wanted to create local railway networks to connect the interior regions with the main railway. These local railways were to be narrow gauge, because small trains were better suited to the mountainous country and were cheaper to construct. It also meant that, using a cog system, the trains could negotiate steeper inclines. This railway climbs 750m in its 20km journey. Since it was inaugurated on 10th March 1896, the trains have run every day, regardless of the weather (although parts of the line were closed for refurbishment when I visited).

The E4 European long distance footpath starts in Portugal and runs through the Alps before turning south through the Balkans and ending in Cyprus. It makes use of existing routes, including the railway line through the Vouraikos Gorge. That means that with some careful planning, and keeping an eye and ear out for trains, it is possible to take nature walks within the gorge.

The route

The first station north of Kalavrita is Zahlorov. From here we crossed the rail bridge over the river, noting pale speedwell Veronica cymbalaria and Narrow navelwort Umbilicus horizontalis (horizontalis refers to the flowers in this case, not the whole plant) growing from the crevices, and large plane trees Platanus orientalis shading the river valley below. Iridescent blue male beautiful demoiselle damselflies Calopteryx virgo were flitting from leaf to leaf, and showing off in the sun to the iridescent green females.

A road leads uphill from here to Mega Spilio Monastery, which is mostly located in a cave. The rocky slopes supported dry species from the garrigue – Rock bellflower Campanula rupestris, the pink cistuses Cistus incanus and C creticus, and kermes oak Quercus coccifera whose small holly-like leaves host the Kermes scale insect Kermes vermilio. These insects were harvested and dried, then used to produce a crimson dye until the mid-1500s when the cochineal insects were discovered on cactuses in America.

A stream frog Rana graeca was well camouflaged amongst the leaf litter until it moved. We examined it carefully because all the brown frogs look similar – the diagnostic feature here is that the distance between the nostrils is less than the distance between the eye and the nostril!

Closer to Diakopto the land flattens out somewhat to reveal extensive lemon and olive groves. Use of pesticides has meant that native wildflowers have largely been replaced by the invasive Bermuda buttercup Oxalis pes-caprae, but there are still some places with a mass of colour – bellflower Campanula ramoissima, blue houndstone Cynoglossum creticum, bug orchid Orchis coriophoroa, tongue orchid Serapia vomeracea, branching broomrape Orobanche ramosa, birthwort Aristolocia sempervirens, and grass poly Lythrum junceum, to name just a few, and then wonderful fields of scarlet poppies Papaver rhoeas.

Amongst the trees in one field, the dappled sunlight illuminated a patch of bright pink Cyclamen repandum ssp peloponnesiacum – a local speciality – pictured right.

In a nearby ditch we found shepherds needle Scandex pectin-veneris (the common name deriving from the striking seed pods), and also Calabrian soapwort Saponaria calabrica.

Diakopto itself is on the Corinthian Gulf, with maritime species along the shore by the railway line – yellow horned poppy Glaucium flavum, three-horned stock Malcomia tricuspidata, and sea beet Beta maritima.

On the way back to Kalavrita, we had views of a pair of short-toed eagles circling the top of the gorge. A delightful day out indeed.


Bookshop

This is the standard flora for Greece.

First published in 1987, this guide lists many of the richest plant-hunting areas in southeast Europe at first hand, and each description is accompanied by several line drawings.

Names and describes almost 3,000 species of flowering plants in the region.

However, it is a key, and if you prefer to ID your flowers from pictures, then there are other books that might suit better, but are not as comprehensive.

There are some books available that are specific to Greece – this one about bird-watching sites for example.

Most of the ones I have used are now out of print, but the general ones for Europe, shown below, are perfectly adequate.

Note that buying books through these links earns a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that goes towards the cost of maintaining this website.

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Bear-watching

Bear necessities

It was only a footprint, but it was BIG. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise, and the adrenalin starting to pump. The only animal I knew of that size was bear, and bears certainly lived in the area, though at low density and rarely seen.

A second look told me the prints were not that fresh – maybe during the night, or even yesterday. The bear probably was NOT still close by. But we couldn’t help looking around, just in case. And talking loudly – bears usually avoid humans, so best to let them know you are around.

Bob tried to convince me that it was some human pulling a joke, but I think he was actually quite worried about it. Was it coincidence that, while trying to photograph the footprint, I managed to knock the tripod over and damage the camera – beyond repair as it turned out.

We were hiking along a public trail through the Urho Kekkonen in the Saariselka Wilderness area of Finland – a few kilometres from the visitor centre at Tankavaara. The same few kilometres from the road where we were expecting to get the bus back to Saariselka. We arrived back at the bus stop with 45 minutes to spare.

We certainly felt vulnerable – out in the open on foot. I had previously met black bears in America, but then I had been on horseback. A horse can outrun a bear on flat ground, a human can’t outrun a bear on any terrain – the bear has four legs and a low centre of gravity.

But it would be nice to see a bear properly – the bear in the wild, the humans in a relaxed/safe situation. It had taken years to see just the footprint, so what is the best way to see the actual bear?

The most obvious answer is to join a bear-watching holiday. These come in several sizes. Note that I have no connection with any of these places/companies. This is just a round-up of bear-watching opportunities advertised on the internet.

Eco-volunteering –

You’ll learn about bears and their environment from people studying them, and also contribute to conservation in that country. Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and Finland are good destinations, and Responsible Travel a good company to use.  There is a lot of information about watching bears on their website. 

Romania – volunteering at a bear sanctuary (see here for an account of visiting a bear sanctuary in Romania)

Greece – Bear conservation tour

Bear-watching trips –

A specialist trip, (or part of a more general nature trip) usually of a few days, designed to put you (with your camera if desired) in a hide for one or more nights in the expectation of seeing a bear at dawn or dusk. Usually, you are taken by vehicle to within a short distance of the hide, then on foot for the last fifteen minutes or so. For overnight stays, the hide will have bunk beds, basic toilet facilities, and perhaps a means of heating food (but not proper cooking facilities). In the morning, or at a pre-arranged time, you are collected, walk back to the vehicle, and driven to your accommodation, or the nearest town, etc. While nothing is guaranteed, a few nights in a hide is probably the best opportunity to see a bear, or two or three, plus some other passing wildlife.

Downloadable leaflet – How to behave in bear country

Finland

Martinselkonen Nature Reserve, located in Eastern Finland, is one of the best places in Europe to photograph brown bears. This tranquil wilderness location is highly recommended – on occasion up to 20 bears and eight cubs have been seen in a single night! And there is plenty of other wildlife to be seen. The location is popular with holiday companies and is included in many of the following tours.

Bear Centre – 29 hides for watching and photography – April – September

Brown bears near Kuusamo – May – October – further north than the centres listed above.

Bears and other mammals – suggestions from Visit Finland

Finland guided tours

Bears, wolves and Wolverines – April – August, self-drive trip – On this unique wildlife adventure in the boreal forest of Finland you self-drive between lodges, allowing you to explore the wildlife of the taiga at your own pace. We have selected three lodges with a network of outstanding hides from which to watch and photograph such iconic inhabitants of the far north as brown bear, wolf, wolverine and white-tailed eagle. Throughout spring and summer these overnight hides offer mammal-watching which is unrivalled in northern Europe.

Wildlife Worldwide holidays will also organise a bespoke tour, and many other companies provide something similar, perhaps especially for photographers.  

Just brown bears – summer –  a long weekend Brown Bear-watching holiday amongst the fine taiga forests that straddle Finland’s border with Russia.

Brown bear explorer June & July – Long evenings and early dawns allow incomparable opportunities to watch and photograph the wildlife of the forest on this 8-day tour in Finland. Staying at purpose built hides, night vigils with a naturalist guide reward you with close-ups of brown bears, wolverines and occasionally wolves.

Brown bears in Finland – May-August – An ideal short-haul break to a wonderful location for sighting brown bears in the Finnish wilderness.

Brown bear and elk adventure – May – September

Bear photography – June – Join wildlife photographer Tom Mason on a midsummer trip to photograph brown bears and wolverines, with four nights in specialist hides in the taiga forest of Finland.

Sweden

Bear watching in Sweden – A 4-day holiday to an idyllic, rolling land of forests and lakes where we will look for Brown Bears from a luxurious purpose-built hide, and enjoy the natural history, beauty and extraordinary tranquillity of a magical place just five hours away

South-eastern Europe

BulgariaBears and wolves

RomaniaBear-watching and Transylvanian castles – May – September

SloveniaHiking & bear-watching. Two perfect days to dive into the area of Kočevsko forest. Spend time in nature in search of wildlife and enjoy local delicacies. May – October

Slovenia –

Greece

Brown bear tracking in the northern Pindos – May – October – Track wild bears in a pristine mountainous corner of Greece: Northern Pindos. Back to nature with the friendly guides of wildlife charity CALLISTO to hear about bear research methods, walk in the wilderness, and witness traces of wild bears. Note – this is basically the same as the bear conservation tour listed under eco-volunteering, but with a different company.

Spain

Watching bears in northern Spain

A year in the life of a bear

March-April: bears emerge from hibernation, including cubs taking their first look at the outside world. All they want to do in spring is eat, to rebuild the reserves lost through the long winter sleep.

May to July: mating season, when males persistently follow females everywhere.

August-October: it is eating season again, as bears fatten up in preparation for hibernation.

More information about bears on the Euronatur website