Takis sliced the giant porcini as if it were a ham; the mushroom – pig-like in size – had been plucked from the forest floor but five minutes earlier. I lent back against the limestone, in the shade of a holm oak, and took a bite: meaty, musty, nutty, delicious.
Takis sliced more, adding the raw porcini to our spread of bread, sheep’s cheese and roasted Florina peppers, slippery with olive oil. He poured me a tsipouro; I took a hot, throat-coating sip, then balanced the little glass amid the lichen. “It’s better, more natural, than ouzo,” Takis said. “Tsipouro is health!” He poured himself a second, then returned to the mushroom. It was 11am. It was quite a feast. Cycling through the woodland (Nikos Kanellopoulos / Arcturos)
I suppose the only thing missing from this picnic were the teddy bears – though they were with us in spirit. We’d spent the past few hours cycling and walking through their domain, and had seen plenty of evidence of their snacking: the rump-shaped depression in a cornfield; the paw-print by the lake (a favoured fishing spot); the pile of seedy scat. It seemed that here, in the Macedonia region of northern Greece, neither I nor the resident European brown bears were going hungry.
Greece and bears. I’d never put the two together. In popular culture, Greece is a land of islands, not ursines. But, of course, there’s far more to the country than beaches – including, in the lesser-visited northern mountains, an estimated 200 bears.
This is not a wildlife population without problems. Habitat fragmentation, road construction, hunting and illegal capture all threaten the bears. But I had come to visit an organisation called Arcturos that works to improve the animals’ plight – and which, happily enough, is located just outside one of Greece’s prettiest villages.
In Greek legend, Arcturos is the bear-guardian. After Zeus had turned Callisto and her son/his love-child into the constellations of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the god-king placed another star, Arcturos, nearby to watch over them. In Greek reality, Arcturos has the same role.
The organisation was established in 1992 by Yiannis Boutaris – the straight-talking, unconventional major of Thessaloniki – after his son saw a dancing bear. Since then, Arcturos has successfully campaigned for a ban on such practices; in 2012, Greece became the first EU country to ban all animal performances.
If you happen to be an ex-dancing bear, there are worse places to see out your days than in the sanctuary at Nymfaio. The village is postcard-perfect. Neat stone houses and grander mansions cling to cobbled lanes, 1,350m up on the slopes of Mt Vitsi amid a fuzz of beech forest. Walking near the Arcturos sanctuary (Sarah Baxter)
For centuries this was a thriving trade hub of 3,500 people, but mid-20th-century urbanisation saw the village’s population and fortunes tumble; by 1980 it was virtually in ruins. However, designation as a ‘protected traditional settlement’, and a huge restoration project – spearheaded by Boutaris – has returned Nymfaio to its former glory, aesthetically at least: the population is at most 150, and trade is now largely in tourism, but it looks pretty as a picture.
The bears – currently 11 of them – live on the edge of the village in a 12.5-acre enclosure that aims to mimic their natural habitat. I walked down the forested drive to the sanctuary just before 9.30am, feeding time, and found keeper George despairing at a section of splintered and scraped perimeter fence – last night a wild bear had tried to break in.
Not an uncommon occurrence, he explained ruefully: “They smell the food.” Talking of which, it was apples for breakfast, 12kg per bear. The animals, safe behind (intact) wire fences, each had a stall, fronted by heavy bars and a hinged trough. George poured the fruit into the holder, then swung it through to the bear with a clang, like a prison guard feeding a felon. I stooped to look closer, inches from the thick, paint-chipped metal – and inches from the muscular, strong-jawed bulk of hungry bear.
Different bears ate differently. Some chomped messily, in a splatter of juice and pulp; others plunged in snout-first as if bobbing at Halloween; others were daintier, skewering the fruit on their sharp claws as if eating lollipops. The air smelt of wet fur and cider. Most of the bears at the sanctuary have been rescued from zoos or illegal ‘trainers’. Bear at Arcturos sanctuary (Nikos Kanellopoulos / Arcturos)
“People stole cubs from caves, and broke their teeth and claws,” George explained as we gave Tassoula – taken in as an orphan in 1993 – her apples. “They would play an instrument while forcing the bear onto a fire, so it ‘danced’ on its hind legs; eventually this becomes learned behaviour.”
Arcturos doesn’t breed bears, and most of its residents won’t be reintroduced into the wild – they’ve spent too long in captivity. Instead, Arcturos aims to address illegal wildlife captivity, educate landowners and the public, and protect natural habitats. For instance, when a new segment of the Via Egnatia Highway – the old Roman road between what is now Albanian Durrës and Turkey – sliced Greece’s wild bear habitat in two, Arcturos campaigned for the erection of a reinforced fence and the creation of passages, to allow wildlife to cross.
Into the woods
The E4 long-distance footpath from western Spain to southern Greece also passes through wild bear country, running right past Nymfaio. Alas, no time for that, but I managed a shorter walk from the village. The beech were blazing in the autumn sun as we walked alongside a stream, keeping a lookout for freshwater crayfish.
We passed a horseman leading his animals across a ford before we veered uphill, bouncing on a mattress of leaf litter and mushrooms. The fungi were everywhere: nausea green, rusty orange, pale blue; some resembled pleated corals, others sprigs of alfalfa; and there were Disney-ish fly agarics and puffballs that, when squeezed, exhaled like smokers.
Electra, the indefatigable wife of the local priest, had joined me, and was bravely collecting different types – she was going to check their safety for consumption later, she said. I was glad she was being careful, as she’d kindly made my lunch, a golden leek-and-feta pita (pie). She also, she told me, makes her own line of traditional products from local ingredients: jams and relishes, and liqueurs made from blackcurrant, hazelnut and wild cherry.
By the time we’d crossed a sweep of open grassland and crested the hill, I was salivating. I devoured my pie looking down on a patchwork valley to hazily fading peaks; on a clearer day, I’d have seen Mount Olympus. Feeding apples to the bears at Arcturos sanctuary (Sarah Baxter)
What big teeth you have…
We didn’t see any bears on our walk, but we did find a lump of seed-full scat, suggesting we were in the right vicinity. Neither did we find any wolves, the other alpha species roaming these mountains that Arcturos is trying to protect.
The next day I headed to the wolf sanctuary in nearby Agrapidia with Takis and his son Nikos, who hire out bikes and lead tours of the area. We met in the village of Sklithro, close to the church; the belltower, crop-topped with nests, resounded with crows and a strangled congregation as we cycled past, down the road, onto a farm track and into the fields.
Almost immediately, Takis spotted fresh bear tracks leading across the muddy furrows. “See how they have bigger back paws, smaller front,” he explained. “There’s a den up on the hillside – the bear comes down to eat the corn.” It’s an easy meal.
The locals harvesting potatoes in the field opposite seemed to have it harder, bentbacked under the sunshine, sifting through the spuds. They had a cracking spot for their labours though, deep in a green valley amid the Vitsi Mountains. A tree-lined stream tinkled nearby; otters live in the waterway, Takis told me – well, if they haven’t been killed by the mink, which animal-rights activists released from a fur farm nearby.
Takis was a postman by trade but a forager by passion. As we pedalled, then strolled, through the herb-scented countryside, he pointed out its bounty: wild saffron, lemon thyme, wild pear and walnut trees, St John’s wort, oregano and downy-leafed verbascum – also known as ‘cowboy toilet paper’. And then, of course, the mushrooms: not just our delicious porcini but many others, from the edible, schnitzel-like macrolepiota to types that can be dried to make healing powders.
Before long we arrived at the wolf sanctuary, where our walk’s fragrant peacefulness was disrupted by howls and yelps – not from the wolves, but the resident Greek shepherd dogs. While the sanctuary cares for eight orphaned or formerly captive wolves, its main focus is promoting this traditional dog breed in an attempt to reduce human-wolf conflict and safeguard the country’s 700-800 wolves.
Christos, who works at the sanctuary, showed me around, from the visitor centre to the edge of the large, woody enclosure. “I will be a lawyer to defend wolves,” he told me, scanning for his favourite animal, Lyk. “Why do they kill five or ten sheep at a time? We have store cupboards, wolves do the same. If I walk in the wilds, and I’m hungry, and I find an empty supermarket, I don’t just take one biscuit.”
Farmers will kill wolves that decimate their flocks. Arcturos is trying to solve this problem by encouraging the farmers to employ Greek shepherd dogs, an ancient species talked of by Aristotle and Plato. “It thinks like a wolf,” said Christos. “Wolves can trick other dogs. But not a Greek shepherd dog – it never leaves its flock.” Arcturos supplies these superior defenders to farmers for free, keeping 12 animals for breeding. There is a long waiting list.
We walked along the sanctuary fence for a while, peering in hopefully. Finally I saw something move amid the foliage. Lyk, a young male given to Arcturos by a farmer who’d kept him as a pet (until Lyk attacked one of his sheep), was feeling curious. He padded out into the open; so handsome, so cute! Until he bared his teeth and snarled – caged perhaps, but immutably wild. Vineyard at Alpha Wine Estate (Sarah Baxter)
Christos had told me that, as well as sheep, wolves love to eat grapes – they’re full of vitamins and clean the blood, apparently. Well, I’d drink to that, preferably a nice xinomavro at the Alpha Wine Estate in Amyndeon, the smallest, coldest, driest appellation in Greece. Small, perhaps, but not insignificant. Alpha’s founders picked this location – a prehistoric lakebed, surrounded by mountains – for its singular geomorphology and climate.
They cultivated and experimented for ten years before actually producing their first bottle, and continue to use the latest technology to create award-winning wines. When I arrived at the very large, very pink winery, all was quiet.
“We’ve been harvesting for five weeks and just finished an hour ago,” explained Konstantinos Arvanitakis, Alpha’s export manager, before taking me on a tour around the estate. They don’t get bears here. “Tortoises and hedgehogs nest on the vineyard,” Kostas told me, “and we’ve found two pieces of mammoth.”
Neat leafy lines stretched across the plains, to the point where the land fell away to the valley below. Alpha grows nine varieties of grape in all, including ‘sour black’ xinomavro and white malagouzia; most are recently planted, though there is a 100-year-old vine on site. “It’s very low yield,” said Kostas, “but produces the best dry Greek red.”
From the old to the uber-new, Kostas explained some of the gadgets Alpha uses: “We can monitor wine by satellite – a vine’s heat profile tells us when grapes are ready.” And then there was the WineScan machine, which can carry out 150 micro-corrections a day during fermentation, to ensure the viticulturist gets his desired blend.
“Of course, the machine doesn’t have a nose or a mouth,” said Kostas as we stared at pages of WineScan conclusions. “You still need someone to taste it.” That sounded more like it.
In an immodest room, heavy with accolades and framed certificates, 14 different Alpha wines and a little spittoon sat waiting. Challenge accepted. Gulping the gamut from reds via roses and whites to dessert wines, my mouth wrestled with wintry black fruits, strawberries and roses, pineapple and mangoes, quince and honey.
The winner, in my book, was the Alpha Xinomavro 2010 Reserve, with its savoury undertones of olives and tomatoes. It would have been just perfect, in fact, for a picnic under an oak tree, with a large, fresh porcini and the company of bears and wolves. Main image: Bear at Arcturos sanctuary (Nikos Kanellopoulos / Arcturos)