Western and Central Rhodope are parts of a mountain range with exceptional ecological importance, a precious Balkan and European ecosystem.
It is the site of the Simida Forest, the only birch forest in Greece, the Elatia Forest, a forest of norwegian spruce similar to Northern European forests, and the Virgin Forest of Frakto –a natural heritage monument and a rare ecosystem in Europe. It is a refuge for animals, including threatened species like the brown bear and the chamois. Its soil nourishes crocus, orchids and other rare wild flora. Its slopes are dotted with a wide variety of trees and shrubs: strawberry tree, wild cherry tree, oak, ash tree, beech, Judas tree, Cornelia cherry dogwood, hornbeam, kermes oak, juniper, maple and conifers. It is a place of sinuous streams, impressive waterfalls and beautiful forests. The natural landscape hosts traditional villages and stone threshing floors, watermills and arch stone bridges. Marked routes and recreation sites invite the visitor and entice him to explore its treasures.
Western and Central Rhodope is the sum of all these special features, which make this area a place of unparalleled natural value and beauty.
DESCRIPTION OF THE STUDY AREA
In the north-eastern part of Greece, at the north of the Prefectures of Drama and Xanthi, Western and Central Rhodope marks the natural border between Greece and Bulgaria and constitutes a part of the mountain range of Rhodope which occupies an area of about 19.000 km2. Bulgaria includes 82% of the total area of Rhodope and only the remaining 18% lies in Greek territory.
The study area occupies approximately 1.713 km2, under the jurisdiction of the Region of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace. Its northern boundaries are identified with the Greek - Bulgarian borders till the area of Diamario, of Xanthi. Its eastern boundaries cross the area of Tavri and continue southwards in the area of Kollena, including the forest of Kotyli and Oreo. To the south it is defined by the area of Stavroupoli, while its boundaries continue westwards along the Nestos river, till the slopes of Mount Falakron and the settlements of Mikroklisoura, Ahladea and Pagoneri. Further north it endorses the Elatia forest and ends up at the Greek-Bulgarian borders.
The Municipalities and Communities which belong to the study area are the following:
Prefecture of Drama
Municipality of Paranesti whose administrative seat is the settlement of Paranesti. It consists of 3 Municipal Departments: Paranesti, Tholo and Sili.
Municipality of Kato Nevrokopi, whose administrative seat is the settlement of Kato Nevrokopi. It is constituted by 17 Municipal Departments, 5 of which are included in the study area (Ahladea, Mikroklisoura, Mikromilea, Pagoneri, Potamoi).
Community of Sidironero, with Sidironero and Skaloti.
Prefecture of Xanthi
Municipality of Stavroupoli, whose administrative seat is the settlement of Stavroupoli. The Municipal Departments of Stavroupoli, Dafnona, Karyofyto and Neohori belong to the study area.
Municipality of Myki. It consists of 3 Municipal Departments, only one of which (Oreo) belongs to the study area.
Ecology wise, the mountains of Rhodope compose a precious ecosystem of the Balkan peninsula and one of the most interesting areas of Europe, due to its rich biodiversity. Its geographical position partly explains its importance-a meeting point of the Balkan, Iranokaspian and Mediteranean flora and fauna, the geological structure and its geomorphology, as well as the fact that it was not affected by the glaciers. As a result, numerous species of Central and Northern Europe found shelter in Rhodope, whose mountain massif marks the southernmost part of their occurrence. Particularly the Central and Western part of Rhodope hosts the richest forests of Greece and some of the least altered natural ecosystems of Europe. Furthermore, it provides shelter to innumerable animals, some of them threatened by extinction, and is distinguished for its floral richness that encompasses rare and endemic species.
The Greek part of Rhodope, despite its relatively small surface area, presents a major ecological interest; this is proved by the fact that a number of its sites are protected by national and European legislation, by international conventions and initiatives. More specifically, five (5) sites have been included in the NATURA 2000 Network under the Community Directives 92/43/EC and 79/409/EC, two (2) sites have been designated as Natural Monuments under the national legislation and three (3) areas are designated by the Council of Europe as Biogenetic Reserves. Detailed data on these particular sites are presented in the following tables:
Sites of Community Importance (SCI) & Special Protection Areas (SPA)
of the Natura 2000 Network
National Protection Status
International Protection Status
SCI GR1120003 OROS CHAIDOU-KOULA & GYRO KORYFES
SCI GR1140001 DASOS FRAKTOU
SCI GR1140002 RODOPI (SIMYDA)
SCI GR1140003 PERIOCHI ELATIA
SPA GR1140007 PARTHENO DASOS KENTRIKIS RODOPIS
Natural Monuments (NM)
Virgin Forest of Central Rhodope (Μ31)
Beech Forest in Tsihla-Haidou (Μ32)
Biogenetic Reserves (BR)
Overlapping with other sites
Virgin Forest of Paranesti
99,92% overlapping with GR1140001
1,46% overlapping with GR1140007
Virgin Forest of Central Rhodope
94,49% overlapping with GR1140001
84,45% overlapping with GR1140007
Natural Monument of Beech Forest in Tsihla-Haidou
2,14% overlapping with GR1120003
100% overlapping with Μ32 (Natural Monument)
1 Natural Monument (NM)
2 Wildlife Refuge (WLR)
3 Biogenetic Reserve (BR)
The vegetation richness of Rhodope is extraordinary and is distinguished by the presence of species which occur in northern and colder climates. For many arctic-alpine, northern or central European species, Rhodope is the southern limit of their spatial distribution, such as the European silver fir, the Norway spruce, the birch, the Macedonian pine etc. The flora of the area includes local endemic species, Balkan endemic and rare plant species which are threatened by extinction.
The vegetation zones of the area (Dafis 2006) are the following:
The purely Mediterranean zone of the higher, colder zone of evergreen broadleaves, with strawberry trees, Phillyrea media, wild olive trees, terebinth, kermes oak, ash trees, Judas trees, and downy oak.
The transitional zone from the zone of the evergreen to the zone of broadleaves, dominated by kermes oak and hornbeam.
The zone of thermophilous broadleaf evergreen, thus the zone of deciduous oak forests, the most important zone in Rhodope, as its Greek part consists mainly by oak forests. The main oak species that create extensive forests, are the Hungarian oak (or Italian oak) (Quercus frainetto), and the sessile oak (Quercus petraea subsp. medwediewii). In the same zone, one may find, mixed with oak, sporadic individuals of lime wood and stands of Pallas’s pines, either non-mixed, or mixed with Hungarian oak (or Italian oak) or the sessile oak.
The purely continental zone of the more psychrophilous broadleaf species such as the beech, which creates homogenous stands or mixed stands with broadleaf oak in the lowland area, thus occupying the habitat between oak and beech forests.
The zone of psychrophilous conifers, with forests of Scotch pine, Norway spruce and birch. Those species compose virtually pro-alpine or Scandinavian landscapes. The zone of psychrophilous conifers occurs principally in western Rhodope.
With regard to the habitat types of the area, according to the conclusions of the project “Identification and description of habitat types at sites of interest for the conservation of nature” of the Standard Data Sheet NATURA 2000 and the Specific Environmental Study of the Central Rhodope area (Gatzoyannis 1999), there are 23 habitat types, 5 of which are of top priority:Priority habitat types are marked with an asterisk (*)
Habitat types included in Annex I of the Directive 92/43/EEC
Intermittently flowing Mediterranean Rivers of the Paspalo-Agrostidion
Semi-natural dry grasslands and scrubland facies on calcareous substrates
Sub-continental steppic grasslands
Species-rich Nardus grasslands, on siliceous substrates in mountain areas.
Hydrophilus tall herb fringe communities of plains and of the montane to alpine levels
Siliceous rocky slopes with chasmophytic vegetation
Luzulo – Fagetum beech forests
Asperulo-Fagetum beech forests
Medio-European limestone beech forests (Cephalanthero-Fagion)
Tilio-Acerion tilio-Acerion of forests, screes and ravines
Castanea sativa woods
Hellenic beech forests with Abies borisii-regis
Forests with Quercus frainetto
Acidophilous Picea forests of the montane to alpine levels (Vaccinio - Piceetea)
Pinus nigra subsp. pallasiana forests
Alluvial forests with Alnus glutinosa and Fraxinus excelsior (Alnion glutinoso - incanae)
Salix alba and Populus alba galleries
Forests with Platanus orientalis
Habitat types not included in Annex Ι of Directive 92/43/EEC
Pteridium aquilinum stands
Greek forests of Pinus silvestris
Hellenic birch forests
Sub-Mediterranean aspen stands
Thermophilous oak woods of Eastern Mediterranean and Balkans
The most remarkable ecosystems which characterize the Rhodope mountain are the Simida (birch) forest, the Elatia forest, the Virgin Forest of Fractos, the Haidou-Koula with the surrounding vertices, the Tsihla-Drymos region of the Prefecture of Xanthi.
The Simida Forest
The birch (“simida” in Greek) is the first tree species which becomes established in open areas. However, it is very soon replaced by other, more competitive species, such as the Scotch pine and the beech. In Greece it can only be traced in isolated stands, among fir and European black pine forests at an altitude of 1.000-1.950 m. It is only in the Rhodope mountain, which is its southernmost distribution limit, that it forms non-mixed forests. Therefore, the forest that it forms northwest of “Kara Dere“ is unique in Greece.
The Elatia Forest or Kara Dere
The region of Elatia hosts the non-mixed forest of Norway spruce, unique in Greece. The Elatia forest stretches from the central and northern part of the Prefecture of Drama, along the Greek - Bulgarian border and it composes a landscape which resembles Northern European landscapes. More tree and shrub species occurring in the wider area are the Macedonian fir (known also as Bulgarian fir), which resembles the silver fir of Europe, the Scotch pine, junipers, beech, aspen, willow, mountain ash, maple, oak, ash, European alder, Cornelian cherry dogwood, but also herbaceous plants.
The faunal richness of Elatia is plentiful, with several endemics of the Balcanic region, in addition to many species which are rare nationwide. At the location “Koutra” there is the forest village of Elatia, about 72 km from the city of Drama, a property of the Forest Service. The forest village constitutes the administrative and operational centre of the Elatia forests.
The Fractos Virgin Forest
The Fractos Virgin Forest is situated at the northeastern end of the Prefecture of Drama, under the highest peak of Central Rhodope in 1.953m. It is unique in Greece and is regarded as one of the most undisturbed natural forest ecosystems of Europe and the most important of its kind, with a high ecological interest. Its form differs from the common forests, since there is a coexistence of broadleaf and conifer species of small height and age and very old and tall trees. It was registrated as Virgin Forest in 1979 (an area of 11.000 acres) and, after that, in 1980 it was declared a Natural Monument, due to its high phytogeographical, ecological and historical value. Since then, it enjoys a total protection status.
The Virgin Forest, together with a wider conservation zone around it, is nominated “The Fractos Forest”. This surrounding zone is under the state of partial protection, since grazing and hunting are prohibited but timbering and recreation are allowed. The forest worksite of Fractos, at about 8,5 km from the Virgin Forest, is the operational centre of the forest.
European beech forest in Tsihla, Haidou
At the north of the Nestos valley, Haidou is the southernmost part of mount Koula (the northern part lays in Bulgarian territory). Its highest peak is Gyftokastro (1.827 m), at the Greek-Bulgarian boarder. The Beech forest in Haidou, coupled with the spectacular waterfalls of Leivaditi, attracts visitors and researchers, who may observe rare species of fauna and flora. The predominant beech forests in Haidou, mix with Scotch pine, birch and Macedonian fir, while, as the altitude surpasses 1.000 m, one may see the increasing dominance of grasslands, remnants from pastures which were used for hundreds of years by the nomad animal farmers. After 1940, as animal farming decreases, natural regeneration, principally of Scotch pine and birch, becomes increasingly intense, in several spots of the forest complex.
The forests of Phodope provide shelter to a great number of animal species which live, move about and breed in the area. Some of them are.classified as rare.
For certain large mammal species such as the brown bear, the wolf, the chamois, the roe deer, the deer and the wild boar, the area delimits their southernmost distribution. These animals live and reproduce in the dense forests of Norway spruce, oak and Scotch pine. The most important mammal in the area is the brown bear, which is included in the Red Data Book of Endangered Vertebrates of Greece, as “Endangered” and is considered a priority species according to the Directive 92/43/EEC. In central Rhodope the bear population is estimated to reach 25-30 animals, which find an ideal habitat in these forests. The chamois survives on the steep slopes of Rhodope, in the area of Frakto. The remaining population is now extremely small (around 50-60 individuals) and strict measures ought to be adopted to ensure its protection. Other significant species recorded in the area is the jackal, the wild cat, the European badger, the edible dormouse, the otter, in addition to certain bat species which are protected by the Directive 92/43/EEC.
With regard to the avifauna, 139 bird species were recorded. These species either are permanent residents or use the area for breeding, resting during migration or wintering. Remarkable occurrences are those of the capercaillie and the hazel grouse, which are not found anywhere else in Greece. The capercaillie is a bio indicator of ecologically rich forests. Its presence, with a population of 330-380 birds, indicates the central European boreal character of local forests and delimits its southernmost occurrence in Europe, next to the Athos peninsula. Moreover, the forest complexes of the Rhodope mountain range constitute a principal habitat for passerines, which’s greater percentage occur in the study area. Finally, It is worth mentioning that five (5) raptor species breed in the area: the Egyptian vulture, the golden eagle, the peregrine falcon, the eagle owl and the tengmam’s owl, as well as woodpeckers such as the black woodpecker and the white-backed woodpecker. The area of Elatia, in particular, hosts a great number of breeding species which do not occur anywhere else in Greece such as the stock doves, the tengmam’s owl, the black woodpecker, the ring ouzel, the wood warbler, the willow tit and the spotted nutcracker.
The area presents a high interest with regard to its fish fauna, due to the existence of a considerable number of smaller or larger streams with permanent flow. In the waters of Vathirema and Stravorema, there are populations of the wild trout Salmo trutta macedonicus (Salmo macrostigma Dumeril, 1858 according to Annex ΙΙ of the Directive 92/43/EEC). The trout’s live upstream, near the river springs, where there is clean, oxygen-rich running water. The population of the species in those streams is thought to be confined, so as to present particular interest as a genetic reserve. Due to this genetic isolation of the population, the area may be said to be of outstanding significance.
For the amphibians, the principal habitats are the smooth-slope meadows, which are crossed by streams. The pools and the stream plains constitute spawning locations for most amphibian species. Eleven (11) species have been recorded, out of which two species, the yellow-bellied toad (Bombina variegata) and the great crested newt (Triturus cristatus) are included in Annex ΙΙ of the Directive 92/43/EEC and 4 species – the European green toad (Bufo viridis), the Common tree frog (Hyla arborea), the agile frog (or spring frog) (Rana dalmatina) and the stream frog (or Graecian frog) (Rana graeca), are included in Annex IV of the Directive. The most abundant species locally is the common frog (Rana temporaria), while the spotted salamander (Salamandra Salamandra).is the species with the widest distribution. Another interesting species, the alpine newt (Triturus alpestris) has been found in a meadow, near Vathirema.
The reptile species occurring in the area are illustrated in the following table (Gatzoyannis 1999):
European pond terrapin
Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise, Greek tortoise
European glass lizard
Coluber, Large whip snake
Rat snake, Four-lined snake
Leopard snake, European ratsnake
European grass snake
Adder, Common viper
Deserted settlements, traditional water-mills, ancient and Byzantine castles, together with an impressive number of stone arch bridges, which permitted communication among settlements, enhance the natural value of the mountainous Rhodope, complement the cultural and archaeological capital of the lowland part of the Prefectures of Drama and Xanthi, indicating the unbreakable bond of Man and nature through time.
Today, the sensation that the upland villages of the Prefecture of Drama induce to the beholder, is that of abandonment and of neglect. The relics that are still standing there evoke remembrances from the coexistence of the Turks, the Bulgarians and the refugees from Asia Minor and Eastern Thrace. As the population exchanged progresses, the Muslims departed from the area. Today, their administrative centre still remains the town of Stavroupoli.
Contrarily to the upland villages of Drama, the Pomak villages of the Prefecture of Xanthi keep on being a living part of Central Rhodope and one of the few frontier corners of Greece, which are not affected by the powerful migration wave. Due to the geographical isolation of the area, the inhabitants have developed a quite particular culture.
In the mountainous area of Western and Central Rhodope, the visitor has the opportunity to wander about its unique forests, to follow routes that will reveal its natural wealth, to enjoy the caverns, gorges, waterfalls and the meandering streams, to walk along routes of cultural interest, to attend folklore events, to taste traditional dishes, to relax and to have the pleasure of performing different activities inspired by the nature.
The increasing visitation of the area has set the prerequisites for the establishment of the infrastructure for hiking, interpretation and awareness, recreation and relaxation, accommodation and dining. This infrastructure must respond to visitors’ needs and requirements and contribute to the sustainable development of the area and to the promotion of tourism locally.
Routes and trails
The major road network, secondary, municipal and forest roads and ecotourism trails, compose an extensive network of access points and tour of the mountain range of Western and Central Rhodope, and guide the visitor though his/her acquaintance with its plentiful natural assets and distinctiveness.
The entry points are the towns of Drama, Paranesti, Stavroupoli and Xanthi. Starting from these cardinal access points, the visitor has the opportunity to drive or hike about the mountain massif and, according to his/her wishes and interests, to take one of the following major routes:
...for the Simida Forest:
...for the Elatia Forest:
...for the Frakto Forest:
...for the Haidou Fores:
Xanthi-Lykodromio-Forest Village of Erymanthos
...for the Trahoni Waterfalls:
Stavroupoli-Forest Village of Erymanthos
The principal routes are connected to a sufficient network of trails which ensures accessibility to sites of particular natural and aesthetic interest, such as the organized access and hiking paths at the local waterfalls (Frakto, Agia Varvara, Lepida etc), at the forests of Simida, Elatia, Frakto and the beech forest in Tsihla-Haidou, at sites of archaeological and cultural interest, as well as along certain significant streams of the area (Arkoudorema, Diavolorema, Stravorema).
Information and education infrastructure
The local information and education infrastructure provides sufficient information on the natural assets of Rhodope, as well as adequate information for the visitor’s comfortable and satisfying tour.
Natural History Museum of Rhodope-Paranesti
A Natural History Museum of Rhodope is established at one of the main gates to the Rhodope mountain massif. The museum has been operating since 2002. Its exhibition hall of no less than 300m2 and its thematic units refer to:
Geology, rocks and fossils of the area
Vegetation, flora and fauna of Rhodope
The structure of local ecosystems
The liaison between Man and natural environment
Environmental Education Centre-Paranesti
An Environmental Education Centre-ParanestiAn Environmental Education Centre has been operating since 2002 in Paranesti, covering the area of the Prefectures of Drama, Xanthi, Kavala, Evros, Rhodope and Serres. Its complex and important activities in this region include the organisation of seminars and meetings for those working in the education sector and for other social groups, as well as the production of education and information material. Its premises include an exhibition hall, a seminar room, a multipurpose room, a laboratory for physics-chemistry and biology, and the staff offices.
Fractos’ Visitors Centre-Fractos’ forest village
Situated in the peripheral zone of the Virigin Forest, in the forest village of Fractos, the Information Centre of Fractos provides the visitors with concise information about the area, contributing to their awareness, before they come in contact with the forest’s special environment.
Infrastructure for recreation and visitor service
A large number of organised recreation and resting sites are dispersed in the mountains of central and western Rhodhope, in various locations along the touring routes, fulfilling the needs of the visitor and enhancing the recreational value of the area.
Accommodation and dining
The mountainous area of the Prefectures of Drama and Xanthi is equipped with an ever increasing accommodation infrastructure i.e. hotels, traditional guest houses as well as moutain resorts and forest villages such as in Fractos, Elatia and Erymanthos, where the visitor's stay constitutes a unique experience.
A large number of dining facilities, dispersed among the local settlements, provide gastronomic delights which can satisfy even the most demanding customer. One can enjoy unique cuisine in the modern restaurants of the region, while the traditional taverns offer splendid quality local dishes.
A series of activities such as hiking, mountain climbing, horseback riding, mountain biking, touring by train, canoe, kayak, fishing and swimming in river Nestos, provide the visitor with special opportunities for relaxation, recreation, contact with nature and environmental awareness.
Credits - EKBY, 2007