“There is an island in the Wine Dark Sea named Crete”. So wrote Homer all those years ago and the poetry of the statement remains to this day. Crete is one of the most fascinating of the Mediterranean islands with a wealth of culture, landscape, natural history and wonderful food and wine all of which we enjoy to the full.
Crete in spring has to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. Fabulous mountain scenery, meadows smothered in wild flowers, olive groves resonant with birdsong and the excitement of migration with such favourites as Bee-eaters and Red-footed Falcon coming in to join the resident Griffon and Bearded Vultures –just a few of the annual attractions which have people returning year after year.
To see as many of the marrying habitats as possible try visit the four centres – Gouves on the north coast near Heraklion, the Omalos plateau high in the mountains, Rethymnon and finally Chania, where you can take advantage of that town’s airport to avoid the long drive back to Heraklion. Although concentrating on the birds and flowers, do not ignore the other aspects of this fascinating island and a visit to the ancient archaeological site of Knossos.
The world-famous island of Santorini is the southern-most island of the Cycladic group in the Aegean Sea, a short distance north of Crete. The eruption of the volcano around 1500 BC buried the island beneath a thick layer of volcanic ash and probably caused the end of the Minoan civilisation in Crete. Experience the centre of that civilization – the world famous site of Knossos. Based in Heraklion, explore this heritage and enjoy some of the other aspects of this beautiful island.
The World Heritage Site of Doñana on Spain’s southern coast is a mecca for birdwatchers. Here tens of thousands of birds spend the winter months in this fantastic area of salt marshes, dunes and Mediterranean woodland which is also home to the magnificent Spanish Imperial Eagle. Although European, the area is influenced by its proximity to Africa and, in spite of being on the Atlantic Ocean, it is also affected by the nearby Mediterranean.
Doñana is not only important for the rare species which it holds just such as the Iberian Lynx or the Spanish Imperial Eagle. It is also significant for its immense diversity. More than half of Europe’s species of birds are recorded here, many of them in huge numbers Most are present only in winter, but there are also good numbers in the breeding season and on passage.
The history of Doñana is very recent. Only six thousand years ago the river Guadalquivir emptied into a huge estuary which covered what is now Doñana. The marine currents led to the formation of sandbanks and today’s coastline, cutting off a vast saline lake from the sea which was slowly transformed into marshes by the accumulation of the alluvial sediments. Threatened by industrial and tourism development, the area is highly sensitive and the importance of ecotourism is recognised by everyone involved in its conservation.
Explore the National Park itself as well as the area in which it is set and spend time watching the spectacle of thousands of Greater Flamingos, Avocets and other wading birds. Visit White Stork Colony and expect to be lucky enough to see Imperial Spanish Eagle and other raptors. Iberian Azure-winged Magpie, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Lesser Short-toed Lark are just some of the other star turns.
While there, go to the extraordinary town of El Rocío which has more than a hint of “wild west” about it. Every spring it attracts over a million pilgrims but for the rest of the year it seems strangely empty. Its location is absolutely perfect, lying as it does on the edge of the marsh where large numbers of birds such as Flamingos and Avocets come to feed.
The atmosphere of tranquility is added to by the seemingly wild horses which wander around the marsh seeming to revel in the shallow water. Stay at Hotel Turo where every room features paintings and sometimes tiles showing the birds and flowers of Doñana. The food in the nearby restaurant is excellent and features local seafood (but don’t worry if you have an allergy – there are plenty of alternatives) and, of course, the wine is delicious.
The third largest of the Greek islands, Lesvos (or Lesbos as the anglicised version has it) lies just off the Turkish coast in the Aegean Sea and is one of the classic birdwatching spots in Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean.
This mountainous island is utterly unspoilt and offers everything that you would imagine a Greek island to have in the spring. Olive groves, meadows of yellow and red, ancient woodlands, sunshine, tavernas, vineyards, sleepy fishing villages and the air full of birdsong and the hum of bees.
In late April not only are the wild flowers at their peak, but so is migration. Classic Mediterranean favourites such as Bee-eater, Hoopoe and Red-footed Falcon vie for attention with local specialities such as Kruper's Nuthatch, Cretzschmar's Bunting and Rupell's Warbler. Keep an eye open for that master of camouflage, the Stone Curlew, and enjoy the Flamingos and Avocets which frequent the salt pans and Montagu's Harrier and Lanner Falcon.
In spite of the abundance of birds, this is a relaxed holiday based at the renowned Kalloni II hotel at Skala Kallonis, a small fishing village which at this time of year is just gearing up for the tourist season. Right outside the hotel are the Kalloni Pools which makes pre-breakfast birding a very relaxed affair. The beach and other good areas are also within easy strolling distance.
As well as the birds and flowers, take a little time to enjoy some of the other delights of Lesvos, notably the Petrified Forest with its 15-20 million year old trees and the delightful Ipsilou Monastery perched on the top of a 1500 foot high hill.
If ever you were in the Greek islands in the 1960's you will immediately know that huge areas of North Cyprus are completely unspoilt. Since the island divided in 1974 there has been very little in the way of tourism development and only a few places near Kyrenia are showing signs of change.
Not only is this part of Cyprus largely unspoilt in terms of development, its people have remained the hospitable, friendly bunch that they always were. They tend to shrug their shoulders at the politics and get on with living and are hugely welcoming to visitors.
The north is incredibly beautiful with the Kyrenia mountains forming a backdrop round almost every corner. From the mountain roads you look over the Mesaryan Plain which crosses the whole island and on down to Mount Olympus and the Trodos mountains in the south. In the fertile plain and coastal districts the old-fashioned methods of farming have ensured that wild flowers flourish, whilst the undeveloped beaches are a sanctuary for Loggerhead and the endangered Green Turtles.
As in other Eastern Mediterranean islands, North Cyprus is a hotspot for bird migration in the spring with the two peninsulas of Korucam in the west and Karpas (known as "the panhandle") in the east providing welcome land for tired migrants.
Of course the history and heritage of Cyprus is well known and the north has its share of outstanding archaeological sites – but here instead of wading through queues of visitors you are more likely to have the place to yourself. Take time to visit such wonderful places as Bellapais Abbey, St Hilarion Castle, the Shipwreck Museum in Kyrenia and, of course, the fantastic ruins of the ancient city of Salamis.