Just west of Thessaloniki, right where the industrial zone ends, is a world of astounding natural beauty.
This is the Axios Delta National Park, an expanse of protected wetlands covering more than 380 square kilometers and encompassing the deltas of the rivers Axios and Aliakmon (or Haliacmon), the estuaries of the rivers Gallikos and Loudias, and the wetlands of Nea Agathoupoli and Alyki Kitrous.
This area forms one of the most significant ecosystems of Greece, home to a vast array of flora and fauna. Nearly 300 bird species make their homes in or migrate through the park, and there is a wonderful array of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians as well.
The Axios Delta National Park is a year-round destination, with a landscape that captures the unique beauty of each season. Here are some of the best ways to enjoy the park:
THE LOUDIAS ESTUARY: HORSES, MUSSELS AND SUNSETS
A 20-kilometer route, some of it along unpaved roads, begins at the junction of Nea Malgara on the Thessaloniki – Athens National Road, heading down through a pastoral landscape to the sea and running along the shore before doubling back inland.
The first highlight along the way will likely be a sighting of the wild horses of the Loudias estuary, whose story is a happy one. The descendants of workhorses who were abandoned when farms became mechanized, they breed and thrive here, now part of the delta ecosystem. The meadows near the riverbanks are some of their favorite grazing grounds. Bring binoculars for a better view.
The binoculars will also come in handy as you lose yourself in some fantastic birdwatching. As you reach the shoreline, you’ll spot a great reed bed, teeming with activity. Here you’ll find graceful waterbirds and seabirds, including herons, pygmy cormorants, shelducks and spoonbills.
Continuing along the coastline, you’ll find the area’s mussel farms, the plump products of which are enjoyed all over Greece. Some of the mussel farmers’ huts have been built right out on the water, hovering directly over the surface of the sea in a setting that’s the picture of tranquility.
If you time it right and arrive later in the day, you’ll be there when the placid waters of the estuary capture the golden light of the setting sun. The view of Mt Olympus is lovely from here. Heading inland will bring you in the villages of Kimina and Halastra – both are popular destinations for a meal of fish or freshly harvested mussels.
THE ALYKI KITROUS LAGOON: A SENSATIONAL BIRD SANCTUARY
A visit here offers a tremendous variety of experiences; among the options is to follow a 20-kilometer route that takes in a number of the highlights. If you start at the Nea Agathoupoli birdwatching tower at the southern end of the Axios Delta National Park, about 40 minutes from Thessaloniki, you can enjoy views over the delta of the Aliakmon River and out to the Thermaic Gulf, and you’ll see many different bird species through the telescopes or binoculars you can borrow here.
Thousands of ducks of several species, along with pelicans, herons and birds of prey are among the many birds that frequent these wetlands. With luck, you might even spot a white-tailed sea eagle; one of the few pairs in Greece nests here. You can also walk or cycle on paths through the wetlands – bikes are available.
The Nea Agathoupoli bird – watching tower is open Wednesdays to Fridays plus two Saturdays per month, from 10:00 – 14:00.
Continuing south along the coastal road, flanked here by vineyards and forested ravines on the one side and the sea on the other, brings you to one of Greece’s most important wetlands – the Alyki Kitrous Lagoon. The lagoon is home to many wading birds; in winter, these include great numbers of flamingos, who dine on tiny red crustaceans (from which the birds get their lovely color) that live on the lagoon floor and in the salt pans. A sparkling hill of salt stands nearby.
A strip of dunes borders the lagoon. You can reach the dunes in a 4×4 vehicle via a dirt road south of the salt works, or hike in from the small Church of Aghia Paraskevi near the village of Korinos. One of Europe’s largest populations of Hermann’s tortoises lives here, along with yet still more marvelous birds; to avoid disturbing the fauna, be careful as you explore the dunes, and avoid visits during the April – June breeding season.
Returning north, you’ll find the seaside village of Methoni. This is a perfect place to enjoy some fresh fish and seafood, and you may well spot some pelicans just offshore.
THE KALOCHORI LAGOON: A WILD REFUGE AT THE EDGE OF THE CITY
You don’t need a car to experience the serene beauty of the Axios Delta National Park. The local number 40 city bus to Kalochori leaves regularly throughout the day from the Thessaloniki train station. Its route runs through the city’s main industrial zone, a striking contrast to what lies ahead. Get off at the Miltiadou stop; it’s about a two-kilometer walk to the edge of the lagoon.
In wintertime, the Kalochori Lagoon welcomes great flocks of flamingos. In warmer months, you’ll see many other waders, such as sandpipers and Kentish plovers.
A trail leads from the village of Kalochori towards the sea, and dirt roads crisscross the landscape as far as your legs will take you. Walk along the shore for views of Thessaloniki to the one side and tranquil wetland ponds, home to plovers, avocets, black-winged stilts and other leggy wading birds to the other. In addition to all this avian splendor, you might see a herd or two of majestic water buffalo grazing in the fields.
Binoculars will help you make the most of the excursion, and mosquito repellent is a must, especially near dusk. Back in Kalochori, treat yourself to a meal of fresh fish and other local seafood specialties before you head back to the city.