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Alternative Greece: six of the best holidays beyond the sunlounger | Greece holidays

Alternative Greece: six of the best holidays beyond the sunlounger | Greece holidays

Explore the Axios delta and stay in Thessaloniki

A neat line of wooden houses on stilts sits over water, with fishing boats tied up between them. Marshland stretches as far as the eye can see, blending with the sky. In a mirror-like lagoon, salmon-pink flamingos stalk the shallows, their beaks trawling for crustaceans.

This waterlogged world is the Axios delta, where the Axios River, flowing from the Albania-Kosovo border, meets Greece’s longest river, the Aliakmon, and the Loudias, to form a basin on the Thermaic Gulf just west of Thessaloniki. Now a national park, its mosaic of fresh waters, brackish lagoons, salt marshes, reed beds and mudflats is an important refuge for millions of migrating and nesting birds, including glossy ibis, dalmatian pelicans and rare white-tailed eagles. It’s a photographer’s dream and a wonderful place to explore on foot.

A car is still useful to get from point to point, though local buses from Thessaloniki run to Kalochori lagoon in the eastern section and the birdwatching tower in Nea Agathoupoli in the south. The best place to see flamingos is around the salt pans of Alyki Kitros in the south. A map and advice on the best routes depending on the time of year are available from the information centre in Chalastra. Local group occasionally organises day tours, including a boat trip (€30pp).

The delta is an important refuge for wildlife and birds, including flamingos. Photograph: Hemis/Alamy

Besides about 300 bird species, the delta is home to spotted turtles, tortoises, wildcats, sousliks (a type of squirrel), recently reintroduced water buffalo and wild horses. Dykes divide wide, flat paddy fields, while mussels are cultivated on ropes and gathered in by fishers. Most of the country’s rice and mussels are harvested here; and its salt pans produce one of the largest outputs in Greece after Messolonghi.

There’s basic accommodation on the delta outskirts, but it’s best to base yourself in Thessaloniki. Greece’s second-largest city has plenty of ancient sites, too. Bustling but laid-back, restaurant tables crowd its squares and nightlife lasts until morning.

A longer trip could take in mountainous Florina (a region and town) about two hours’ drive west from Thessaloniki: stay at the Lynx Mountain Resort (doubles from €135 B&B). Just outside the scenic mountain villages of Agrapidies and Nymfaio, Arcturos’s rescued bear,…

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