The White Arrivers
We arrived in Xanthi as the worst winter storms in over 50 years hit the Balkans. Blizzards, blocked roads, violent slurries of thick snow throughout the whole of northern Greece. A church bell chimed in the darkened sky, splattered with snow, as we crawled in. And then, from somewhere on the hills over Xanthi, barely visible from our newly found, unheated rooms in an ancient house in a crumbling part of the city, the quite unexpected sound of a mosque’s call to prayer.
Next day, we walked out on the streets – blindingly white with thick snow under bright silver-grey skies – to see what the town of Xanthi looked like. We walked side-by-side along with head-scarfed Muslim women, bent double into the wind-angled snow. The town was understandably quiet, but remarkably the old salepi seller still stood in the square with his wheeled barrow, a large battered urn sitting on top, holding the hot thick flour-based drink that’s popular in the winter months in these northern part of Greece. He looked a miserable lone figure – snow growing on his black eastern karakul hat. We darted into baker’s and grocer’s shops to avoid the weather, and heard Turkish voices behind the counters and amongst the customers, and tins and products we didn’t recognise with Turkish labels. And other voices too: half Turkish, half Slavic. Women in veils, but with bright blue eyes looking out, strands of blonde hair falling through. We were a little confused and unsure of ourselves here, not knowing what to expect in this province, this Greek diamerisma, of Thrace – a remote north eastern area not often visited by outsiders – but already it seemed a special place. Quite unlike anywhere else I’d been to in Greece.
We were in this far north-eastern region of Greece as Giristroula was researching schools throughout Greece for a book she was writing. We had left the warm, rich fields of Corfu for a few months. Swapped them for these far-flung lands of Thrace. It was hard to believe it was the same country.
The snows faded – the skies over the city became open and blue. The mountains to the north of Xanthi became startlingly clear, and close. A range – the Rodopi mountains – that flowed right to the very edge of the town, as if the great rumbling landslide-flow of rocks pulled up just short, against the backdoor of the very first old house in the Old Town. The old town was our new neighbourhood. It revealed itself, after the snows, to be an incredible village within the city: narrow tilting alleys of museum-piece pastel-coloured Ottoman houses. Houses looking like stage props but still actually lived in. Byzantine churches, Christian frescoes, over-looked by the white, tall, towers of mosques built higher up on the hills. And then, on the far east end of Xanthi, piled up next to the Kosynthos river – where we had our rooms – smaller box-ish houses, outside of which stone stairs climbed to wonky wooden balconies and roofs. Beautiful in their own dilapidated way, these houses must have been built for the workers in the tobacco industry.
Xanthi became rich in the 17th Century on tobacco. Still grown now, out on the hills and fields beyond the city, for centuries tobacco was a huge industry and made many Xanthians rich. This was clear to see as we walked through the Old Town getting closer to the centre of the city and the clock tower square. The houses turned into hefty neo-classical mansions: yellows and pinks, sculptured balconies held up by vast wooden beams, impressive stone villas for the owners of the tobacco warehouses. Their luxury lives, 200 years ago, remaining in heavy stone, ornate doors and iron-work windows for us now. The grand old warehouses remained too, on Odos Kapnergaton – literally Tobacco Workers Street – handsome sandstone buildings, but most of them now empty and broken-down and decrepit. In London these warehouses would have been turned into massively expensive, painfully trendy flats and studios. In Xanthi they were languishing like once majestic elephant graveyard carcasses. And all the while, as we walked around, I was aware of those mountains just over my shoulder, on the very edge of town. If I turned round quickly, northwards, to face them, I felt sure they’d edged closer. The range suddenly frozen, as if in some game of musical statues.
Exploring Xanthi at night, we had a fruitless search for a tsipouradiko – the old bars set aside only for the drinking of tsipouro. With northern Greece being the heartland for tsipouro, I had expected the city to be lined with them. As we watched the young students from the university and the young men from their army service – most of Greece’s compulsory army conscripts are sent for their year conscription in these areas, up near the Turkish borders – filling the streets, there also seemed no tradition of Greek folk music or the old underground sounds of rebetiko here either. Another big surprise as Xanthi is the birth place of Manos Hajidakis, the magician of blending classical music with Greek folk melodies and themes.
The house Hajidakis was born in had been restored and was now an arts centre – but it never seemed to be open. We took a place at ‘Zefyros’, a tavern opposite his old house with a big print of Hajidakis’ famous Odos Oniron – Street of Dreams – record sleeve and caricatures of Hajidakis’ plump face up on the walls, his music faintly playing in the background. The city was alive – the tavernas and bars were all neat and tasteful – but the old culture of Greece seemed somehow missing amongst the cleaned-up stone buildings. But people seemed to be happy. Happy at least to be able to finally come out from their houses after the snows and walk around and chat – to voltaroun. People had time for us, wanted to chat, wanted to help.
We had first arrived in the city in the undignified state of being towed – as we sat in the diagonally hoisted, raised-up car – on the back of an old pick-up truck. Our car having been defeated by the bad weather as we travelled in, just outside of Thrace. The garage owner insisted on driving us to where we were staying, even though the streets of the old town are old and small and difficult to tackle. His van stalled on the climb to our house and slid back down the slope, crashing with a sickening blow into a wall – our things falling out onto the road, his lights smashed, the bumper hanging off. However, the garage man seemed far more concerned with hoisting our bags up on his shoulder to help walk us up to our door. Looking back at his prone, shattered vehicle he shrugged “Ah…den peirazei” – it doesn’t matter. He nodded upwards “Einai megali anifora…” – this is a difficult climb for you. I hope you’ll be okay…
Later the garage man called by again, to find out how we were doing, if we were eating well. He took us, in the patched up van, to his favourite butcher’s. As we talked it transpired the garage owner called himself a Turk, even though, he, his father and his father’s father had all been born here in Greece. We met the butcher. The butcher told us he was a Pomakos. I didn’t know what this was. He told us his ancestral roots were a tribe found only in this part of Greece and a few pockets over the mountains in Bulgaria. He too was a Muslim, and spoke Pomakika, and Turkish, but spoke Greek to us and his other non-Muslim customers. The meat was given to us for free.
“You are friends of my friend, so you are now my friends,” said the Pomakos.
To the English. And the Greek. About his friend, the Turk. Who had ‘Greek’ written in his passport.
Giristroula’s parents had stayed in Xanthi, years ago. They had told me a story of how while on their holiday here they had sat on a bench and chatted, briefly, just passing the time of day really, to an elderly woman.
“You’re not from Xanthi?” said the old lady “Well, where will you sleep? It’s getting dark…” she started to fret.
They told her it was okay, they were staying in a hotel. But she had trouble understanding this.
“A hotel?” said the woman they had met only moments ago. “But why didn’t you tell me before? You should have stayed at my house..”
Giristroula’s parents told me they had to physically restrain the old woman from going back to clear the floor of her front room.
On Saturdays, the bazaar comes to Xanthi. Filling the whole of Emporio Square. Bright stalls running as far as you can see. Spices, fruits, wines, clothes. Tat you don’t want, fresh foods and quality products you do. The villagers from the surrounding areas all descend from the mountains into the town, filling the cafes. Chatting, gossiping, spilling out of bakeries eating bougatsa pastries – not with cream or cheese, as elsewhere in Greece, but here with meat. The bazaar market traders were different from others you find in Greece too. Many were from the gypsy communities and they tried their best to lure us into buying from them – unlike the usual proud Greek shop owner who never stoop or demean themselves by trying to appeal to customers.“Either you buy, or you don’t buy. What do I care?” is the usual response in Greek shops when you try to haggle or show any indecision or qualm about buying one of their products. Even if the shopkeeper is suffering from no custom whatsoever and secretly should be desperate for any kind of trade they could get. Here in Xanthi, the market merchants vied with each other to put on a kind of show to attract the customers’ attention. Turkish Delight was handed out to lure you in and, almost uniquely again in Greece, there were expressions of gratitude. “Agapi mou!” and “Omorfi!” hollered out from hundreds of stalls.
I saw one smiling stall owner tell a Romani gypsy girl – a girl in a dirty torn dress, with skin the colour of a deep varnished table and brittle, electric shock, blue-black hair – that she could take one of the Eastern sweets she was selling. In a flash the girl had taken handfuls.
“Ochi ochi ochi!” cried the stallholder. No, no, no… “Ena!Ena!” – One! One!
The gypsy girl – quicker the eye could see – had hidden the sweets in every single hiding place she had on her. The market holder raced round to the front of her stall.
“Tha fas xilo!” she shrieked – the common cry at naughty kids – You’ll eat wood! She started emptying the girl’s pockets, piles of sweets falling out onto the floor. The gypsy girl looked hurt. The market trader now wouldn’t even let her have one sweet after the sly deception. The girl pulled a bruised, disappointed face. And then, as the trader went back to her place behind the stall broke, the girl broke into a broad beam and offered her friends sweets from a great towering stash she still had hidden somewhere.
Cherub faced gypsy boys walked along, seven or eight year olds, smoking long cigarettes, trying to look tough. One dangling a catapult. The Roma are, unlike the rest of Greece, Muslim here too. We followed them, as they meandered past spice shops, silk shops, and shops selling football shirts – all Galatasaray or Fenerbahçe or Beşiktaş from the Turkish league, rather than the usual Olympiacos or Panathinaikos or PAOK Salonica. We went into a grill house and ordered souvlakis and gyros – the man in the gyradika rather sweetly first checked that we were okay to eat pork – and we sat and ate and watched the Saturday crowds pass.
The Broken Journey East
We waited on Xanthi station platform for a long time.
“Ochi edo” – not here – said the station master. “You shouldn’t wait for a train here. The line…it’s…er…it’s broken. Trains are late.”
“How late?” I asked him.
So we piled on the replacement bus and out into the surrounding countryside. Mountains dominant on one side, a flat plain on the other, with tall grasses and the odd lone minaret rising up over clumps of trees. The plain spread towards the shining waters of the Nestos Delta in the distance. We got off the bus at Komotini. A large town set round a long, busy square. Komotini has the highest proportion of Turkish people in the country, around 50% of the population, so I was told. Although the Greek government does not recognise them as Turkish, instead they are formally called ‘Greek Muslims’. The old town was remarkable for the old, squat, Ottoman small stores and workshops – most of them carrying Turkish names. Or a comical Greek and Turk mix like ‘Ali Christos’ the barber. The official street signs also had something I hadn’t seen in Greece before: under each road name (‘Odos Smyrni’, ‘Odos Aristotle’ etc.) there was a description of what or who the road was named after. They mainly seemed designed to highlight the significance of Greece and Greek history:
‘This road is named after Smyrni – a great ancient Greek city in Asia Minor – now called Izmir’ or ‘Aristotle: A great Greek philosopher and thinker’.
Were these subtle messages designed for the minority population? It all seemed unnecessary if they were. The Greeks and the Turkish – the Orthodox and the Muslims – all seemed to get on here with quite perfect harmony. Here, where perhaps tension should feel heightened, there was none of the anti-Turkish sentiment you hear in other parts of Greece – parts of Greece that are far further from the border and from these mixed lives that have been going on here for centuries. I was told that it is only people who were not from this area that ever caused any trouble between the different groups here. “The pot is always stirred from the outside” as one resident of Komotoni put it.
Komotini has two impressive central mosques. We walked around the – strangely more impressive – newer one, followed by a man making sure our shoes were off at all times. I asked him if he is Turkish.
“You language is more Slavic, is that right?” I asked him.
“So you don’t speak any Turkish?” He shook his head. This was strange, I thought, in this, the most Turkish of towns in this area. “But the graves here,” I said, pointing. “They’re all inscribed in Turkish.”
He shrugged. “We are all Muslims. But I don’t speak Turkish.”
I asked him if he feels Greek or Pomaki.
“Both.” He scratched his beard and thought about it and smiled a dirty grin “It depends who asks…”
I said goodbye and thanked him. In Greek still. And then asked how to thank him in Pomaki.
“Like the Turkish,” he said. “Teşekkürler.”
Things in Thrace were just getting more and more confusing.
We walked back to the train station, to wait for the ghost train – which ended up being someone’s old van – to take us back to Xanthi, passing as we went the large park with its towering war memorial, complete with gigantic hanging iron sword. Much blood was spilt to take and hang onto these lands. The Greek state clearly didn’t want this to be forgotten. Even if the concept and the convictions are blurred and lost in the actual day-to-day living within these communities of Greeks and Greeks with Turkish roots and the fully ethnic Turkish who are added to the mix. The Turkish people who were allowed to stay when the Ottoman Empire finally fell and Greeks in Turkey and Turks in Greece were being swapped in the ‘Population Exchange’ of 1923, moving around two million from their generations-old homes and communities across the borders on both sides. Turkish people were allowed to stay here, just in this one area of Thrace. Although these ‘Greek Muslims’ can no longer officially call themselves Turkish.
We rattled in the van along the plant-lined roads back towards Xanthi, where the communities of north eastern Greece are confused even further by the large numbers of Pomakis, with their connection to Bulgaria across the mountains to the north, living within this ancient, beautifully scrambled, city. It was a perplexity – a riddle of peoples and belongings that even the locals don’t really have ready-answers for. But it all seemed to work, in its own mysterious way.
Giristroula was working, doing her research, in a school in the centre of Xanthi. Each day the unusualness of this world revealed itself further. Giristroula’s school was a mixed school, but only 20 years ago most of the ‘Muslim’ students – Muslim the official term for both ethnic Turks and Pomakis – were taught solely in Muslim-only schools. Still today there are a few of these ‘Minority Schools’ in the town. One provided by the state, the others privately. These private ‘Minority Schools’ are suspected to be funded by Turkey, and it is in these schools that a feeling of looking towards the border and a closeness to Turkey is said to be promoted. While this hadn’t happened – pretty much all the ethnic Turks and Pomakis I spoke to identified themselves as Greek – still, a strange feeling of disassociation can exist.
But not in the playground. A roughly half-and-half split between Greeks and Muslims in Giristroula’s classes meant students were all switching between Greek, Turkish and Pomaki as they shouted to each other in the playgrounds. The whole feeling was one of just a perfect naturalness to it all – girls playing singing and skipping games in Turkish, then a dance in Greek. Boys playing football yelling to their cousins in Pomaki, then to their friends in Greek. It was a great scene. I was told the staff room was different though.
“I was never racist,” said one teacher to Giristroula “They’ve MADE me racist.”
This teacher claimed that many of the Muslim children need special help as there is rumour of much interbreeding in the communities up in the mountain areas. She railed against the extra benefits Muslims get.
“They can get to university now with very low scores. They get preferential treatment. The teachers here will soon all be Muslim and no Greek will ever be taught. You’ll see! All the parents only speak to me in Turkish as it is…It’s just not right. And…” she finished, wagging a meaty finger in the air. “Have you seen how good the cars they drive are?”
I was disappointed to hear all this, having previously been impressed at the lack of prejudice or conflict up here in these mixed areas. Giristroula told me that this teacher who had sat her down and ranted all this at her was a Greek raised in Germany and had only come back here to her family ancestral town later in life. Perhaps she was just one those stirrers from outside of the pot.
Giristroula got on well with the students. They wanted to show her games and songs she didn’t know from elsewhere in Greece. And they had some great names amongst all the common Greek Marias, Kostas and Nikos.
“Binnur – it means ‘A thousand roses.’”
“Sudem-Miftah – it’s…er…what’s the place called when you die?”
“Yes, that place. My name is the key to Paradise…”
I wandered round Xanthi while Giristroula was teaching. An afternoon call to prayer drew me in to one of the mosques in the new town. Everything was quiet in the dark main hall and it was empty: prayer mats down, misbaḥah prayer beads left, ready for action, along the wall. Upstairs, however, were hidden voices: a lesson was going on. Young sweet-sounding kids were struggling through the Koran. Reading in Arabic, getting it wrong, asking questions in Greek, being barked at by an exceptionally bad-tempered gruff teacher in Turkish. There was confusion and he repeatedly banged on the desks in frustration. It sounded a frightening learning experience to listen in on and I slipped away, back into the open sunlit day, unobserved.
An interesting footnote is that the curious Slavic/Turkish hybrid language that the Pomakis use here is not a written language. I was told it is only an oral language. Similar to Bulgarian, but not completely so – the few Turkish words that slip in came from the trade conducted during the Ottoman Empire. So the Pomaki, for expedience, when buying and selling with the Turks adopted their numbers and certain bartering words and phrases. Hence the “teşekkürler”s for thanks.
It felt strange to me, however, that the adult Greeks I met could speak absolutely no Pomaki at all. I pointed out to some of the teachers from Giristroula’s school when we all went out to a taverna one night – how could they not have picked up something, hearing Pomaki every day growing up here? They didn’t see it as curious at all. Some said, defensively, that most Pomakis went to the Muslim schools not their schools. Still, it seemed odd to me, a refusal almost. It must have been more difficult not to learn some of the language than to learn it.
Into Deep Thrace
Finally with a car, we drove out of the city to where the Nestos River snaked down from Bulgaria flowing towards the Aegean Sea, cutting through north-east Greece and slicing between the Greek states of Macedonia and Thrace. Down on the bank of the ice-cold river on the Thrace side, huge Macedonian cliffs rose above us. We turned and climbed up from the dark river bed – which would be flooded in a few weeks as the snows higher up melted – and into sun-lit Thrace mountains. We followed a railway line that cut into the cliffs, disappearing into tunnels below us and walked on over the rocky path, taking in the huge views across the Nestos Straight and the deep forested ravines.
Further south, Lake Vistonida was full of balancing flamingos. As we approached the pink birds – purple underwings, spindly legs, stupidly long thin necks – they got the jitters and took flight. The sky filled with shades of pinks and purples as the birds moved away, as one huge flock, to settle further into the middle of the lake. Out floating in the lake too was the church of Agios Nikolaos. We were lured over the narrow walkway to the white-towered church, all alone out in its vast churchyard of water, by the sound of religious song coming from somewhere within. I opened up the doors to see deep orange sunlight falling over the dark, dusty, empty pews. Frescoes on the walls of the empty church. No one in attendance, just four old Orthodox priests on their own, pressed together at the small lectern, like four huddled old black crows, their hands folded over fat bellies, singing a Byzantine harmony.
This lake was where Hercules tamed wild horses for the eighth of his 12 Labours. There are still wild horses round here, and wild cats and brown bears somewhere off in the mountains on the horizon. A huge congregation of nature. We continued down to where this large fresh water lake turns salty, and then finally meets the sea.
The modern town of Abdera, on the sea, was utterly undistinguished, but holds inside it the remains of a great ancient city. The city was built in tribute to Hercules’ friend Abderus, who was given Hercules’ wild horses to look after while Hercules completed his other Labours – although unfortunately, not being a Herculean hero himself, he was of course eaten by them. We walked the ancient walls. The old city built high up on bluffs on the very south edge of Thrace, looking straight out to sea and the island of Thasos. I stood and stared and tried to meditate on the big things in life as seemed appropriate in this city that produced several great philosophers of Classical time. Democritus – the Laughing Philosopher – who lived to well over 100 and travelled widely in the world starting from here in Abderus. He travelling Greece to fully understand it and its people and to mock the Greek human foibles as he went.
We headed back to Xanthi on an empty road, golden tall grass-fringed, with marshy fields all around us under a huge, sun-smeared, glassy sky. We pull up to take it all in. A silhouetted lone farmer up on a horse and cart in the distance, an eagle sat just a few feet away on a low branch of a tree staring severely through our open passenger window. Thrace’s emptiness and remoteness felt just perfect. On our way back into the centre of town Greek life soon reminded us of itself. You can only ever really be away from it for so long. A man sat in his car at a red light, the only car waiting. He thumped repeatedly at his horn. Honking continuously at the fully automated traffic sign, again and again. Until it finally turned green for him.
Heading into the north of Thrace, towards Bulgaria, we came into hidden, seclusive areas: the Pomakohoria. Collections of villages, scattered like seeds across bare rolling mountainous lands. The towns themselves are often fairly ugly, the lone arresting site being the substantial mosques sat in the centre. But there was a strange singular feeling surrounding these mountain villages as we drove around.
We stared down from the high snakey road on the hills above and then free-wheeled down into one of these villages. The broken and abandoned old farmers’ houses that still exist were held holding together only by a hundred years habit, so it seemed. They stood in glorious contrast to the short blocky new homes. Homes where I noted every satellite dish was turned to the east to pick up Turkish tv. The old houses that are still lived in have a great Thrace look, with a unique bulging large stone brick box sticking from the thick stone walls, a storey up, where enormous fireplaces inside heat the rooms. The Muslim residents’ styles on the streets were resolutely old fashioned: men wearing fez, women wrapped in headscarves and sat knitting in old cafes. We were startled at one point when we thought we saw a woman in an all-black head-to-toe niqab – as we got closer though we found it wasn’t an ultra-conservative Muslim lady at all, but an old black-robed Orthodox priest loitering on the corner with his pill-box hat fallen down to his eyes and his colossally thick beard up to his nose, just the eyes visible.
The roads had a distinct Thrace look too. All along were dotted fountains – this being an extension of the Greek Orthodox tradition of erecting a shrine when someone had been killed, or where some miracle is supposed to have occurred. There are so many of these shrines throughout Greece, I always wondered if there really can be that many road accidents or religious apparitions? Anyway, in Thrace they go one step further. The Muslim community erect a fountain to the dead, a shrine is dug down to tap into water, and the families build often impressively elaborate brick edifices to their fountains. We passed villages with names such as Medussa and Kedavros – the centaur. Names that must have been changed from Bulgarian or Turkish to dramatic, rather ludicrous, Greek historic names. Names you never see anywhere else. A silence was embedded deep into these villages.
An almost impossible dirt road, winding high up on the side of a plunging drop took us towards the preserved village of Kitani. Crazily, on this sometimes impassable stretch, we saw someone was running a large stone taverna. We felt we had to pay it a visit. Crouching through the ancient wooden door, we entered this Pomaki inn. Black wood, fireplaces, mud walls, the room divided with screens of sticks, rough shepherd rugs on the walls with benches and trinkets everywhere. The elderly owner’s grandmother’s Pomaki wedding dress hung proudly on the wall – bright reds and greens, high frilled collar, long sleeves, jewelled belt. The son – bright blue eyes, blonde beard, powerfully built – wearing an old collarless shirt and an ancient thick, itchy, woollen waistcoat came to ask what we would like his mother to cook. He pulled up a chair, sat with us while as we told him, ate some of our bread, clasped me by the shoulder with his heavy hand knocking all the wind out of me. When our plates of meat arrived, he sat down again, not asking, helping himself to some of our food, taking some of somebody else’s on another table and giving it to me to try. I asked him questions about the Pomakohoria. He gazed into the middle distance, chewing, and didn’t reply. I waited, but he didn’t speak so I turned to my soutzoukakia – my meatball dinner. I tried asking him another. He chewed and ruminated some more, minutes passed, nothing was forthcoming. I gave it one last go, asking him how life was for him and his family so far out here to the east – halfway through my question he finally started to talk, answering my very first. The Pomaki feel abandoned by everyone, he told me. The Greeks overlook them, seeing them as an inconvenience best ignored. The Turks took advantage of this, offered them good land when the Greeks would give them nothing and so, to all intents, the Greeks lost the Pomaki. But the Turks clashed with them too, not wanting them to hold any traditions of their own.
“The Pomaki people fought bravely for Greece in these lands during the war,” Jamaal, the old tavern owner who had heard us talking to his son and had come over to sit down and speak to us. “And now Greece just forgets us.”
We had been invited to one of Giristroula’s teachers’ houses in Xanthi. Her name, appropriately enough, was Xanthippe. A nice name. Xanthippe was also the name of the formidable wife of Socrates who once emptied a chamber pot over the philosopher’s head. There is also a mythical legend in the hills above Xanthi town that there was a Xanthippe who was the lover of a local boy Xanthos. When Xanthos died tragically young, Xanthi turned herself in her sorrow into a bird and she now accompanies lovers she spots walking over the hills and rivers and sings them songs. Our modern day Xanthippe, however, lived in a chaotic house with her kids and parents. Her father had been a salesman and every day he had driven round the Pomakohoria trying to sell his wares. He told me that, 20 years ago, there were barriers up outside every village in the Pomakohoria. He needed a special pass to enter or leave the villages. Was this to keep the Pomakis in, or the Greeks out, I asked.
“Both,” he replied. “There was…suspicion. You know, there was the Cold War. No one really understood who the Pomaki people were. I was okay though” he added in the usual Greek self-effacing way. “They all loved me…”
Barriers and walls within Greece, keeping people away from each other. It all seemed hardly believable, and very sad.
A commonly heard – disagreeable – statement said in Greece is how the Greek dictatorship, Giorgos Papadopoulos, 50 years back, did do one good thing – he built good roads in the country. Giristroula was now researching for a few weeks in the village of Stavroupoli. I accompanied her to the school and I heard in the staffroom something similar, but altogether stronger.
“There used to be a grand mosque in the main square in Xanthi you know,” said one of the teachers. “Behind where the clock tower is now. Papadopoulos did one good thing… he pulled that mosque down.”
Stavroupoli had a different feel from what I had now grown accustomed to in Thrace. It had no real Muslim population. Giristroula said there were only two Muslims in the whole school. The village had very little work either, people were leaving in droves. Giristroula said she’d been told three students had left the school just in the last few weeks as their families had moved away. No one spoke English as I sat and chatted to the koboloi twirling old farmers, a retired butcher, an old shoe maker in the old kafeneo in the village square. But quite a few spoke German. Alongside Athens, Germany was where people were leaving these Thracian villages for. Even these old men in their 70s and 80s had learnt the language, just in case. Places like Stavroupoli had once had their own thriving industries and communities. Now they were all dying. What would finally happen to these places in the next few decades?
In the afternoon, after school, we headed north, towards the Bulgarian border. We were close the border, just as when we were travelling up in the Pomakohoria, but this time further east, and here there was a 2,000 meter mountain range between us and Bulgaria. Plus the vast Haidou forest. After 1945 this was an Iron Curtain border. An easier crossing point into the West than the Berlin Wall, so it was rumoured. For a time this land and the forests teemed with soldiers, spies, fugitives.
We parked at the tiny village of Leivaditis, perched remotely on a mountain peak. An old man with no teeth, in falling down dungarees, carrying what a large dead fox in one hand up the road towards a bin told us he would watch our car for us. Even though he seemed to be the only person on the whole mountainside. We walked into the forest. Up here the snow from earlier in the winter still lay, thick and compacted. In it we saw no other human foot prints, but instead exciting, slightly worrying, large round heavy paws. A bear? Then the tread of large dogs, were these wolves’ prints? We walked, slightly agitated, along the two kilometre path. Then took a long, plunging climb down through thickly bunched, ridiculously tall, beech trees. The snow thinning to lie in patches as we scrambled. Eventually we reached a waterfall, in what felt almost the middle of nowhere. The tallest waterfall in the Balkans, so I was later told. Until recently its 40 meter fall must have been frozen solid. Now, however, we sat and watched the water sliding through the cracked ice, the tumbling falls making a rolling musical sound.
Orpheus, the great musician of ancient Greek myth, was born from Thracian roots, his father a Thracian king. Orpheus, so they say, made the rivers and the rocks dance with his music. His music was so good that Zeus eventually killed him for revealing the mysteries and magic of music to men. Either that, or the story goes that he was so distraught at being unable to bring his beloved wife back from the dead when he travelled down to Hades to rescue her, he spurned all the advances of the Thracian women. In his grief all he could do was play his music and transfer his affection to you boys to enjoy their brief springtime… So the enraged local women tore him to pieces. They had tried throwing stones at him, but his music was so beautiful the stones refused to hit him. Whether the stories say, the deserted forest around us singing to the sound of the waterfall seemed entirely appropriate. The ice hanging high up on the top of the falls cracked with a gunshot sound, echoing off the towering rocks all around us, and fell with the booming sound of an orchestra’s bass drum.
We drove back beyond Stavroupoli. Two clearly defined mountains loomed higher than the rest of the large range. These, so they say, are King Haemus of Thrace and his wife Queen Rodopi. Haemus was very proud of his wife. So proud he even boasted she was more beautiful than Hera, Zeus’s wife. Big mistake. They now sit – in Zeus’s vengeful metamorphosed state – as huge snowy twin peaks. They stared down on us as we travelled up a vertiginously climbing road. 1000 meters up we could see way below us the coiling Nestos river, tracing like a slug’s silver trail through the rough Thrace landscape. In the distance the mountains of the Bulgarian border, where Greek rebels were holed up during the civil war. The other way was the sea and the island of Samothrace, where legendary trance parties and summers of hallucinatory drugs and naked dancing takes place every year. Mount Athos – the residence of Greece’s hermetic monks – could even be glimpsed far off ahead of us, towards Halkidiki and the body of mainland Greece. I could picture regular Greek life going on over there, off towards Thessaloniki with all the industry and expositions at a pace and in a manner and with a feeling quite enormously removed from up here on these silent Thracian hills.
A Smell Of Summer
Tsiknopempti day is a Thursday before Lent where the whole of Greece is out grilling and eating meat so that before the coming 40 days of fasting they’ve made sure they’ve fully sated themselves of flesh. Every garden and terrace and balcony has a long trail of smoke rising from it, like a waving grey flag high in the air. Xanthi had gone suitably crazy for this grilling day. I saw stalls selling meat everywhere, not just outside the tavernas but tobacconists and shoe shops and fruit sellers and furniture stores had all given up their usual trade for the day and were outside setting up fires, turning great skewers of lamb. The Xanthians were lucky that this day had also coincided with ‘Alkyonides’ – the strange 15 or so days of good weather that Greece always gets in late January or February – the origin of the phrase ‘Halcyon Days’. Alkyonides are a type of bird, a bird which needs two weeks of good weather to hatch their eggs. According to legend, these birds were created because of another boastful couple who were turned by Zeus – again – into birds who, as a punishment, have to lay their eggs in wintertime. Although this time Zeus felt a tinge of sorrow for the wife and ordered the winds to drop and for the sun to shine every year for her 15 days of labour.
“Ο Flevaris ki an flevisei, kalokairi tha myrisei…” the Greeks say – as soon as February starts, it smells like summer…
We sat outside the hunkered red brick Hagia Sophia church in the centre of Xanthi, in the sun and ate great pantsetes steaks. A fat man sat next to me punched at his breastbone, letting out a long quivering belch. Then, for afters, we all headed down Tsaldari Street – the high street for Muslim shops and products – for Halva at ‘Taselaridis’. Halvas is the sweet eaten all through Greece, a crumbly nutty dense slab of dry cake, but it’s usually eaten only around Kathara Deftera – Clean Monday – the Greeks’ first day of Lent. In Xanthi, though, it is eaten every day, and the huge queues rolling out of this plain, slightly shabby, white interior bakery show it’s eaten a lot every day here. This is, of course, as with most things round these parts, due to the closeness of Turkey. Halvas came to Greece with the arrival of the Ottomans. Turks love Halva, perhaps almost as much as – so it is stereotypically said – they dislike the Greeks. There is even a saying “Romeiikos kavgas, tourkikos halvas!” – when Greeks fight between themselves, it is halvas to the Turks! I ate huge slices of halva and had strong Greek coffee brought to me on a big brass tray looking like the skeleton of a bell, hanging from the hand of the man serving our table outside. The eastern coffee cups suspended in mid air. We sat and played tavli – backgammon – and the late afternoon slipped, unlamented, away.
East From Xanthi
Alexandroupouli had the things that seemed missing from Xanthi. It’s a city built on the sea front, a port city. There were good looking tsipouradika – tsipouro to go with all the fish caught here – and old fashioned taverns that advertised rembetiko nights. People also appeared to choose to cycle around the city – almost unheard of in Greece. There was a good feeling in the city. The sea front was ugly though, just concrete flats and a long grim beach, but saved by the lighthouse standing tall, in the centre, looking out to the floating tall jagged rocks of Samothraki across the water. There were also two Turkish soldiers here. Two soldiers who had fled over the border in the last week and had been on the run, having been accused of leading a plot to assassinate Turkish President Erdoğan. They had now given themselves up and were seeking asylum in Alexandroupoli. Turkey had taken this badly: war ships were crossing Greek waters daily, planes flying over Greek lands. Greek tanks were visible on the edges of Alexandroupoli and the usual insouciant feeling in army camps as young 18 year olds lope and loaf their way through their compulsory service was missing. Things felt tense.
Giristroula and I drove out to the vast expanse of the Evros Delta – the Evros river being the line between the two countries of Greece and Turkey. Under the huge skies we stopped and breathed in great lungfuls of pure air. As the sun started to fall, the sound of the beat of the flamingos wings marked their return – no animosity or jaundiced eyes for them: I was told that the flamingos here fly to the Turkish side of the vast delta to eat, Turkish cuisine obviously more appealing, and then return to Greece each night to sleep.
By the sea, in the small village of Makris, Giristroula and I took a walk along the cliffs and found a broad rough cave staring out above the beach. Great boulders sat outside, as if thrown from the sky. We entered a little way in, but the cold and the sudden deep darkness felt weirdly oppressive and we quickly forced our way back out again. Later a waitress in a local café told us this was the cave of Polyphemus, the giant Cyclops who imprisoned Odysseus and his men in Homer’s Odyssey. The Cyclops was finally blinded by Odysseus here and sat on the very sea shore that had lapped before of us, bathing his weeping eye. The waitress also told us a later tale of two local fishermen who had entered this cave. The fishermen thought they’d been in the cave for just an hour or so, but when they emerged from the darkness worried wives and townspeople were all gathered outside waiting for them. They’d been in there for days. Giristroula and I took the broken backroads towards home, through the disorientating thick Thrace countryside, with the sun in our eyes, leaking a copper colour over a sky streaked with clouds. Time, it seemed, still almost an abstract concept round here.
One Way Is Rome And The Other Way Is Mecca
It felt like we were following a thread of minarets, leading us out to the east. The great ancient old Roman road – Egnatia Odos – took us into deepest Thrace. Mosques lining the road, agricultural fields flowing away on both sides: a reminder that under the Ottoman Empire, Thrace was known as the ‘bread basket of Constantinople’. Our first stop was Soufli. Soufli was where Giristroula’s father had done one of his years of compulsory military service, so we stopped here in vague homage to him and with some vague expectations for the town. It failed to meet them. Dull new architecture set along a couple of main roads, not even a square as with most Greek towns. Soufli was famous for centuries for being a great producer of silk – mulberry bushes growing on all the hills round the town. There are now just a couple of silk museums in the few old buildings left. The owner of one told us, with a sort of wretched hope, that she felt that silk production would come back. That the town would rise again.
“The EU paid us to replace the mulberry bushes with other crops, they said it would be more profitable. So no one made silk. Nothing. Nothing all the way until you reach the Far East… But now, now they’re paying us to put the mulberry bushes back…” she said, shaking her head at the madness.
We walked round the town, approached a couple of men who were sat idly talking, stood in a pool of sunlight by the railway track in the centre of the town. We asked them what Soufli had to offer.
“Tipota idiaitero” – not much.
I asked them if there was a Muslim culture here at all.
“They’re all up there” said one, waving a hand to the raised land above the town. He pulled a face “Leave them up there…”
We told them we were heading as far east as we could go in Thrace, towards to Turkish border. They sucked their teeth. Why do you want to go there? The Turkish are bad people, they said.
“Where are you from?” they asked Giristroula. She told them she was from the Peloponnese.
“Oh…katavlakiotisa eh?” – Under the ditch eh? – the ditch being the Corinth Canal. “So WE’RE the ones who’ll have to do the fighting when the Turks come eh? You can just run back home south…”
It was one of those conversations, spoken as a joke, but there was no joke there. Just disconcerting views revealed under a thin veil of hard-faced humour. The two men frowning into the sun.
We headed towards the military camp where Giristroula’s father had been based. They didn’t even allow us to take a look: camouflaged men in boots pouring out from the gate to move us on. So we moved on, and just a few hundred meters outside of the city we hit the Evros river, the border with Turkey. The river seemed remarkably thin here, Turkey just one impressively long leap away. I stood and stared out at this new mysterious country full of supposed threat and worry. It really didn’t look much different to the bare, brown, barren-looking land I was standing on.
We carried on to Didymoteicho where old lolling homes made of wood climbed up a fat meteorite of rock in the centre of town. Castle, medieval city walls, ancient church on the top. Centuries old carved windows and rooms and basements carved out from the rock over on the other side. Didymoteicho was not a large town and it surprised me to find that at one point it was the capital of the whole Byzantine Empire, and the birth place of two Byzantine Emperors. It seemed incredible now. The immense Bayezid Mosque, built in 1420, the oldest and the largest mosque in Europe stood here, in this far-flung part of Greece. An area pretty much forgotten by its country, forgotten by the outside world. The mosque looked a sad prisoner, caged in wooden scaffolding, a modern protective roof over its previous grandeur. Minarets broken, vulnerable to earthquakes, it still stood defiant though. Having watched the Ottomans, the Bulgarians, the Greeks and the devastation of the Second World War pass its solid, stark front, it would take more than any of that to get rid of this venerable patriarch of Thrace.
We continued on through the real edgelands of Greece now, having gone as far east as we could. We were heading up along the Greek and Turkish border, northwards, looking for a place to cross over and enter, however briefly, into Turkey. For a long while there were only small Greek villages – with names of comedic lack of imagination: one even simply called Elliniko Horio – Greek Village. At Kastanies – almost as far to the north-eastern corner of Greece as you can possibly go – we found a border crossing. The road led up to a check-point. The rail crossing here, and the ‘Friendship Express’ train, seemingly permanently suspended.
I had been told earlier that Giristroula would be fine to cross, as a Greek, but as a British I would have a lengthy wait and questions would be asked and a payment would be needed for a visa. On a sudden impulse I said to Giristroula I was going to hide in the boot of our small Volkswagen as we crossed the border. I left a very reluctant Giristroula, shaking her head at this lunacy, and bundled myself in the back. My heart was thumping with the unnecessary danger in all this. I was smuggling myself over a border that had the world’s attention on it, as volunteer Islamic State fighters from across Europe crossed one way and desperate refugees crossed another, and all for the sake of a 25 euro day-visa. I sat, folded in the dark boot of the car and reflected on what a cheap fool I could so often be… Voices outside. What sounded like an argument. The blood was ringing in my ears and I couldn’t swallow. Then the car moved. Stopped. The sound of footsteps. The boot opened. I looked up, blinking, at a figure shadowed in the bright sunlight. It was Giristroula. She told me that we’d been turned away from driving over the border as she hadn’t any proof that the car was hers. Her documents were written in Greek and the Turkish guards had wafted them away as no good without even looking at them. So, instead we trudged over the border on foot with me having had a lengthy wait, questions asked and, of course, a 25 euro day-visa bought.
Once in Turkey we were on a dead-straight road, fields either side. A farmer had planted a huge 30 foot Turkish flag in his field. The town of Edirne lay shimmering on the horizon down the road. We managed to flag down a lift from a Greek couple who had crossed the border. I asked them why they’d come.
“See those houses?” the driver pointed to a pretty broken-down settlement over the fields. “That’s where my family is from.”
But you’re Greek?
“Haven’t you noticed you haven’t crossed the river yet? This was Greek land. But…” his voices tailed off sadly. “The Turkish wanted this land just west of the river. I don’t know why. The Turkish and the Greek government did a deal. Greece was given the island of Limnos in return. The town over there was called Rizia. Now we live in a newly built town on the Greek side. Nea Rizia.”
He looked wistfully over at the few houses. “I like to come back to see my home.”
His wife twisted her big face round to us, beaming. “I like coming to the big city – it’s the nearest city to us even though it’s in a different country. Isn’t that strange? And everything’s so much cheaper!”
The shopping streets of Edirne were busy under good-looking old buildings – as, while again not a particularly large city, we were in fact in another Empire’s former capital. Erdine was once the head of the Ottoman world, before Istanbul. I tried to find the large covered bazaar I’d heard about. No one spoke English. Or Greek. This was surprising. Despite what I had seen with the lack of Turkish spoken in Greek Thrace, I assumed that, even for mere mercenary reasons, some Greek would be spoken here. I also softly counted on finding someone who spoke English. As complacent and overindulged as I was, suddenly now I felt cut adrift. It was rather exhilarating and a little disconcerting. It made me feel I’d really entered a completely different world – here, just a few miles from my new Greek home. Greece, which seemed normal and safe and even a little dull to me now. The lack of any common language meant there was no hassling in the bazaar, no haggling or pushing and we later took a place at one of the many liver restaurants around the city – Köfteci Osman. The Turkish seem crazy for liver dishes – tava ciğer – and I was told Edirne is the place for liver. Istanbul folk make the 250km trek to Edirne just for its liver.
There are three monumental mosques – complete with four towering minarets and imposing domes – all packed in close proximity. When the call to prayer started, it was an impressive sound. More strident than back in Xanthi. We stood looking up at the grandest mosque, absorbed in the Mu’ezzin’s singing as he recited over and over his adhan. The clear strength of the Islamic faith flowing out and we felt transported by the sounds of devotion and ritual… His mobile phone went off, ringing through loud speakers and bouncing off the other marbled mosques, echoing off the falling down homes behind and off the walls of the city’s hamams. We snapped quite quickly out of the reverie.
It was time to leave Western Thrace and head back towards the border and Eastern Thrace on the Greek side. We headed back over one of the several old handsome stone bridges: nine long arches crossing the Meriç river. We bounced on a clapped-out bus down the drawn-out road towards Greece – a road that, behind us, stretches all the way to the Turkish captial. The night had set in. Moonlight jumped through the trees as we rode on towards Greece.
The day before Lent. A big day in Greece. Carnival time. They say only Patra, down in the south, can rival Xanthi for a bigger carnival in the whole of Greece. Everyone talked about the Xanthi carnival, I’d heard of it back in Corfu; people in Macedonia, Epirus, Thessaloniki, they all travel here to see the festivities. Fancy dress shops bursting out with costumes dotted the city. A few weeks earlier, bright masked faces and lights started appearing on all the walls and lampposts of Xanthi. Dances broke out spontaneously in the main square with men and women in decorated costumes, traditional music and complicated steps, huge circles of dancing, violins scrapping, drums banging, cheery old men raising glasses in salute from their seats in the cafes. I was expecting great things from the main event, the last day of these Apokries festivities…
The crowds on the day were colossal, packing every street and bar. The procession of dressed-up dancing people and bright floats stretched back miles. Everyone drinking, having a good time. But where were the traditional costumes? All the old-style culture that had been hinted at in the weeks’ build-up? Giristroula told me that carnival time is usually a great ribald pagan celebration, with men wearing strapped-on wooden penises and sinister painted smiling masks. Men in their traditional thick tights and pleated skirts, dancing with handkerchiefs and bells and hitting sticks, and singing songs with accompanying acted-out dance – like ‘Anevika Stin Piperia’ – ‘I Went Up The Pepper Tree’
Me to gonato to trivoun kai to psilokopanizoun
Me tin myti tous to trivoun kai to psilokopanizoun
Me ton kolo tous to trivoun kai to psilokopanizoun
Me ton poutso tous to trivoun kai to psolokopanizoun
With their knee they grind it
With their nose they grind it
With their bum they grind it
With their dick…etc etc.
Xanthi was a lot more tame. It was a modern Mardis Gras. Great, I guess, if you were involved. If you were one of the students spraying everyone with paint, or a child up on shoulders in an overdone outfit taking it all in. But it seemed a bit dull to us and so instead Giristroula and I decided to leave it behind us and climb the tallest hill above the city. We sat on the hushed sacred grounds of the Archangeliotissa monastery, high above the city, and peered – with similar censorious faces as the grand ecclesiastical building behind us – at the hordes and the parties rolling in the streets below. At nightfall the leading float, as is tradition, was thrown into Xanthi’s river. The crowds on the banks and bridges cheering and singing as it was set alight. Flames reached high into the sky. The sky exploded with fireworks, lighting up the city. It was our last view of Xanthi.
The old men back up in Stavroupoli had told me, as I sat chatting in my still reliably miserable Greek in their kafeneo, that I must come back on the day after the carnival, on Kathara Deftera – Clean Monday – the first day of Lent. In small villages throughout northern Greece, they give out food and drink for everyone in the village square on this day. And in Stavroupoli, for some reason, the men of the village pile into a large ancient costume of a gigantic camel and walk the streets. At least, this is what I understood they told me anyway… But we had to turn down their offer of hospitality. We had to go. A date – a new school for Giristroula – to be kept in Athens. 700 kilometers to the south and a whole world away.
As we drove west towards Kavala – where we would pass out of Thrace – in the fields people were flying kites. Flying kites is a key tradition on this first day of Lent in Greece – along with the drinking of ouzo and eating only octopus, now all meat and fish has been given up now for the forty days until Easter. We crawled along, watching the skies full of bright, battling, decorated kites – and the sad sight of a lone boy running along a muddy field with a dead trail of paper, sticks and string dragging along behind him, his kite resolutely refusing to fly. Our journey was a slow process, but slow was the correct speed of Thrace anyway. Maybe we were just reluctant to leave. Reluctant to get to the fast, uncaring, rented world of the capital of this country. A capital that doesn’t seem to really understand or appreciate its remote and mysterious lands isolated up here on its distant north-east borders. A place I knew I would miss.