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 all northern Greece.
A church bell chimed through the darkened sky, splattered with snow, as we entered.
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 walk out on the streets – blindingly white with thick powdery snow under grey skies – to see what the town looks like.
We walk side by side along with head-scarfed Muslim women, bent double into the wind-angled snow.
The town is understandably quiet. But, remarkably, still the old salepi seller stands in the square with his wheeled barrow with the large battered metal urn sat on top, holding the hot thick flour-based drink that’s drunk in the winter months in these northern Greek parts.
A miserable lone figure he looks – snow growing on his black eastern karakul hat.
We dart into baker’s and grocer’s shops to avoid the malicious weather, and hear Turkish voices behind the counters, amongst the customers. Tins and products we don’t quite recognise. Turkish labels.
And other voices too. Half Turkish, half Slavic. Women in veils, but with bright blue eyes looking out, stands of blonde hair falling through.
We are a little confused and unsure of ourselves here, not knowing what to expect in this province, this diamerisma, of Thrace – a remote, often unvisited by outsiders, north-eastern area.
But already, this seems a truly unique place. Unlike anywhere else I’ve visited in Greece.
The snows fade – the skies over the city become open and blue. The mountains to the north of Xanthi are startlingly clear. And close.
A range – the Rodopi mountains – that flows 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.
It reveals itself to be quite the incredible village within a city: narrow, tilting alleys of museum-piece pastel-coloured Ottoman houses. Houses looking like stage props, but actually lived in.
Byzantine churches. Christian frescoes. Over-looked by the white, tall, towers of mosques, higher up the town’s hills.
On the far east end of Xanthi, piled up next to the Kosynthos river – where we have our rooms – are smaller box-ish houses, outside of which stone stairs climb to wonky wooden balconies and roofs: beautiful in their own dilapidated way. These 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 beyond the city, for centuries it was a huge industry and made many Xanthians rich.
This is clearly seen as you walk through the Old Town getting closer to the centre of the city and the clock tower square.
The houses turn 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, remain in heavy stone, ornate doors and iron-work windows for us today.
Their grand old warehouses remain too. On Odos Kapnergaton – literally: tobacco workers street.
Handsome sandstone buildings – most of them empty, imposingly grand, but broken down and decrepit.
In London these warehouses would have been turned into massively expensive, painfully trendy flats and studios. In Xanthi they languish like, once majestic, elephant-graveyard carcases.
And all the while, as you walk around, you’re aware of those mountains just over your shoulder, on the very edge of town.
You turn round quickly, northwards, to face them… and feel sure they’ve edged closer. The range suddenly frozen, as if in a game of musical statues.
We get out to explore Xanthi at night.
A fruitless search for a tsipouradiko – 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.
“This isn’t Volos you know,” says the strangely miserable owner of the Kivotos taverna we sit down in. “There’s no tradition here of sitting, eating a little meze, drinking a tsipouro, seeing where the evening will take you to. Here you eat. Or you go.”
As we watch 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 in these areas, near the Turkish borders) filling the streets, there also seems no tradition of Greek folk music or the old underground sounds of rebetiko here either.
Another huge surprise.
Xanthi is the birth place of Manos Hajidakis – perhaps Greece’s greatest composer – the revered magician of blending classical music with Greek folk melodies and themes.
The house he was born in has been restored and looks an elegant arts centre now. But never seems to be open.
We take a place at the – far better – Zefyros tavern opposite Hajidakis’ house. With a big print of his famous Odos Oniron – Street of Dreams – record sleeve and caricatures of his plump face on the walls. His music only just faintly playing in the background though.
The city is alive, the tavernas and bars are all neat and tasteful and appealing, but the old culture of Greece seems somehow missing amongst the cleaned-up old stone buildings.
People seem to be happy though. Happy to be able to finally come out from their houses after the snows and walk around and chat – to voltaroun.
We’re told that, although there are always cold winters, it hadn’t actually snowed in Xanthi for 11 years.
Xanthians seem very filoxenoi – welcoming to strangers. People chat and have time for you and everyone seems willing to help.
We had arrived in the town in the undignified state of being towed – as we sat up in a diagonally hoisted, raised car – on the back of an old pick-up truck. Our car having been defeated – slain – 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 notoriously old and small and difficult to tackle.
As 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… the garage man was more concerned with hoisting our bags on his shoulder to help walk us the final way to our door.
Looking back at his prone, shattered van he shrugged “Ah…den peirazei” – it doesn’t matter.
He nodded upwards “Einai megali anifora…” – this is a bit of a difficult climb for you. Are you sure you’ll be alright?
Later the garage man calls by again, to find out if we are doing ok, if we are eating well. He takes us, in the patched up van, to his favourite butcher’s.
As we talk it transpires the garage owner calls himself a Turk. Even though, he, his father and his father’s father have all been born here in Greece.
We meet the butcher. Who tells us he is a Pomakos.
The butcher’s ancestral roots are a tribe found only in this part of Greece and a few pockets over the mountains in Bulgaria. He too is a Muslim. And speaks Pomakika. And Turkish. But speaks Greek to us and his other non-Muslim customers.
The meat is given to us for free.
“You are friends of my friend, so you are now my friends” says the Pomakos.
To the English. And to my wife, the Greek. About his friend, the Turk. Who has ‘Greek’ written in his passport.
R.’s parents had stayed in Xanthi, years ago. They told me a story before we came here of how they had sat on a bench and chatted, briefly, just passing the time of day to a head-scarfed 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. 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..”
They tell me they had to restrain her from going back to clear the floor of her front room.
On Saturday, the bazaar comes to Xanthi.
Filling the whole of Emporio Square. Stalls run as far as you can see. Spices, fruits, wines, clothes. Tat you don’t want, quality you do.
Perhaps this is why I’ve been told Xanthi is known as the ‘Town of a Thousand Colours’? A kaleidoscope of colours, as well as a kaleidoscope of religions, nationalities, feelings of belonging…
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 – the ‘Muslim Greeks’ here eat their bougatsa not with cream or cheese, as elsewhere, but with meat.
The bazaar market traders are different from others in Greece too.
Many are from the gypsy communities and they try their best to lure you into buying from them – unlike the usual proud Greek shop owner who will not 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, the market merchants via with each other to put on a kind of show to attract the customers’ attention. Turkish Delight handed out for free to bring you in. And, almost uniquely again in Greece, there are expressions of gratitude for buying from them. “Agapi mou!” and “Omorfi!” hollered out from hundreds of stalls.
I see 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 can take one of the Eastern sweets she’s selling for free.
In a flash the girl has taken handfuls.
“Ochi ochi ochi!” cries the stallholder. No, no, no… “Ena!Ena!” – One! One!
The gypsy girl, within milliseconds – quicker than it takes the human eye to see – has hidden the sweets in every single hiding place she has on her.
The market holder races round to the front of her stall and starts emptying the girl’s every pocket, sweets falling out onto the floor from everywhere.
The gypsy girl looks hurt. The market trader won’t even let her now take one sweet after the sly deception. The girl pulls a bruised, upset, disappointed face.
Then, as the trader goes back to her place behind the stall, the girl breaks into a broad beam and offers her friends sweets from a great towering stash of sweets she still had hidden somewhere.
Cherub faced gypsy boys walk along, 7 or 8 years old, smoking long cigarettes, trying to look tough. One produces a catapult.
The Roma are, unlike the rest of Greece, Muslim here too. We follow them, as they meander past spice shops, silk shops, and shops selling football shirts – all Galatasaray or Fenerbahçe or Beşiktaş from the Turkish league, none of the usual Olympiacos or Panathinaikos – into the town.
‘Filarakia’ grill house probably does the best kebabs and souvlakis in Xanthi.
I order gyros, served with mustard – no tzatziki, as is the usual north Greece way. Rather sweetly the men in the gyradikas here always check first that you are ok to eat pork.
And so we sit and watch the lively Saturday crowds pass.
We wait on Xanthi station platform for a long time.
“Ochi edo” – not here – says the station master. “You shouldn’t wait for a train. The line here…it’s…er…it’s broken. Trains are late.”
“How late?” I ask him.
So we pile on a bus and out into the surrounding countryside.
Mountains dominant on one side. A flat plain with tall grasses, olive trees, and the odd lone minaret rising up over clumps of trees, on the other – running towards the shining waters of the Nestos Delta in the distance.
We get off at Komotini. A large-ish town set round a long, bustling square.
This town has the highest proportion of Turkish people in the country, around 50% of the population, so I’m told.
The old town is remarkable for the old, squat, Ottoman small stores and workshops – most of them carrying Turkish names. Or a comical Greek and Turk mix: Ali Christos, M Karagiozis.
The official street signs, however, have something I haven’t ever seen in Greece before…
Under each road name (‘Odos Smyrni’, ‘Odos Aristotle’ etc.) there is a description of what/who the road is named after.
They mainly seem 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.’ ‘Aristotle: A great Greek philosopher and thinker.’)
Are these subtle messages designed for the minority population?
It seems unnecessary if it is. The Greeks and the Turkish – the Orthodox and the Muslims – all seem to get on here with quite perfect harmony.
Here, where tension should be heightened, there feels none of the anti-Turkish sentiment you hear in other parts of Greece – parts that are far further from the border and from the mixed lives that have been going on here for centuries.
I’m told that it is only people who are not from this area that ever cause any trouble between the different groups here… “The pot is always stirred from the outside” as a resident of Komotoni says.
Komotini has two impressive central mosques. We walk around the – strangely more impressive – newer one. Followed by a man making sure our shoes are off at all times. I ask him if he is Turkish.
You language is more Slavic, is that right? I ask. In Greek.
So you don’t speak Turkish? He shakes his head. This is strange, I think, in this, the most Turkish of towns in this area.
But the graves here, I say, pointing. They’re inscribed in Turkish.
He shrugs. “We are all Muslims. But I don’t speak Turkish.”
I ask him if he feels Greek or Pomaki.
“Both.” He scratches his beard and smiles a leering grin “It depends who asks…”
I say goodbye and thank him. In Greek still. And then ask how to thank him in Pomaki.
“Like the Turkish,” he says “Teşekkürler.”
Things in Thrace just get more confusing.
We walk back to the train station, to wait for the ghost train (which ends up being someone’s old van) to take us back to Xanthi, passing as we go the large park with its towering war memorial – complete with gigantic menacing hanging iron sword.
Much blood was spilt to take and hang onto these lands, the Greek state clearly doesn’t want this to be forgotten.
Even if the concept and convictions are blurred and lost in the actual day-to-day living within these communities of Greeks, and Greeks with Turkish roots, or Turks with Greek roots, who were moved when the Ottoman Empire was finally pushed from these lands.
And there are also Turkish people themselves.
Turkish people who were allowed to stay, when the Empire fell – and Greeks in Turkey and Turks in Greece were being swapped in the ‘Population Exchange’ of 1923 (moving around 2 million from their generations-old homes and communities across the borders, on both sides).
Allowed to stay, just in this area of Thrace.
We rattle in the van along the nymphaea roads back towards Xanthi. Where the communities of north eastern Greece is brilliantly confused further by the numbers of Pomakis living within the ancient, beautifully scrambled, city.
It’s a perplexity – a riddle of peoples and belongings that even the locals don’t really have ready-answers for.
But it all seems to work. In its mysterious way.
R. is working in a school in the centre of Xanthi.
Each day the unusualness of this world – here at the crossroad between Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey – reveals itself further.
R.’s school is a mixed school, but only 20 years ago most of the ‘Muslim’ students – Muslim being the term the Greek state uses for both Turks and Pomakis – were solely taught in Muslim-only schools.
Still today there are a couple of ‘Minority Schools’ in the town. One provided by the state, the others privately.
These private ‘Minority Schools’ are said 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.
Indeed, the Pomaki people – the tribes with their connection to Bulgaria across the mountains to the north – were originally influenced by the Turkish, centuries ago, through similar implanted ways, to adopt a new religion, tie themselves closer in culture and belonging to Turkey.
While this hasn’t happened – pretty much all Pomaki I speak to call themselves Greeks – still a strange feeling of disassociation exists.
But not in the playground.
A roughly half and half split between Greeks and Muslims see students shouting, switching, between Greek, Turkish and Pomaki. And the whole feeling is one of just great naturalness to it all.
Girls playing singing and skipping games in Turkish, then a dance in Greek. Boys playing football shouting to their cousins in Pomaki, then to their friends in Greek. It’s quite an incredible scene.
I am told the staff room is different though.
“I was never racist,” said one teacher to R. “They’ve MADE me racist.”
This teacher went on to claim 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. All the parents only speak to me in Turkish as it is…it’s not right.
And…” she added “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 here in these mixed areas.
(R. tells me that this teacher who sat her down and said all this was a Greek raised in Germany though, only coming back to her family ancestral town later in life.)
R. gets on well with the students. They want to show her games and songs she doesn’t know from elsewhere in Greece. And they have some great names amongst all the Marias, Spiros 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…”
An afternoon call to prayer draws me in with curiosity to one of the mosques in the new town. All is quiet in the dark main hall, empty: prayer mats down, misbaḥah prayer beads left – ready for action – along the wall.
Upstairs, however, hidden voices: a lesson is going on. Young sweet-sounding kids are struggling through the Koran. Reading in Arabic, getting it wrong, asking questions in Greek, being barked at by an exceptionally bad-tempered, gruff teacher back in Turkish.
There’s confusion and he repeatedly bangs hard on the desks in frustration. It is a pretty frightening learning experience to listen in on.
I slip away, back into the open sunlit day, unobserved.
An interesting footnote is that the curious Slavic/Turkish hybrid language that the Pomakis use here, in not a written language. It is only an oral language. Similar to Bulgarian, but not completely. And the few Turkish words that slip in have been explained to me as coming from 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 “teşekkürlers” for thanks.
Also, it is strange that the adult Greeks we meet here can speak absolutely no Pomaki at all.
I point out to some of the teacher’s at R.’s school when we all go out to a taverna one night – how can they not have picked up something, hearing Pomaki every day growing up here? They don’t see it as curious at all. Some say, defensively, that most Pomakis went to the Muslim schools not their schools. Still, it seems oddly closed to me. A refusal almost. It must have been more difficult not to learn some the language than to learn it.
Finally with a car, we drive out of the city near to the village Toxotes where the Nestos River snakes down from Bulgaria flowing towards the Aegean Sea, cutting through north east Greece and slicing between the grand Greek states of Macedonia and Thrace.
Down on the bank of the ice-cold river on the Thrace side, huge Macedonian cliffs rise above us.
We turn and climb from the dark river bed – which will be flooded in a few weeks as the snows higher up melt – and up into sun-lit Thrace mountains, and follow a railway line cut into the cliffs, disappearing into tunnels below us, while we walk on over the rocky path and take in huge views across the Nestos Straight and of deep forested ravines.
Later we drive further south, following the river towards the sea.
Lake Vistonida is full of balancing flamingos.
As we approach, they all take off and the sky fills with shades of pinks and purples. The pink birds – purple underwings, spindly legs, stupidly long thin necks – get the jitters, and they move as a huge flock away to settle further into the middle of the lake.
Also out in the middle of the lake is the floating church of Agios Nikolaos.
We’re lured over the narrow walkway to the white towered church, all alone out in its vast church yard of water, by the sound of religious song coming from somewhere within.
I open up the doors to see deep orange sunlight falling over the dark, dusty, empty pews. Frescoes on the walls of an empty church. No one in attendance. Just four old Orthodox singing priests on their own, pressed together at the small lectern, like four huddled old black crows.
This lake is where Hercules tamed wild horses for the 8th of his 12 Labours.
There are still wild horses, as well as wild cats, thousands of rare birds, reptiles, insects. Brown bears in the mountains on the horizon. A huge congregation of nature.
We continue down to where the huge fresh water lake turns salty, and then finally meets the sea.
The modern town of Abdera, on the sea, is utterly undistinguished, but holds the remains of the great ancient city of the same name.
The city was built in the 7th Century BC in tribute to Hercules’ friend Abderus, who was given Hercules’ wild horses to look after while Hercules completed his other labours. Unfortunately, not being a Herculean hero himself, he was, of course, eaten by them.
We walk the ancient walls. The old city was built high up on sea bluffs on the very south edge of Thrace, looking straight out to sea and the island of Thasos.
I stand and stare and try to meditate on the big things in life, as this city produced several great philosophers of Classical Greek time. Including Democritus – the Laughing Philosopher.
I like the sound of Democritus, he lived to well over 100 and travelled widely in the world. Travelling Greece thoroughly too, to fully understand it and its people.
And this son of the city of Abderan and his mocking of human foibles gives the term ‘abderian laughter’.
He would probably still hoot at the beaches on offer around here.
But – I’m told – in the summer, people still try and sunbathe and swim on the slightly ratty thin strips of sand. Underneath, signs telling of the water’s difficult tides.
Lack of great beaches in Thrace might be a reason the tourists don’t crowd the area as elsewhere in Greece.
But as we sit in the car on the tall golden grass-fringed empty roads – marshy fields all around us under a huge, sun smeared, glassy sky, and a loan farmer figure up on a horse and cart waves his cap at us as a far greeting – and an impressively severe eagle sits just a few feet away on a low branch of a tree staring in our passenger window, I’m more than happy about that.
Heading into the north of Thrace, towards Bulgaria, we come into some of the most hidden and seclusive areas of Greece: 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 is an ineludible, singular, feeling surrounding these mountain villages.
We stare down from the high, snakey road, and free-wheel down into their dusty streets.
The broken and abandoned old farmers’ houses that still exist stand in a glorious contrast to the short, blocky new homes – where I note every satellite dish is turned to the east, to pick up Turkish tv.
The Muslim residents’ styles are resolutely old fashioned though. Men wearing fez, women wrapped in headscarves, sat knitting in old cafes.
We are startled at one point, when we think we see a woman in an all-black head-to-toe niqab.
As we get closer though, we find it isn’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 old houses that are still lived in have a great Thrace look, with a unique bulging huge stone brick box sticking from the thick stone walls, a storey up, where enormous fire places inside heat Thracian families.
The roads have a distinct Thrace look too.
All along are dotted fountains. This is an extension of the Greek Orthodox tradition of erecting a shrine when someone has been killed, or conversely, when some miracle has occurred (there are so many of these shrines throughout Greece. Can there really be that many road accidents and religious apparitions?)
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, the families building sometimes impressively elaborate brick edifices to their fountains.
We pass villages with names such as Medussa and Kedavros (the centaur). Names that must have been changed from their Turkish to typical, dramatic, rather ludicrous Greek historic names. Village names you rarely see anywhere else.
An almost impossible dirt road, high up, on the side of a plunging drop takes us towards the brilliantly preserved village of Kitani.
Crazily, on this sometimes impassable stretch, we see someone runs a large stone taverna. We feel we have to call in.
Crouching through the ancient wooden door, we enter a 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 hangs 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 comes to ask what we would like his mother to cook. He pulls up a chair, sits with us while we tell him. He eats some of our bread. Clasps me by the shoulder. When our plates of meat arrive, he sits down again, not asking, helps himself to some, takes some of somebody else’s on another table and gives it to me to try.
I ask him questions about the Pomakohoria. He gazes into the middle distance and doesn’t reply.
I wait. But he doesn’t speak so I turn again to my soutzoukakia.
I try asking him another. He chews and ruminates, minutes pass. So I carry on eating.
I finally give it one last go, asking him something else. Halfway through my question, slowly, he starts to talk. Answering my first.
The Pomaki feel abandoned by everyone, he tells 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 fight 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 man tavern owner comes to tell us. “And now Greece just forgets us.”
The all-prevailing quiet that sits, imbedded, in these villages certainly gives the feeling of lives on the furthest edges.
We have been invited to one of the teacher’s houses in Xanthi, whose name, appropriately enough is Xanthippe.
Xanthippe was the name of the formidable wife of Socrates who, legend says, once emptied a chamber pot over the philosopher’s head.
There is also a mythical legend in the hills above Xanthi town that Xanthippe was the lover of a local boy Xanthos who, when he died tragically, turned herself in her sorrow into a bird and who now accompanies lovers she spots walking over the hills and rivers and sings them songs.
Our modern day Xanthippe lives in a chaotic house with her kids and parents. Her father was a salesman and every day drove the Pomakohoria trying to sell his wares. He tells 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 ask.
“Both!” he replies.
“There was…suspicion. You know, there was Cold War. No one really understands who the Pomaki people are.
I was okay though” he adds in usual Greek self-effacing way “They all loved me…”
Barriers and walls within Greece, keeping Greek people away from Greek people. It all seems hardly believable. And very sad.
A commonly heard – fairly disagreeable – statement said often in Greece is how the Greek dictatorship – Giorgos Papadopoulos – 50 years back, did do one good thing- he built good roads in the country.
R. is working for a few weeks in the village Stavroupoli.
I accompany her to the school today and I hear in the staffroom something similar, but unfortunately, quite stronger.
“There used to be a grand mosque in the main square in Xanthi you know. Behind where the clock tower is now. Papadopoulos did one good thing… he pulled that mosque down.”
Stavroupoli has a different feel to what I have now grown accustom to in Thrace. It has no real Muslim population. R. says there are only two Muslims in the whole school.
It has very little work either. People are leaving in droves. R. says she’s been told three students have left the school in the last few weeks alone, as their families have moved away.
No one speaks English as I sit and chat to the koboloe twirling old farmers, an old shoe maker, in the old kafeneo in the village square. But many speak German. Even these old men in their 70s and 80s. The reason being that alongside Athens, Germany is the land taking people away from these Thrace villages. Places that once had their own thriving industries and communities. Now dying. What will happen to these places in the next few decades?
In the afternoon, after school, we head north, towards the Bulgarian border again as in the Pomakohoria. But further east. And here there is a 2,000 meter mountain range between us and Bulgaria.
Plus a vast nature-preserved forest. The Haidou forest.
We park at the tiny village of Leivaditis, perched remotely, defiantly, on a mountain peak.
An old man with no teeth, in falling down dungarees, carrying what looks like some sort of large dead artic fox in one hand out to his bin (I don’t ask) tells us he’ll watch our car. Though he seems to be the only person on the whole mountain.
And we walk into the forest.
Up here the snow from earlier in the winter still lies, thick and compacted. In it we see no other human boot prints, but instead the exciting, slightly worrying, large round prints of a bear. And the tread of large dogs. Wolves?
We walk, slightly agitated, a 2 kilometre path. Then take a long, plunging, climb down through thickly bunched, ridiculously tall beech trees. The snow thinning to lie in patches as we scramble.
Eventually we reach a waterfall, in what feels almost the middle of nowhere.
The tallest in the Balkans, so I’m later told. And until recently its 40 meter fall must have been frozen solid. Now, however, we sit and watch the water sliding through the cracked ice. The tumbling falls making a musical sound.
Orpheus, the great musician of ancient Greek myth, was born from Thracian roots – his father was 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, as he was the first Thracian to turn aside women in favour of young boys, the local women were so enraged they tore him to pieces – they had tried throwing stones at him, but his music was so good the stones refused to hit him).
Either way, the deserted forest around us singing to the sound of the waterfall seems entirely appropriate here.
The ice hanging high up on the top of the falls cracks with a gunshot sound, echoing off the towering rocks all around us, and then falls with the booming sound of an orchestra’s bass drum.
After climbing out of our deep forest again, back along the bear prints, we drive back beyond Stavroupoli.
Two clearly defined mountains loom higher than the rest of the large range. These, so they say, are King Haemus of Thrace and his wife.
Haemus was very proud of his wife, Queen Rodopi. So proud he even boasted she was even more beautiful than Hera, Zeus’s wife. Big mistake.
They now sit, in Zeus’s revengeful metamorphosed state as huge snowy twin peaks, and stare down on us as we travel up a vertiginously climbing road.
On the way up we pass an impressive excavated Macedonian tomb – and then continue up to the ‘thea’ point, and the view, 1000 meters high.
Way, way below us is the coiling Nestos river. In the distance the mountains of the Bulgarian border, where legendary Greek rebels were holed up during the civil war.
The other way is the sea and the island of Samothrace, where legendary trance parties and summers of hallucinatory drugs and naked dancing take place.
Mount Athos, of the legendary hermetic monks can even be glimpsed far off ahead of us, towards Halkidiki and the body of mainland Greece – where I can picture regular Greek life going on: at a pace, and in a manner, and with a feel quite enormously removed from here on the Thracian hills.
The Thursday in February where the whole of Greece are out grilling, and eating, meat.
Xanthi has gone suitably crazy for it. I see stalls selling meat not just outside the tavernas but tobacconists and shoe shops have also given up their usual trade for the day and are out cooking meat.
The Xanthians are lucky that this day has also coincided with ‘Alkyonides’ – the 15 days or so of good weather that Greece gets in late January or February. Where we get the phrase ‘Halcyon Days’.
Alkyonides are a type of bird which need these two weeks of good weather to hatch their eggs. (This comes from another boastful couple who were turned, by Zeus again, into birds that lay their eggs in winter. Although this time Zeus felt a tinge of sorrow for the wife and ordered the winds to drop and for the sun to shine for her 15 days).
“Ο Flevaris ki an flevisei, kalokairi tha myrisei…” the Greeks say – as soon as February starts, it smells like summer…
(though the saying does go on to state “Martis gdartis kai kakos paloukokaftis” – there is such bad weather in March, it can ruin everything …)
We sit outside the heavy hunkered, red brick Hagia Sophia church in the centre of Xanthi, in the sun, and eat great pantsetes at the ‘Heropoiito’ grill house.
Dessert is at the – famous for nearly 100 years, and a little snootily proud of itself – patisserie ‘Papaparaskevas’. And then – better – we head down Tsaldari Street – seemingly the high street for Muslim shops and products – for Halva at ‘Taselaridis’.
Halvas is a sweet eaten all through Greece – it can either be a crumbly, nutty, dense slab or a piece of flour based, lighter, more gelatinous dessert – but it is 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 the plain, slightly shabby, white interior bakery show it’s eaten a lot every day.
It is, of course, as with most things here, due to the closeness of Turkey. Halvas came to Greece with arrival of the Ottomans. Turks love Halva. Perhaps almost as much as – so stereotypically they say – 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 eat huge slices of the thick dry type halva – take a strong Greek coffee, brought to me on a big brass hanging tray, hanging like a bell with the eastern coffee cups suspended in the air – and sit and tavli – backgammon – the late afternoon away.
Alexandropouli has everything that we were expecting, or hoping, from Xanthi. It’s a city built on the sea front. A port city. There are good looking tsipouradika – tsipouro to go with all the fish caught here – and old fashioned taverns. There are advertised rembetiko nights. Many people also appear to choose to cycle around the city – unheard of in Greece! There’s a nice feeling to the city.
The sea front is ugly though. I was expecting, and hoping, for something similar to Thessaloniki, but Alexandroupoli must be one of the few Greek towns to not have tried to do something with their front. Just concrete flats and a long grim beach.
There is the icon of the place: the lighthouse, standing tall, in the centre, looking out to the quite incredible floating jagged monumental rocks of the island of Samothraki across the waters. But that’s about it.
There are two Turkish soldiers here though. Two soldiers who fled over the border in the last week and have been on the run, having been accused of leading a plot to assassinate Turkish President Erdoğan. They have now given themselves up and are seeking asylum here in Alexandroupoli.
Turkey has taken this badly. War ships are crossing Greek waters, planes regularly flying over Greek lands. Greek tanks are 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 is missing. Things feel very tense here.
We drive out to the vast expanse of the Evros Delta – the Evros river being the line between the two countries.
Under the huge skies we stare and breathe in lungfuls of the nature and, as the sun starts to fall, the sound of the beat of the flamingos wings mark their return – no animosity or jaundiced eyes for them: I’m 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 to sleep.
We head back ourselves, towards Xanthi. Stopping first at the small square of the village of Makris, by the sea. We take a walk along the cliffs and find a broad rough cave staring out high over the sea, with great boulders outside, as if thrown from the sky. We go in but the sudden deep darkness feels weirdly oppressive and we beat a retreat out again.
Later a waitress in a local café tells 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 and then sat on the sea shore ahead of us, bathing his weeping eye.
The waitress then tells us a tale of local fishermen who entered this cave. They thought they’d been in the cave for just an hour or so, when they emerged from the darkness however worried wives and townspeople were gathered outside and told them they’d been in there days.
We take the broken back roads back to Xanthi, through a disorientating thick Thrace countryside, with the sun in our eyes, leaking a copper colour over a sky streaked with clouds. Time still almost an abstract concept here.
It feels like we are following a line, a thread, of minarets leading us out to the east.
We follow the great ancient old Roman road – Egnatia Odos – into deepest Thrace. Mosques lining the road. Agriculture fields flowing away on both sides: a reminder that under the Ottoman Empire, Thrace was known as the ‘bread basket of Constantinople’.
The first stop: Soufli.
This was where R.’s father did some of his compulsory military year service, so we stop here in a sort of homage to him, and with some vague expectations for the town.
It fails 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 in abundance on the hills round the town. There are silk museums in the few old buildings left. The owner of one tells us that silk production is coming back. That the town may 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 until you reached the Far East.
Now they’re paying us to put the mulberry bushes back!” she saying, smiling an ironic smile, shaking her head.
We walk round the town, approach a couple of men, sat idly talking, stood in a pool of sunlight by the railway track in the centre of the town, and ask them what Soufli has to offer.
“Tipota idiaitero” – not much.
I ask them if there is a Muslim culture here at all.
“They’re all up there” says one, waving a hand to the raised land above the town. He pulls a face “Leave them up there…”
“Why?” says the other to me. “Are you Muslim? Has Trump made you leave your country?” he cackles at his own joke. I tell him I’m from England.
“Oh. The other one then. What’s his name? Boris Johns.”
We tell them we’re heading as far east as we can go in Thrace. Towards to Turkish border.
They suck their teeth. Why do you want to go there? The Turkish are bad people, they say.
“Where are you from?” they ask R. She tells them she’s from the Peloponnese.
“Oh…katavlakiotisa” 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 is one of those conversations, spoken as a joke… but there’s no joke there. True, slightly disconcerting, views revealed under a thin veil of hard-faced humour. The two of them frown into the sun.
We head to the military camp where R.’s father was based. They don’t even allow us to take a look, camouflaged men in boots pouring from the gate to move us on.
So we move on. And just a few hundred outside of the city we hit the Evros river, the border with Turkey.
The river seems remarkably thin here. Turkey just an impressive leap away. I stand and stare out at this new, mysterious country full of supposed threat and worry.
It doesn’t look much different to the rather bare, brown, dry barren-looking land I’m standing on.
We carry on to Didymoteicho.
This is more like it.
Bygone-era, lolling, homes made of wood, climbing 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 from the rock over on the other side.
It’s a small town and it surprises me to find that at one point it was the capital of the whole Byzantine Empire. And the birth place of two Byzantine Emperors. Here? It seems incredible now.
And even more remarkable is the immense Bayezid Mosque.
Built in 1420 it is the oldest and the largest mosque in Europe. Here, in this far flung part of Greece. An area pretty much forgotten by its country. Forgotten by the outside world.
The mosque looks a sad prisoner now, caged in wooden scaffolding. A modern protective roof over its previous grandeur. Minaret broken, vulnerable to earthquakes, it sits defiant.
Having watched the Ottomans, the Bulgarian, the Greeks and the devastation of the Second World War pass its solid, stark front. It will take more to get rid of this venerable patriarch of Thrace.
We continue on through the real edge lands of Greece, having gone as far east as we can, we are heading up north along the border as it snakes up towards Bulgaria. Looking for a place to cross over and enter, however briefly, into Turkey.
For a long while there are only small Greek villages – with names of comedic lack of imagination: one is 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 find a border crossing. The road leads up to a check-point (the rail crossing and the ‘Friendship Express’ train seemingly permanently suspended).
I had been told earlier that R. would be fine to cross, as a Greek, but as a British I would have some lengthy wait and questions would be asked and a payment would be needed for a visa.
Much to R.’s disapproval and dismay, I hide in the boot of our small Volkswagen and tell her to drive up to the border.
My heart is thumping with the unnecessary danger of all this.
I am smuggling myself over a border that has the world’s attention on it, as volunteer Islamic State fighters from across Europe cross one way, desperate refugees cross another. And all for a 25 euro day visa.
While I sit, folded in the dark boot, I reflect on what a fool I often am.
Voices outside, what sounds like an argument. The blood is ringing in my ears and I can’t swallow. Then the car moves. Stops. Sound of footsteps. The boot opens and I’m blinking at a figure shadowed in the bright sunlight.
It’s R. She tells me that we’ve been turned away from driving over as she didn’t have proof that the car was hers. Her documents are written in Greek. The Turkish wafted them away as no good without even looking at them.
So, instead we trudge over the border on foot. With me having had a lengthy wait, questions asked, and a 25 euro visa bought.
Once in Turkey we’re on a dead-straight road, fields either side. A farmer has planted a huge 30 foot Turkish flag in his field. The town of Edirne lies shimmering on the horizon down the road. And we’re on foot.
We finally flag down a lift from a Greek couple who have crossed the border.
After thanks I ask them why they’ve come.
“See those houses?” the driver points 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 tails 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 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 adds “I like to come to the big city. It’s the nearest big city to us even though it’s in a different country. Isn’t that strange? And everything’s cheaper!”
The shopping streets of Edirne are thronging under good-looking old buildings – as, while not a large city, we are in fact in another Empire’s former capital. This was once the head of the Ottoman world, before Istanbul.
I try and find the large covered bazaar I have heard about.
No one speaks English. Or Greek.
This is surprising, despite what I have seen in Greek Thrace, I assumed that, even for mere mercenary reasons, some Greek would be spoken here. And having been around the world a bit, I’ve always sort of softly counted on finding someone who speaks English.
As complacent and overindulged as this makes me, suddenly now I feel cut adrift. It is rather exhilarating, as well as a little disconcerting. And makes me feel I’ve really entered a completely different world – just a few miles from Greek lands.
The lack of any common language means we also don’t get hassled in the bazaar, no haggling or pushing. It’s a refreshing feeling.
Then we take a place at one of the many liver restaurants around the city – Köfteci Osman. The Turkish are crazy for liver dishes – tava ciğer – and Edirne is the place for liver. Istanbul people make the 250km trek to Edirne just for the liver.
R. is unimpressed. Sticks to the köfte meatballs.
There are three monumental mosques – complete with four towering minarets, imposing domes – all packed in close proximity. When the call to prayer starts it is an impressive sound. More strident than back in Xanthi. We stand looking at the grandest mosque, absorbed in the Mu’ezzin’s singing, as he recites over and over his adhan, the clear strength of the Islamic faith flowing out.
Then his mobile phone goes off, ringing through loud speakers and bouncing off the other marbled mosques, the falling down homes behind, the walls of the city’s hamams. We snap quite quickly out of the reverie.
It is time to leave Western Thrace and head back over one of the several old, handsome, stone, long 8 or 9 arched bridges towards the border and Eastern Thrace on the Greek side.
We step back on Greek soil and I find we’ve been given an hour back from our time in Turkey.
Only very recently President Erdoğan has, for the first time in hundreds of years, changed the times of Turkey. The clocks neither go forward or back now. I didn’t know about this. So, unlike on leaving the Cyclopes cave, here we have found – as we head back into the country – how you can be given time in Greece.
The sun has set like a dead weight though. A pitch black night sits on the road ahead of us.
The day before Lent. A big day in Greece. Carnival time. And no one does a bigger carnival in Greece than Xanthi.
Everyone talks about the Xanthi carnival, I heard of it back in Corfu. People in Athens, people on the islands, travel to see the festivities.
Fancy dress shops bursting out with costumes dot the city. A few weeks ago bright masked faces and lights started appearing on all the walls and lampposts. Dances broke out in the main square: men and women in extravagant, 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’m expecting great things from the main event today.
And the crowds are colossal. Thronging every street and bar. The procession of dressed-up, dancing people, and the bright floats, stretch back miles. Everyone drinking, having a good time.
But where are the traditional costumes? All the old-style culture that was hinted at in the weeks’ build-up?
R. tells me that carnival time is usually a great ribald pagan celebration, with men wearing strapped-on wooden penises and sinister painted smiling masks. Wearing tsolias – the traditional thick tights and pleated skirts – dancing with handkerchiefs and bells and hitting sticks.
And 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…
Xanthi is a lot more tame. It’s a modern Mardis Gras: great I guess if you’re involved, if you’re a student spraying everyone with paint, a child up on shoulders in an overdone outfit taking it all in.
We decide instead to climb the tallest hill above the city.
We sit on the hushed sacred grounds of the Archangeliotissa monastery, high above, peering – 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, is thrown into Xanthi’s river. The crowds on the banks and bridges cheering, clapping, singing, as it is set alight. Flames into the sky. The sky then exploding with fireworks, lighting up the city.
And our last view of Xanthi.
The old men back up in Stavroupoli told me, as I sat chatting in my miserable Greek in their kafeneo, that I must come back on the day after the carnival, on Kathara Deftera – Clean Monday.
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 huge ancient costume of a gigantic camel and walk the streets.
At least, this is what I understood they told me anyway.
But we have to turn down their kind offer of hospitality.
We have to go. A date – a new school for R. – to be kept in Athens. 700 kilometers to the south, and a world away.
As we drive west towards Kavala – where we will pass out of Thrace – in the fields people are flying kites. The tradition of this day – the day after the big celebrations.
We crawl along to watch the skies full of bright, battling, decorated kites. Or a sad sight of a lone boy running along a muddy field with a dead trail of paper, sticks and string behind him, refusing to fly.
Our journey makes slow process, but slow is the correct speed of Thrace anyway.
Maybe we’re just reluctant to leave.
Leave and head towards the fast, uncaring, intricate rented world of the capital of this country.
A captial that doesn’t really quite understand or appreciate its mysterious, difficult, apart – but quite remarkable – lands up here on the north-east borders.
A place I know I will miss.