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 all of northern Greece.
A church bell chimed through the darkened sky, splattered with snow, as we entered the city. 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 brightly lit grey skies – to see what the town 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, amongst the customers. Tins and products we didn’t quite recognise. 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 in Greece.
We were in this far north-eastern region of Greece as Giristroula was researching schools throughout Greece. We had left the warm, ambrosial fields of Corfu for a few months. Swapped them for these far-flung land 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 – 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. Our neighbourhood. It revealed itself, after the snows, to be an incredible village within a 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 the town’s 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 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 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.
Their grand old warehouses remained 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 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.
We got out to explore Xanthi at night and 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.
“This isn’t Volos you know,” said the disappointingly miserable owner of ‘Kivotos’ taverna we had sat 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 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 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 – perhaps Greece’s greatest composer – the magician of blending classical music with Greek folk melodies and themes. The house he was born in had been restored and was now an elegant arts centre (but never seems to be open).
We took 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 up on the walls. His music faintly playing in the background. The city was alive – the tavernas and bars were all neat and tasteful and appealing. 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 chatted and had time for us and everyone seemed willing to help. We had arrived in the town earlier in the undignified state of being towed – as we sat in a 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. 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 up 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 difficult climb for you. “Elpizo na eisai kala…” 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 transpires 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. Who 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 before we came here of how they had sat on a bench and chatted, briefly, just passing the time of day really, 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. 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 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 you do. Perhaps this is why I’d 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 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 would 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 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 for free to bring you in. And, almost uniquely again in Greece, there were expressions of gratitude for buying from them. “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, within milliseconds – quicker than it took the eye to 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 and started emptying the girl’s every pocket, sweets falling out onto the floor from everywhere. The gypsy girl looked hurt. The market trader now wouldn’t even let her have one sweet after this sly deception. The girl pulled a bruised, upset, disappointed face. Then, as the trader went back to her place behind the stall, the girl broke into a broad beam and offered her friends sweets from a great towering stash of sweets she had 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, none of the usual Olympiacos or Panathinaikos or PAOK Salonica. I went into a grill house and ordered gyros. Rather sweetly the man in the gyradika checked first that I was okay to eat pork. We sat and watched the lively Saturday shopping 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. The line here…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 runs towards the shining waters of the Nestos Delta in the distance.
We got off at Komotini. A large-ish town set round a long, busy square. This town has the highest proportion of Turkish people in the country, around 50% of the population, so I was told. 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: ‘Ali Christos’, ‘M Karagiozis’.
The official street signs, however, had something I hadn’t seen in Greece before. Under each road name (‘Odos Smyrni’, ‘Odos Aristotle’ etc.) there was a description of what/who the road is 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 be heightened, there felt 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 the mixed lives that had 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. In Greek.
“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 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, 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 doesn’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 or Turks with Greek roots, who were moved when the Ottoman Empire was finally pushed from these lands.
And there are also the 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 two million from their generations-old homes and communities across the borders, on both sides. Turkish people were allowed to stay, just in this one area of Thrace.
We rattled in the van along the plant-lined roads back towards Xanthi. Where the communities of north eastern Greece are brilliantly confused further by the numbers of Pomakis 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 mysterious way.
Giristroula was 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 – revealed itself further.
Giristroula’s school was 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 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 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 spoke to called themselves Greeks – still a strange feeling of disassociation exists.
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. And the whole feeling was one of just a great 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 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 up here in these mixed areas – Giristroula told me though that this teacher who had sat her down and said all this was a Greek raised in Germany and only coming back to her family ancestral town later in life.
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, 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…”
I wandered round the town while she 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, 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 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 was confusion and he repeatedly banged hard on the desks in frustration. It was a pretty frightening learning experience to listen in on. 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. It is only an oral language. Similar to Bulgarian, but not completely. And the few Turkish words that slip in had been explained to me as coming 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.
But it felt strange that the adult Greeks we meet here could speak absolutely no Pomaki at all. I pointed out to some of the teachers at 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 near to the village of Toxotes where the Nestos River snaked 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 rose above us. We turned and climbed from the dark river bed – which would be flooded in a few weeks as the snows higher up melted – and up into sun-lit Thrace mountains. We followed a railway line cut into the cliffs, disappearing into tunnels below us. We walked on over the rocky path and took in huge views across the Nestos Straight and of deep forested ravines. Then drove further south, following the river towards the sea.
Lake Vistonida was full of balancing flamingos. As we approached the pink birds – purple underwings, spindly legs, stupidly long thin necks – got the jitters and took flight. The sky filled with shades of pinks and purples as they moved away, as one huge flock, to settle further into the middle of the lake.
Out in the lake was the floating church of Agios Nikolaos. We were 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 opened 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 priests on their own, singing, pressed together at the small lectern, like four huddled old black crows, their hands folded over fat bellies.
This lake was where Hercules tamed wild horses for the eighth of his 12 Labours. There are still wild horses here, 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 continued down to where the huge 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 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 walked 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 stood and stared and tried to meditate on the big things in life, as this city produced several great philosophers of Classical Greek time. Including Democritus – the Laughing Philosopher – who lived to well over 100 and travelled widely in the world, travelling Greece thoroughly too, to fully understand it and its people and to mock its human foibles.
The beaches in Thrace are pretty terrible. Although I’d been told in the summer people still try and sunbathe and swim on the slightly ratty thin strips of sand, underneath signs warning of the water’s difficult tides. Lack of great beaches in Thrace might be a reason the tourists don’t crowd Thrace as elsewhere in Greece. This suited us just fine. We sat in the car on the tall golden grass-fringed empty roads with marshy fields all around us under a huge, sun-smeared, glassy sky. A lone farmer, up on a horse and cart in a distant field, waved his cap at us as a far greeting. A severe eagle sat just a few feet away on a low branch of a tree staring in through our passenger window. And Thrace’s emptiness and all-prevailing feeling of remoteness from anywhere felt just perfect.
Heading into the north of Thrace, towards Bulgaria, we came into the hidden, seclusive areas: the Pomakohoria. Collections of villages, scattered like seeds, across bare rolling mountainous lands. The towns themselves were often fairly ugly, the lone arresting site being the substantial mosques sat in the centre. But there was an strange, singular feeling surrounding these mountain villages.
We stared down from the high, snakey road, and then free-wheeled into their dusty streets. The broken and abandoned old farmers’ houses, that still exist, stood in a glorious contrast to the short, blocky new homes – where I noted every satellite dish was turned to the east, to pick up Turkish tv. The Muslim residents’ styles were still resolutely old fashioned though. Men wearing fez, women wrapped in headscarves, 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 old houses that were 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 Thracian families.
The roads had a distinct Thrace look too. All along were dotted fountains. This was an extension of the Greek Orthodox tradition of erecting a shrine when someone had been killed, or conversely, when some miracle had occurred – there are so many of these shrines throughout Greece though. Can there really be that many road accidents or 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, and the families building 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 their Turkish to typical, dramatic, rather ludicrous Greek historic names. Village names you never see anywhere else.
An almost impossible dirt road, 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. So we felt we had to call in. 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 we told him. He ate some of our bread. Clasped me by the shoulder with his heavy hand. When our plates of meat arrived, he sat down again, not asking, helping himself to some, 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 again to my soutzoukakia – my meatball dinner. I tried asking him another. He chewed and ruminated, minutes passed. I finally 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 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 fought 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 came over to tell us. “And now Greece just forgets us.”
The silence that sits, imbedded, in these villages certainly gives the feeling of lives on the furthest edges.
We had been invited to one of Giristroula’s teachers’ houses in Xanthi. The teacher’s 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 there was a Xanthippe who 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 lived in a chaotic house with her kids and parents. Her father had been a salesman and every day had driven 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 replies. “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 – 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.
Giristroula was now working 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. 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. It had very little work either. People were leaving in droves. Giristroula said she’d been told three students had left the school in the last few weeks alone, 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 many spoke German. Even these old men in their 70s and 80s. The reason being that alongside Athens, Germany was where people were being taken away from these Thrace villages. Places that once had their own thriving industries and communities. Now 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. Just as when we had when travelling in the Pomakohoria, but this time further east. And here there was a 2,000 meter mountain range between us and Bulgaria. And the vast Haidou forest. 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 looked like some sort of large, dead, arctic fox in one hand up the road towards a bin told us he would watch our car for us. Though he seemed to be the only person on the whole mountain.
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 boot prints, but instead the exciting, slightly worrying, large round prints of a bear. And the tread of large dogs. Wolves?
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. And 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 deep 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, 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 beautiful the stones refused to hit him). Either way, the deserted forest around us singing to the sound of the waterfall seemed entirely appropriate here. 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 then 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. Haemus was very proud of his wife, Queen Rodopi. 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, and stared down on us as we travelled up a vertiginously climbing road. 1000 meters up.
Way, way below us was the coiling Nestos river, tracing like a slug’s silver trail through the rough landscape. In the distance the mountains of the Bulgarian border, where legendary 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. 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: at a pace, and in a manner and with a feeling quite enormously removed from here on the Thracian hills.
A Smell Of Summer
Tsiknopempti day. A Thursday, sometime in February, where the whole of Greece are out grilling and eating meat. Before the coming of Lent and the 40 days of fasting, Greeks make sure they’ve fully sated themselves and every garden and house has a long trail of smoke rising from it. Like a flag.
Xanthi had gone suitably crazy for this grilling day. I saw stalls selling meat everywhere. Not just outside the tavernas, but also tobacconists and shoe shops and fruit sellers had 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 15 or so days of good weather that Greece 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 – of course – 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 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…
(although the saying goes on to state “Martis gdartis kai kakos paloukokaftis” – there is such bad weather in March, it can ruin everything …)
We sat outside the heavy hunkered, red brick Hagia Sophia church in the centre of Xanthi, in the sun, and ate great pantsetes. For afters we headed down Tsaldari Street – seemingly the high street for Muslim shops and products – for Halva at ‘Taselaridis’. Halvas is the sweet eaten all through Greece – either a crumbly nutty dense slab, or a piece of 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 this plain, slightly shabby, white interior bakery show it’s eaten a lot every day here. It 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 stereotypically it is said – they dislike the Greeks.
There is a saying “Romeiikos kavgas, tourkikos halvas!” – when Greeks fight between themselves, it is halvas to the Turks!
So I ate huge slices of the thick dry type halva – took 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 sat and played tavli – backgammon – as the late afternoon slipped, unlamented, away.
East From Xanthi
Alexandropouli had everything that we were expecting, or hoping, from Xanthi. It’s a city built on the sea front. A port city. There were good looking tsipouradika – tsipouro bars. Tsipouro to go with all the fish caught here. Old fashioned taverns. There were advertised rembetiko nights. Many people also appeared to choose to cycle around the city – unheard of in Greece! There was a good feeling to the city. The sea front was ugly though. I thought there might be 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 was the icon of the place: the lighthouse, standing tall, in the centre, looking out to the floating jagged monumental rocks of the island of Samothraki across the waters. But that was about it.
There were also two Turkish soldiers here, however. 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, planes regularly 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 here.
We drove out to the vast expanse of the Evros Delta – the Evros river being the line between the two countries.
Under the huge skies we stopped and breathed in great lungfuls of the nature and, 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 to sleep. We headed back ourselves, towards Xanthi. Stopping first at the small square of the village of Makris, by the sea. We took a walk along the cliffs and found a broad rough cave staring out above the sea. Great boulders outside, as if thrown from the sky.
We entered a little way in, but the sudden deep darkness felt weirdly oppressive and we quickly forced our way 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 and then sat on the very sea shore that had lapped before of us, bathing his weeping eye.
The waitress also told us a tale of local fishermen who had entered this cave. The fishermen 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 waiting for them. They’d been in there for days.
We took the broken backroads towards Xanthi, 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, almost an abstract concept here.
One Way Is Rome And The Other Way Is Mecca
It felt like we were following a line, a thread, of minarets leading us out to the east. We followed the great ancient old Roman road – Egnatia Odos – 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 his year of compulsory military service, so we stopped here in some sort of 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 wretched desperate 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 until you reached the Far East… Now they’re paying us to put the mulberry bushes back!” she said, shaking her head at the madness she was recounting.
We walked round the town, approached a couple of men, sat idly talking, stood in a pool of sunlight by the railway track in the centre of the town, and 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…”
“Why?” said the other to me. “Are you Muslim? Has Trump made you leave your country?” he cackled at his own joke. I told him I’m from England.
“Oh. The other one then. What’s his name? Boris Johns.”
We said 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 frowned 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 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 didn’t look much different to the bare, brown, dry barren-looking land I was standing on.
We carried on to Didymoteicho where bygone-era, 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. It 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. Here? It seemed incredible now. And perhaps even more remarkable was 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 looked a sad prisoner now, caged in wooden scaffolding. A modern protective roof over its previous grandeur. Minaret broken, vulnerable to earthquakes, it still sat defiant. Having watched the Ottomans, the Bulgarian, 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, having gone as far east as we could, we were heading up north along the Greek/Turkish border as it snaked up towards Bulgaria. 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 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 hatched a plan to hide in the boot of our small Volkswagen and told a very reluctant Giristroula – shaking her head at this lunacy – to drive up to the border.
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 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 and I was blinking at a figure shadowed in the bright sunlight.
It was Giristroula. She told me that we’d been turned away from driving over as she hadn’t any proof that the car was hers. Her documents were written in Greek, 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 finally flagged down a lift from a Greek couple who had crossed the border. After thanks 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 added “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 thronged under good-looking old buildings – as, while again not a particularly large city, we were in fact in another Empire’s former capital. This 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. And having been around the world a bit, I’d always sort of softly counted on finding someone who spoke English. As complacent and overindulged as this made me, suddenly now I felt cut adrift. It was rather exhilarating, as well as a little disconcerting. And 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, safe, a little dull to me now.
The lack of any common language meant we didn’t get hassled in the bazaar, no haggling or pushing. It was a refreshing feeling. Then we took 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 folk make the 250km trek to Edirne just for its liver. Giristroula was unimpressed. She stuck to the köfte meatballs.
There were 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 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… Then his mobile phone went off. Ringing through loud speakers and bouncing off the other marbled mosques. The ringtone echoed off the falling down homes behind the mosque, 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 caught a bus over one of the several old, handsome, stone bridges: nine long arches. And travelled down the drawn-out road towards Greece, that behind us would stretch all the way back to Istanbul. Moonlight jumped through the trees beside us.
We stepped back on Greek soil and I found we had been given an hour back from our time in Turkey. Only recently President Erdoğan had, for the first time in hundreds of years, changed the clocks. The time neither going forward or back now. I hadn’t know about this. So, unlike on leaving the Cyclopes cave, we had been be given time in Greece. I was happy to have it. Happy to be back home. I felt as if I had been a little unfaithful.
The moon, like the earlier sun, has now set like a dead weight. Only a pitch black night sat on the road ahead of us.
The day before Lent. A big day in Greece. Carnival time. And they say only Patra, down in the south, can rival Xanthi for a bigger carnival in Greece. Everyone talked about the Xanthi carnival. I heard of it back in Corfu. People in Athens, people on the islands. They all travel 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. Dances broke out in the main square: men and women in extravagant decorated, costumes. Traditional music and complicated steps. Great 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 today. The crowds were colossal. Packing every street and bar. The procession of dressed-up dancing people and the bright floats stretched back miles. Everyone was 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 was 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 was a lot more tame. It was a modern Mardis Gras: great, I guess, if you were involved, if you were a student spraying everyone with paint. Or a child up on shoulders in an overdone outfit taking it all in. But it seemed a bit dull for u and we decided instead to leave it behind and climb the tallest hill above the city.
We sat on the hushed sacred grounds of the Archangeliotissa monastery, high above, 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, clapping, singing, as it was set alight. Flames reached high into the sky. The sky then exploded with fireworks, lighting up the city.
It was our last view of Xanthi.
The old men back up in Stavroupoli told me, as I had 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 had to turn down their kind offer of hospitality. We had to go. A date – a new school for Giristroula – to be kept in Athens. 700 kilometers to the south. 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 another tradition on this day in Greece – along with drinking ouzo and eating octopus, now that meat has been given up for the 40 days until Easter.
We crawled along, watching the skies full of bright, battling, decorated kites. And the one sad sight of a lone boy running along a muddy field with a dead trail of paper, sticks and string 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 leave and head towards the fast, uncaring, rented world of the capital of this country. A capital that doesn’t seem to understand or appreciate its remote and mysterious lands isolated up here on its distant north-east borders.
A place I knew I would miss.