Greece has changed dramatically over the years, through a long history from Classical times to the Hellenic Era under Alexander the Great, through the Byzantine time, and all the way through the Ottoman Empire up to Modern Greece. Greece has experienced many wars, and it has encountered many other cultures, including Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and Italian. But in the face of all these influences, Greece has managed to stay true to itself. A long history has left many traces in Greece which can be seen almost everywhere you go.
Greek people are said to be easy-going and friendly. They, like most Mediterranean people, are loud, cheerful, and open to new acquaintances, and they love tourists and invest a lot in tourism.
So let us start . . .
Thrace is situated in the north-east of the country, bordering Bulgaria and Turkey. To be precise, Greek Thrace is actually West Thrace, as Thrace was an ancient region, sometimes called “Europe” in antiquity, including also part of Bulgaria (North Thrace), and the European part of Turkey (East Thrace). From Thrace (Europe) the whole continent got its name. In mythology you will find that Thrace was a sister of Europe (about whom there is a very interesting myth).
Thrace is famous for its wine, as viticulture has been present here for thousands of years because of a suitable Mediterranean climate. The god who was widely worshipped in Thrace was Dionysus, who was the god of wine, ritual ecstasy, fertility, and theatre. In ancient Thrace there was also a large following for Bendis, goddess of the hunt and the moon, which the Greeks associate with Artemis, because both of them represent goddesses of hunt. The final thing Thrace is famous for is that it is the mythical land of Orpheus – legendary musician, poet and prophet, mostly represented by a lyre (a small stringed instrument, similar to a very small harp, but with fewer strings). The lyre commonly represents the historical era of Greek classical antiquity, and later became a symbol of poetry.
Finally, because of the mixed cultural heritage in Thrace you can find wide a range of regional food specialties including: sausages, the delicacies of pastourma and kavourma (produced from large pieces of meat boiled with spices and preserved in their fat), pligouri (groats), trahanas (pasta soup prepared from wheat flour and curd), and gioufkas (pasta similar to tagliatelle). Also if you are a fan of sweets you mustn’t miss syrup-soaked pastries and cakes with almonds, walnuts, and butter, the most famous ones being tulumbas, baklavas, and kadaif, which you will see in every pastry shop.
Now that I have introduced you to Thrace, we can move on to what we can see while visiting there.
Xanthi lies at the foot of the Rhodope mountain chain. It is a small city with around 50.000 citizens. Xanthi has a well preserved old town where you can find many tobacco shops and taverns. The old town has an oriental atmosphere as the architecture of the buildings is in Ottoman style, although at the same time there are also many Christian churches. Xanthi is the capital city of the Xanthi regional unit and is the cultural center of the area.
Xanthi is very popular for its carnival (held every February), which is one of the most famous carnivals in Greece. Also notable is Xanthi’s Old town festival, which takes place in September. During the Carnival of Xanthi the accent is on old traditional customs and good-natured fun, including opportunities to taste the local wine and try plenty of delicacies. The festivities include concerts, theatre plays, music and dance nights, and exhibitions. The autumn festival in Xanthi’s old town is a sort of a museum with outdoor exhibits. The festival offers many concerts, and exhibitions of different arts like painting or photography, and also book fairs.
Those who wish can get to know Xanthi better by taking a stroll through a mansion which belonged to the brothers Kougioumtzolgou. The mansion is now a folk museum (2euros entrance) where you can be introduced to the history of Xanthi, and its customs and traditions. If we wish to dig deeper in history, near Xanthi there is an archeological site – Abdera (4euros with museum visit) – which also has its own archeological museum. Abdera is an old Greek polis. Credit for founding the polis goes to Heracles, who established the polis on behalf of his fallen friend Abderus. Abdera had among its citizens some very famous philosophers (Democritus, Protagoras, Anaxarchus) and the historian and philosopher Hecataeus. It is interesting that Abdera had a griffon on its coins.
Nature lovers can take a ferry near Xanthi and visit the island of Thasos or enjoy the Rhodope mountains near Xanthi.
Alexandroupoli is the capital city of the Evros region of Thrace. Until the 19th century, Alexandroupoli was a simple fishing village, founded by the fishermen on a site opposite the island of Samothrace. In the 20th century the construction of a railway station in Alexandroupoli (Dedeağaç) gave the old fishing village the status of a city. Alexandroupoli now has around 56.000 citizens, and as a port and a fishermen’s town it conveys the atmosphere of an old seaside location where you can enjoy fish delicacies. In the city itself you may want to see the Agios Nikolaos Cathedral, which is large and beautiful and set in the city center.
Near Alexandroupoli is a village called Soufli. Soufli is a major center of silk production in Greece and the location – no large surprise – of a silk museum. Many of us have seen silk and even worn it, but how many of us know how it is made? In the museum you can see the history of silk-making and development of the many phases of sericulture and silk manufacturing. You can see every detail of silk production from silkworm eggs to silk dyeing. Visiting the museum can be an interesting experience and something educational for all ages. And it is always good to learn something new and beautiful.
Once again, Greece has something for nature lovers. Near Alexandroupoli you can visit the Evros delta or the Dadia forest reserve. While visiting the Evros delta you can enjoy the sights of nature . . . you can see many birds flying around and bathing in the waters, because of the materials that the river carries and the mix of sea and river water supports a rich abundance of flora and fauna. As for the Dadia forest reserve, you can walk through the thick forest by one of two main footpaths. You could spend hours resting there or just walking and peacefully watching the birds, the animals, and the trees. Species you could encounter include eagles and vultures, lanner falcons, black kites, goshawks, Levant sparrow hawks, honey buzzards, and the increasingly rare black stork.
The capital city of the Rhodope regional unit, Komotini, is also home to the Democritus University of Thrace and a Turkish-speaking Muslim minority. Even though there are only about 55.000 people living in Komotini, it is, like other cities in Thrace, very multicultural because of its mixed population of Greeks, Greek refugees from Asia Minor and East Thrace, Muslims of Turkish, Pomak and Romani origins, the descendants of refugees who survived the Armenian genocide, and Pontic Greeks from north-eastern Anatolia (Jews also lived here before WWII).
Given such cultural diversity, there are many things you could see, from the ecclesiastical museum and Church of the Assumption of Mary to the Byzantine Fortress with its wall (built in about the 4th century AD century for financial and military reasons), and the Turkish quarter where you can find old and new Mosques and a famous Clock Tower.
Located in the Evros regional unit, Didymotiho is also famous for a long history that encompasses many eras and centuries. The city’s first name meant “the wall”, and the city itself is now just 2km away from the Greek-Turkish border. The city is rather small, with a population of less than 10.000. In Didymotiho you can see many old Byzantine churches, and there is also a Bayezid Mosque which is considered to be one of the most important Muslim monuments in Greece, with origins in the 15th century. Also from the Ottoman era there are hamams, one of which is the first ever in Europe.