Few people ever venture into the arable plains of northeastern Macedonia, where attractions are sparsely spread among golden fields of corn and tobacco and incredible numbers of storks’ nests. Up near the craggy mountains that form the frontier with Bulgaria, artificial Lake Kerkíni is home to masses of birds, some of them extremely rare in Europe, making it as interesting to ornithologists as the Préspa lakes much farther west. The tranquil setting and rich flora mean it is not only for avid twitchers.
An alternative route to the Egnatía Odhós for reaching Kavála is the scenic route that climbs northeast out of Thessaloníki, first taking you via Sérres before passing Alistráti, worth visiting for its memorable caves, and then heading towards Dhráma and ancient Philippi along a quieter road that offers majestic panoramas of Mount Meníkio (1963m), Mount Pangéo (1956m) and Mount Falakró (2230m). Regular buses from Thessaloníki and between Sérres and Dhráma ply this road.Read More
The Kerkíni Wetlands
The Kerkíni Wetlands
Artificial, marsh-fringed Lake Kerkíni, tucked up near the mountainous Bulgarian border some 80km northeast of Thessaloníki, enjoys international protected status, thanks to the 300-plus species of birds that spend at least part of the year here, some of them on the endangered species list. Huge expanses of water lilies stretch across the large anvil-shaped lake, out of which the River Strymónas flows to the northern Aegean near ancient Amphipolis, while a herd of water buffalo wallows and grazes the eastern banks, and local fishermen compete with every type of heron known to inhabit Europe. Other birds breeding in the Kerkíni wetlands include various species of grebes, terns, egrets, ducks, geese, ibis, spoonbills, avocets and pelicans, plus raptors such as the black kite, the short-toed eagle and the Levant sparrowhawk.
Two kilometres from the lake’s northern shore lies the village of KERKÍNI, where you will find the Kerkíni Wetlands Information Centre ([email protected]). You can also negotiate birdwatching trips in a pláva, a traditional punt-like fishing boat. The surroundings reward exploration with their abundance of flora and fauna, with huge numbers of wildflowers in the spring and early summer.
Just 14km short of Kavála on the busy road from Dhráma, you come to PHILIPPI (Filippoi on some maps and signs), a famous battlefield during the civil wars of Ancient Rome and the subject of one of St Paul’s Epistles. Apart from the scattered Roman ruins, the principal remains of the site are several impressive, although derelict, basilican churches.
Philippi was named after Philip II of Macedon, who wrested it from the Thracians in 356 BC for the sake of nearby gold mines on Mount Pangéo. However, it owed its later importance and prosperity to the Roman construction of the Via Egnatía. With Kavála/Neapolis as its port, Philippi was essentially the easternmost town of Roman-occupied Europe. Here, as at Actium, the fate of the Roman Empire was decided, at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC. After assassinating Julius Caesar, Brutus and Cassius had fled east of the Adriatic and, against their better judgement, were forced into confrontation on the Philippi plains with the pursuing armies of Antony and Octavian and were comprehensively beaten in two successive battles.
St Paul landed at Kavála and visited Philippi in 49 AD, and so began his religious mission in Europe. Despite being cast into prison, he retained a special affection for the Philippians, his first converts, and the congregation that he established was one of the earliest to flourish in Greece.
The most conspicuous of the churches at the site is the Direkler (Turkish for “columns” or “piers”), to the south of the modern road which here follows the line of the Via Egnatía. Also known as Basilica B, this was an unsuccessful attempt by its sixth-century architect to improve the basilica design by adding a dome. The central arch of its west wall and a few pillars of reused antique drums stand amid remains of the Roman forum. A line of second-century porticoes spreads outwards in front of the church, and on their east side are the foundations of a colonnaded octagonal church, which was approached from the Via Egnatía by a great gate. Behind the Direkler and, perversely, the most interesting and best-preserved building of the site, is a huge monumental public latrine with nearly fifty of its original marble seats still intact.
Across the road on the northern side, stone steps climb up to a terrace, passing on the right a Roman crypt, reputed to have been the prison of St Paul and appropriately frescoed. The terrace flattens out onto a huge paved atrium that extends to the foundations of another extremely large basilica, designated Basilica A. Continuing in the same direction around the base of a hill you emerge above a theatre cut into its side. Though dating from the same period as the original town, it was heavily remodelled as an amphitheatre by the Romans – the bas-reliefs of Nemesis, Mars and Victory all belong to this period. It is now used for performances during the annual summer Philippi-Thássos Festival. The best general impression of the site – which is extensive despite a lack of obviously notable buildings – and of the battlefield behind it can be gained from the acropolis, whose own remains are predominantly medieval. This can be reached by a steep climb along a path from the museum.