Thrace (Trakya in Turkish), the historic territory bounded by the rivers Danube and Nestos and the Aegean, Marmara and Black seas, is today divided roughly equally among Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria. In ancient times it was home to warlike tribes, whose bizarre religions and unruly habits presented a continual headache for rulers bent on subduing them. Contemporary life is decidedly less colourful. Until the late 1960s, nearly all of Thrace was a military security zone, off-limits to foreigners. Most of the area is now unrestricted, though the towns remain heavily garrisoned.
The flatter terrain of southern Thrace has long since been denuded of trees, while much of the coast has fallen prey to estates of concrete holiday homes – seasonal barbecue pads for İstanbul’s workers. Inland is staunchly agricultural; in summer a sea of yellow sunflowers, grown for oil, spreads for many kilometres. Further west, in the wetter lands around Üzünköprü, rice is predominant; to the north, the rolling Istranca hills with their dense forests of oak and conifers hide itinerant charcoal burners and myriad fish farms raising rainbow trout. Across the whole region opencast mines extract sand and gravel from the prehistoric sea bed.
The E80 motorway from İstanbul to the main Thracian town of Edirne runs parallel to the route of the Roman and Byzantine Via Egnatia, which later became the medieval route to the Ottoman holdings in Europe, and is now the D100 highway. Many towns along this road began life as Roman staging posts, a role continued under the Ottomans who endowed each with a civic monument or two. Few spots have much to detain you, though keep an eye out for fine old bridges, which like the road itself may be Ottoman reworkings of Roman or Byzantine originals. The best of these is the quadruple Büyükçekmece span, crossing the neck of an estuary west of İstanbul and built by the great architect Mimar Sinan in 1563.