The ethnically diverse Greek province of THRACE (Thráki) was once part of a much larger region now split between the modern states of Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria. Heading across the Néstos River, the border with Macedonia, the change in population is obvious: Turkish settlements with their tiled, whitewashed houses and pencil-thin minarets contrast sharply with modern Greek villages built for the refugees of the 1920s. The same features are combined in the region’s biggest urban centre, the attractive market town of Xánthi. Of the mountain villages north of Xánthi, Stavroúpoli stands out as the most worth visiting, while to the south and east a trio of archeological sites is to be found along the coast near Komotiní. Beyond the service town of Alexandhroúpoli lies the Évros River, which forms the heavily guarded land border with Turkey.
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XÁNTHI is the most interesting point to break a journey in Thrace. There is a busy market area, good food and, up the hill to the north of the Kendrikí Platía, the main café-lined square, a very attractive old Ottoman quarter. The town is also home to the University of Thrace, which lends a lively air to the place, particularly in the area between the bazaar and the campus, where bars, cinemas and bistros are busy in term time.
The main south–north thoroughfare is 28-Oktovríou, lined with fast-food outlets and sundry shops. One end is marked by the Kendrikí Platía, recognizable by its distinguished clocktower. Try, if you can, to visit on Saturday, the day of Xánthi’s street fair – a huge affair, attended equally by Greeks, Pomaks and ethnic Turks, held in an open space near the fire station on the eastern side of the town.
The old town
The narrow cobbled streets of the old town are home to a number of very fine mansions – some restored, some derelict – with colourful exteriors, bay windows and wrought-iron balconies; most date from the mid-nineteenth century when Xánthi’s tobacco merchants made their fortunes.
Further up, the roads become increasingly narrow and steep, and the Turkish presence (about fifteen percent of the total urban population) is more noticeable: most of the women have their heads covered, and the more religious ones wear full-length cloaks. Churches and mosques hide behind whitewashed houses with tiled roofs and orange-brown tobacco leaves are strung along drying frames. Numerous houses, no matter how modest, sport a dish for tuning in to Turkish satellite television.
The folk museum
Two adjacent mansions at the bottom of the hill up into the right-bank quarter of the old town, originally built for two tobacco magnate brothers, have been turned into an excellent folk museum. Worth seeing for the imposing exterior alone, some years ago the interior was lovingly restored with painted wooden panels, decorated plaster and floral designs on the walls and ceilings. The interesting displays include Thracian clothes and jewellery, numerous household objects and historical displays on the tobacco industry and society in general; entry includes an enthusiastic guided tour if requested.
Some 120km southeast of Xánthi, the modern city of ALEXANDHROÚPOLI (Dedeagaç in Turkish) was designed by Russian military architects during the Russo-Turkish war of 1878. The town only became Greek in 1920, when it was renamed after a visit from Greece’s King Alexander. It does not, on first acquaintance, have much to recommend it: a border town and military garrison with Greek holiday-makers competing in summer for limited space in the few hotels and the campsite. There is, however, an excellent museum and a lively seafront promenade. The town also provides access to two excellent birdwatching sites, the nearby Évros Delta and further north the Dhadhiá Forest Reserve. No village nearby is complete without its stork’s nest, dominating the landscape like a watchtower.
Ethnological Museum of Thrace
The excellent Ethnological Museum of Thrace is one of the best of its kind in the country and can easily fill an hour or so. Housed in a tastefully restored Neoclassical mansion, its eye-catching modern displays cover almost every aspect of traditional life in Thrace. For once every ethnic group is covered: Pomaks, Turks, Armenians, Jews and Roma as well as Greeks. Professionally produced videos, with commentaries in Greek only, complement the beautifully lit cabinets. A delightful café, serving local specialities, and a good museum shop complete the picture.
Alexandhroúpoli’s seafront is dominated by the 1880 lighthouse, the town’s symbol; it comes alive at dusk when the locals begin their evening promenade. In summer, café tables spill out onto the road and around the lighthouse; makeshift stalls on the pavements sell pumpkin seeds and grilled sweetcorn as well as pirate DVDs and the like. Looking south, you can usually see the dramatic silhouette of the island of Samothráki, over 40km off the coast.
The Évros Delta
The Évros Delta
The Évros Delta is one of Europe’s most important wetland areas for birds – and one of Greece’s most sensitive military areas. Among more than 250 different bird species are sea eagles, pygmy cormorants and the lesser white-fronted goose. The delta is crisscrossed with tracks along the dykes used by farmers taking advantage of the plentiful water supply for growing sweet corn and cotton. The south is the most inspiring part, well away from the army installations to the north; as you go further into the wetlands, the landscape becomes utterly desolate, with decrepit clusters of fishing huts among the sandbars and inlets. At the mouth of the delta sprawls a huge saltwater lake called Límni Dhrakónda. Obviously what you see depends on the time of year, but even if birdlife is a bit thin on the ground, the atmosphere of the place is worth experiencing.
Dhadhiá Forest Reserve
Dhadhiá Forest Reserve
A little under 40km northeast of Alexandhroúpoli, the Dhadhiá Forest Reserve stretches over 352 square kilometres of protected oak and pine forest covering a succession of volcanic ridges in the Évros Valley. The diversity of landscape and vegetation and the proximity of important migration routes make for an extremely diverse flora and fauna, but raptors are the star attraction, and main impetus for this WWF-backed project. In all, 36 of Europe’s 38 species of diurnal birds of prey, including eagles, falcons, hawks and buzzards, can be sighted at least part of the year. The region is also one of two remaining European homes of the majestic black vulture, the other being the Extremadura region of Spain.
The reserve complex
After a drive of 7km through the rolling, forested hills, you reach the reserve complex, with its information centre and exhibition about the region’s wildlife. All cars – except for a tour van which makes sorties several times daily (€3) – are banned from core areas totalling 72 square kilometres, and foot access is restricted to two marked trails: a two-hour route up to the reserve’s highest point, 520m Gíbrena with its ruined Byzantine castle, and another ninety-minute loop-route to an observation hide overlooking Mavrórema canyon from where griffon vultures and other raptors make up the bulk of sightings.
1923 and all that
1923 and all that
Separated from the Turkish territory of eastern Thrace by the Évros River and its delta, western Thrace is the Greek state’s most recent acquisition, under effective Greek control only since 1920. While Muslims throughout the rest of the country were evacuated by force under the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, the Muslims of western Thrace were exempted and continue to live in the region in return for a continued Greek presence in and around Constantinople (Istanbul).
Nowadays, out of a total population of 360,000, there are officially around 120,000 Muslims, about half of them Turkish-speakers, while the rest are Pomaks and Roma. Although there are dozens of functioning mosques, some Turkish-language newspapers and a Turkish-language radio station in Komotiní, only graduates from a special Academy in Thessaloníki have been allowed to teach in the Turkish-language schools here – thus isolating Thracian Turks from mainstream Turkish culture. Local Turks and Pomaks claim that they are the victims of discrimination, but despite violence in the past, relationships have improved with each decade and as an outsider you will probably not notice the tensions. In mixed villages Muslims and Greeks appear to coexist quite amicably and this harmony reaches its zenith in Xánthi. All Thracians, both Muslim and Orthodox, have a deserved reputation for hospitality.