Thursday 21st April 2011, Alexandroupolis, Thrace
This morning our Turkish co-campers had not appeared before we were ready to leave. We could hardly knock on their door to remind them of their generous offer of last night. We suspected they had probably thought over their rash suggestion and were feeling uncomfortable about it. So we stuck a note on their door wishing them a good time in Sicily and explaining we'd not wished to disturb them. We added our email address so if their offer still stood they could make contact with us. However, I doubt we will hear from them again so we will revert to our original plan and hope Turkish campsites are not as unpleasant as they implied.
The easiest route onwards was following the Egnatia Odos, the motorway to Turkey. It was toll-free and almost empty which rather surprised us. In less than an hour we'd left Macedonia behind, turned off the autoroute and were parking on the outskirts of Xanthi in Thrace.
Xanthi turned out to be one of the most interesting, lively and varied towns we've seen in Northern Greece, second only to Ioannina. The area was exempt from the 1923 population exchange between Turkey and Greece so there is a very heavy Turkish influence in the town with mosques and minarets almost as much in evidence as Christian churches. There are many Turkish people on the streets, darker in complexion than the Greeks, the women wearing bright headscarves decorated with sequins. The older ones wear long skirts or long dark coats. There are also gypsies about and we were asked for money.
The streets were really crowded with shoppers and the two large squares are a place for meeting friends and for small children to play. There are cars parked anywhere and everywhere, while motorbikes drive around the streets regardless of pedestrianised areas or one-way systems. Street cafes are busy selling snack lunches – cheese, spinach or lentil pies in the main. We sat at one for lunch on the crowded street with car fumes all around us. We'll really miss spinach pies when we leave Greece.
The entire city is a lively cultural mix where side street shops sell everything from Greek worry beads, bread and baklavas, to reproduction Greek icons, Turkish hookahs, nuts, olives and crystallised fruits oozing in syrup. There is more trading carried out on the streets than in the shops with stallholders selling fabrics, lace, carpets, jewellery, hardware, copper jugs and pans as well as shoes and clothing.
Ian left his hat and sunglasses on a bench and when we returned some time later to look for them, they were still there. Ian says it shows how honest everyone is. I say his hat and glasses are so old fashioned even the dropouts of Xanthi won't touch them!
Almost everybody appears to live in flats. They cannot look attractive but they seemed well built and the balconies have potted plants and bright sun-blinds. Beyond the town centre we discovered the old Turkish quarter. Old is hardly the word as there is very little in the town older than the 1880s. The narrow cobbled streets and overhanging upper stories are shaded and in far better condition than in other Greek cities where there is no longer a Turkish presence. On upstairs balconies we noticed Turkish ladies taking tea together, all wearing their glittering headscarves.
Xanthi's main industry was tobacco production. Because of this the city became highly prosperous back in the late 19th century and there are several very attractive villas in the old town though some are now looking rather neglected. One is now used as the museum of folk art. The building is of greater interest perhaps than the exhibits, being conjoined villas owned by the Kougioumtzoglu brothers, tobacco tycoons. Visitors wander around the house where the rooms preserve the atmosphere and decoration of the 1920s including the business office, dining room and lounge. Upstairs are the bedrooms with decorated ceilings to the rooms and the landing. The walls are hung with family portraits that look more in keeping with 1920s Surbiton than Xanthi.
Leaving the city we rejoined the Egnatia Odos towards Alexandroupolis. On the edge of the town we discovered a Lidl supermarket. They are in almost every town and city throughout Europe. Lidl's empire far exceeds the combined Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and the Holy Roman Empires and the conquest has been accomplished without sabres and pistols, using cash cards, bar codes and cheap prices. It has been done peacefully with the full co-operation of the local inhabitants who have welcomed them with open arms.
So far we've been drinking tap water but have been advised to use bottled water on Turkish campsites. We are also more than a little concerned as to how accessible wine will be in a largely Muslim country. We stocked up on both while the opportunity presented. As we were leaving we bumped into John and Linda. They'd checked in at the campsite earlier so were without their car. We took their shopping in Modestine, leaving them to walk back.
So tonight we are camped beside the sea with the high, snow-topped mountain of Samothrace looming about twenty kilometres offshore. A contingent of fifteen French campervans have arrived and surrounded us. Talking to them it seems they travel in convoy and meet up for the night at agreed locations, not necessarily on campsites. The nearer we get to Turkey the more campervans we are seeing, yet very few of them use the campsites and none are found on the byways we travel.
From nearby in the town a loud speaker had been broadcasting the Maundy Thursday religious service. It has been going on for hours and it's now 11pm. Will they chant away all night?
Friday 22nd April 2011, Alexandroupolis, Thrace
Around midnight the priest decided to call it a day and popped off home for a quick kip. By the time we were ready to walk into the city this morning, Good Friday, he was back on duty, chanting away in the Cathedral while all over town the faithful were making their way to church carrying little bunches of spring flowers. For almost the first time we saw lots of elderly Greek ladies on the streets, climbing up to the Cathedral for the Good Friday service. We followed and slipped in at the back. The church was packed and we could see very little. So we climbed up to the gallery from where we could peer over the heads of the congregation (we are all much taller in northern Europe than the population around the Mediterranean) to where the black-robed priest was chanting from a large volume on the altar surrounded by choirboys holding candles.
We were in Greece for Easter back in 2008 when we camped at Olympia. That was a fascinating experience and we wrote about it then. Please re-read that account. It will save me describing it all over again.
This morning in Alexandroupolis, with everybody in church the streets were empty and all the shops closed. During the afternoon however the streets suddenly came alive with all the bars crowded with coffee drinkers. Very few people seemed to be eating though there were several seafront tavernas serving salads and fish. Everybody is waiting for Easter Sunday to start selling and serving meat once more.
Alexandroupolis, formerly Dedeagatch, is laid out on a grid system of wide straight streets to allow the rapid advance of troops. In this it differs from other Ottoman towns of the period with their cobbled streets and cul-de-sacs. It is the result of Russian occupation during the Russian-Turkish wars of 1877-78.
The town has been variously occupied by Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece until recent times when it was decisively handed over to Greece following the Second World War. Such a mix of rulers and its close proximity with the borders of Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece, as well as the continents of both Europe and Asia, have contributed to the cosmopolitan feel of the town.
With all the shops closed and the town deserted this morning we were pleasantly surprised to discover the excellent museum of ethnography open. We seemed to be almost the only visitors all day. It is an excellent museum covering every aspect of life in Thrace. Apart from enlightening us concerning the region's chequered history, there were exhibition galleries covering customs and costume, crafts and climate, agriculture, fishing, geography, silk production, spinning, weaving, wine and honey production and even films of the production of Turkish delight, tahini, halva and syrupy Turkish sweetmeats.
There was so much to see, and it was so well presented, with the added advantage that text was in excellent English as well as Greek, that we stopped for a coffee in the museum cafe. It had to be specially brewed and we were asked if we'd like honey in it! It came with slices of honey and lemon cake and glasses of water. While we waited the curator and the owner of the museum chatted with us. The curator, a charming young lady and Greek Cypriot, translated for the owner who told us she envied our travels and wished she'd had the sense to do what we are doing instead of setting up a museum! We told her it was a wonderful exhibition. Soon they were asking Ian about policies for local history collections and the digitising of archives. They explained that museums such as theirs received no government funding, their only income coming from donations and talks to schools and special groups. The building in which the museum is housed belongs to the museum owner who inherited it through several generations of her family. Conversation was animated with lots of ideas exchanged and suggestions made. They then took us to see their archives and research library. The owner had personally travelled all over Thrace gathering personal testimony from hundreds of people represented in the museum – musicians, dancers, farmers, bee keepers, silk industry workers etc. Her research had not been confined to Greece having also filmed, interviewed and researched in both Bulgaria and Turkey as well.
The curator told us that the Greek economy is in very serious difficulty and colleagues working in the library service have not been paid for months! They have been shocked to learn of the huge university tuition fees in Britain but feel the cuts the British government are making to try to stem the financial hemorrhaging is better than the Greek approach which is to take more and more money from the workers to continue funding services rather than cutting back. She says Europe sees Greeks as lazy but they are not. They struggle to improve themselves but the government gives no incentives, takes anything they achieve and does not pay their wages. Under such circumstances there is no enthusiasm for people to work.
She also agreed with our view that the nearer we get to Turkey the better the Greeks and Turks seem to coexist. The Greek hostility towards Turkey and Bulgaria, dating from historic times and particularly from the forced repatriation of 1923, is far stronger in western Greece than here on the border with Bulgaria and Turkey where most repatriated Greeks settled. She says generally everybody gets along peacefully here and the ideal of the European union is not new. This part of Europe is an ethnic mix of nations and religions that has lived together in harmony for far longer than the nations of the EU. She told us that as a Cypriot she had more reason than many in Greece to resent the Turks. Her parents had been made refugees, forced from their homes when Cyprus split and Turkey divided the country. She recognised though that the Turks too had suffered in the same way so feared that with such a view she would not be regarded as a patriot. However, she said many so called patriots today had not experienced ethnic uprooting as she had and so she felt she was in a better position to see the full picture than they were.
It was a fascinating morning and we left the museum with much to think about. It can be so difficult getting our heads around all the different politics and histories of the many different countries we have visited over recent years.
The rest of the day has been spent exploring this pleasant seaside town and watching the locals crowding the streets to meet with friends on a national holiday. We have strolled along the sea front with its lighthouse and watched the cars loading on to the ferry to the snow topped island of Samothace. It was here that the winged Nike, goddess of Victory, dating from the 2nd century BC was discovered in 1863. It has been in the Louvre since 1884 and is one of the most celebrated sculptures in the world.
We bought a special Easter cake, a sort of nest-shaped Brioche with a dyed, hard-boiled red egg in the centre. This was to share this evening with John and Linda who had invited us for Greek aperitifs. On our return to the campsite the owner gave us a hand-coloured egg as an Easter gift, as is the tradition here. Later, as we sat with our new English friends in the evening sunshine with our Cretan wine, stuffed vine leaves, Greek olives and nuts, we cracked the eggs against each other for good luck over the coming year. All round today has been extremely pleasant.
Saturday 23rd April 2011, Alexandroupolis, Thrace
We are still here, trying to sort Modestine's travel insurance for Turkey. It's almost impossible to make contact with our car insurers at the best of times but now that it's Easter there is nobody around until next week anyway. We know we are okay for the European part of Turkey but are not sure about crossing into Asia. We'd assumed as we can find nothing prohibiting us and were not advised of limitations when we arranged it, that it was okay. Now fellow travellers are saying they are only covered for Europe so we are panicking. Our troubles are not helped of course by me having left my mobile phone behind in Exeter!
Today we decided to explore our surroundings here in Thrace and set out to discover a cave known as the Cyclops Cave, referring to the cavern where Odysseus and his men were held captive by the giant one-eyed monster. We eventually found it in the cliffs below the village of Makri. It's a bit of a climb up or down to get to it, depending which route you arrive by. We scrambled down from the cliff top above. It's quite atmospheric, being deep, narrowing towards the back where the Cyclops imprisoned Odysseus and his men along with his sheep at night. The entrance is narrow enough for him to guard the way out of the cave. Below there is a harbour where the fleet of the captives could have been moored. Nearby there are several archaeological sites being excavated but not a great deal to see. What makes these places so delightful is the scenery. Who could not be charmed in such an historical place surrounded by olive trees, tamarisks, wild flowers and white lilies with the sparking blue Aegean Sea below and snow capped Samothrace off shore?
Back in the village we decided that as we will soon be leaving Greece we'd have lunch in the village taverna. It was a popular place on a sunny afternoon. For those interested in what we ate (hello Sue) we started with a Greek salad with loads of oil, olives, feta cheese and herbs served with thick chunks of soft, toasted bread. Ian had a dozen sardines baked in vine leaves, while I had pork and mushrooms cooked with tomatoes, herbs and olive oil, served with rice and vegetables.
Feeling full and content with the world we drove to the Evros Delta National Park. The estuary is on the migration route for birds crossing to and from Africa. It is one of Europe's most important wetlands and includes a variety of landscapes including lagoons, reed beds, sand dunes, rivers and swamps. There are in excess of 330 species of birds to be found. For us though, it was the silence – except for the croaking of thousands of frogs and the cries of the birds - far from habitation, the wind ruffling the surface of the water, storks amongst the reeds and tiny birds in the blossoming tamarisks. Soggy footpaths lead between the reedbeds though we found birds were less likely to disappear if we simply sat watching them from Modestine.
To approach the delta we had to bump several kilometres along sandy tracks and at one point got lost, having misunderstood the Greek signpost. We thought we'd park and walk but were immediately accosted by a huge and bouncy dog. He insisted on running between my legs, jumping up and finally taking my jumper between his teeth and dragging! I think he was bored and wanted some attention but it's unnerving and I was left with a slobbery jumper.
Arriving at the National Park interpretation centre an hour before closing time we'd hoped to identify some of the birds we'd been watching. Unfortunately we were immediately ejected. It's Easter so the staff were off home early. That's Greece. No matter what you expect and what it promises, so often it doesn't come up to expectations.
The good news though was that in a field across the road we discovered, on the edge of the Delta, a complex of ruined bath houses. There was no documentation and they are not in our guide book but they formed part of Traianoupolis, founded by the Emperor Trajan and once the administrative centre of Thrace. Originally Roman they had been restored by the Ottomans. As we crawled in the dark through the low archway interconnecting a couple of the crumbling bath houses we discovered one was still filled with cold, clear, deep water and there was a crescent moon and star carved on the inside of the domed roof. Our voices echoed and it was all rather eerie, especially as we were quite alone apart from a flock of goats and a goatherd in a distant field.
Related links from earlier travel accounts
Easter in Greece: Modestine's Olympic MarathonSee entry for 26th April 2008, Olympia, and following.