GREECE  2006 - Weeks 10~11

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WEEKS 10~11 NEWS -  Thrace, Alexandroupoli, the Evros Delta, Dadia Forest Reserve, and Central Macedonia:

From Cape Tenaro at the southern tip of mainland Greece, we have travelled 2,500 miles up through the Peloponnese, Central Greece, Macedonia and finally Thrace, and 7 weeks later, we achieved our goal of reaching the northernmost point at the Bulgarian border crossing of Ormenio.
Click on red squares for 2 detailed maps 
On an intensely hot morning, we crossed the River Nestos into Thrace, Greece's most recent territorial acquisition dating from the notorious Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 which partitioned Greater Thrace between Greece and Turkey.
In the population exchange that followed, 400,000 Greek Muslims were forcibly evacuated to Turkey, and over 1 million displaced Asiatic and Eastern Thracian Greeks were relocated to Northern Greece; the effects of this ethnic cleansing are still to be seen today. Western Thrace Muslims were exempted from the population exchange and continue to live in the region, in return for a continued Greek presence in Istanbul. Out of a total population of 390,000 in Greek Thrace, officially at least 120,000 are Muslim, mostly Turkish but also many Roma and Slavic-speaking Pomaks. Despite Greek governmental claims that this racial mix coexists amicably, Muslims point to marked discrimination. Thrace with its tense ethnic diversity is clearly a political dilemma for modern Greece. We went with an open mind, but as visitors it was difficult to make objective judgement other than the observable reality that contemporary Thracian Greeks appeared as prosperous as elsewhere, but the impoverished down-and-outs we saw were evidently non-Greek.

The hinterland of Thrace borders onto Bulgaria along the line of the Rhodope mountains, which descend to a broad flat fertile plain along the Aegean coastline. Crossing this plain along the now completed Egnatia Odos motorway, past the towns of Xanthi and Komotini, we could see scattered villages along the Rhodope foothills, each with its slim minaret. Traffic was light, most slow-moving Bulgarian trucks or excessively speeding Greek cars. In the whole of Thrace, there is but one campsite, the municipal Camping at coastal Alexandroupoli. We settled here for a few days, grateful for their excellent facilities and even more for the shady trees. Earlier in the trip, we might have described it as featureless and gloomy; in late May's torrid heat, the shade was a god-send.

As a modern town founded in the late 19th century and re-named after King Alexander at the time of Greece's acquisition of Thrace, Alexandroupoli seemed not to have much going for it, other than ferries to Samothrace and the emblematic lighthouse on the seafront where locals take their evening volta. But close by the trendy town centre shops, we found the Ethnological Museum of Thrace. This privately-run excellent collection objectively presented all aspects of the multi-ethnic life and culture of the Thracian peoples during the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly the traditional agriculture of the region - sesame seed and oil, silk-production and tobacco. After such a culturally inspiring morning, we headed for the tabernas with expectations of a distinctive fish lunch. But no: menus were unattractively predictable - we'd seen it all before, a 1,000 times across the whole of Greece over the last 2 months. Having walked out of 2 places (1 of them twice!), we at last found what we were looking for: the Ψαροταβερνα Νησιωτικο (Islanders' Fish Taverna) offered a superb choice of sea-food and is thoroughly recommended. And having seen the lighthouse, visited the Ethnological Museum and enjoyed our excellent fish lunch, that just about exhausted Alexandroupoli's potential. So back to the shade at the campsite.

The main reason for our venture to this largely unvisited corner of Greece was for the wild-life, particularly the unprecedented bird-watching opportunities. The Evros river marks the Greek border with Turkey. The Evros Delta is one of Europe's most important wetlands, and home to a huge range of both resident and migratory birds. We took a Visitor Centre boat trip out into the delta and were able to see Dalmatian Pelicans (Photo 1), Shelduck, Cormorants, Mediterranean Gulls, Terns and White Heron - just a small sample of what was possible, but our bird-watching in Northern Greece had only just begun.

Despite a thawing of relations at governmental level between Greece and Turkey, the Evros river border is still a militarily sensitive area, with substantial army presence and signs prohibiting photography. Even so, we drove out as close as possible to the border to the almost disappointingly normal-looking village of Poros with 5 occupied storks' nests on successive power poles. But the area was actively patrolled by military vehicles, and to avoid confrontation with Greek soldiers with nothing better to do than detain curious visitors, we continued our journey northwards.

Our next birding visit was to the Dadia Forest Reserve, a large protected area of the Rodopi foothills. The diversity of woodland landscape with clearings once grazed by livestock, the wealth of fauna as food source and proximity to migration routes makes Dadia a unique site for raptors (birds of prey). 36 of Europe's 38 species of diurnal birds of prey can be seen here at different times of the year. Given the absence of campsites in Thrace, we wild-camped by the Visitor Centre, reciprocating their hospitality by eating at the taberna. Dadia is 1 of only 2 European homes of the enormous 10 feet wing-span Black Vulture with numbers increased to 100 since the protection project began in 1980. Animal carcasses are now put out at a feeding ground for the raptors, within binocular range of a hide. Early morning and evening give unbelievable views of raptors feeding (Photo 2). Way-marked paths lead up to the hide through the oak and pine woodland, with a wealth of flora to photograph. During our 2 visits to the hide, we were fortunate to see a Sea Eagle, and Black, Egyptian and Griffin Vultures; watching these magnificent birds strutting around the feeding area with wings outstretched and head down in an aggressive posture, or soaring majestically around overhead was breathtaking (Photo 3). The sight of Storks flying over our camp became almost common-place, and as we sat at breakfast on our final morning, binoculars to hand, we were treated to another thrilling aerial display of Black and Griffin Vultures and a Short-toed Eagle soaring around on the warm morning thermals.

Moving further into NE Thrace, we passed through the town of Soufli, once the centre of Greece's silk industry, still with flourishing mulberry tree groves and 1 surviving silk-producing factory. The history of the local silk industry, and the curious method of producing silk thread was presented in the Soufli Silk Museum. The growing silk worms (see left) munch their way through enormous quantities of mulberry leaves before spinning a cocoon around themselves (see right). The unfortunate chrysalis are then suffocated before they can metamorphose (a good Greek word) into moths and eat their way out of the cocoon, which are then laboriously unwound and the threads spun into silk yarn. It was fascinating stuff and very well presented. There is just so much unknown history in this remote corner of Greece.

To complete our journey to Thrace's ultimate point, we passed through the 2 towns of Didymoteicho and Orestiada. The former has a history going back to Byzantine and Ottoman times and does actually contain the Balkans' oldest and largest mosque, now semi-derelict; the latter is an utterly soulless place founded in 1923 to re-house Greek refugees from Edirne (formerly Adrianopoli) at the time of Thrace's partitioning. Beyond here we turned off on minor roads to see Greece's most easterly border settlement of Pythio, and despite the intense military presence, we risked photos looking across the Evros valley into Turkey. Nearby, signs pointed to ancient Thracian Tombs, 1 of which turned out to be a camouflaged military border installation; we beat a hasty retreat, and continued our journey to Ultima Thracia, the border crossing with Bulgaria at Ormenio, Greece's most northerly point. And at that point, we turned to begin the 2,500 mile journey home. From now on, we faced 2 weeks of wild-camping, there being simply no camp-sites in Central and Western Macedonia; the final shower at Alexandroupoli was relished to the full before we departed westwards.

Before leaving Thrace, a final venture was a rail-ride up the magnificent gorge carved out by the River Nestos, from Toxotes to the traditional Thracian hill-village of Stavroupoli. The Greek Railway Service (OSE) still manages to offer the standard of public service and staff courtesy and helpfulness which we in UK used to enjoy 30 years ago, and no longer have. It's a nostalgic experience travelling by rail in Greece, especially through such magnificent scenery.

Our journey westwards took us through the dreary market town of Drama and over the hills to visit the remarkable Alistrati Cave system. The winding 1 km walk through the cave is lined with endless huge stalagmites, stalactites and other unique formations such as eccentrites formed where calcite-laden water droplets travel sideways producing the delicate sparkling formations (Photo 4). We have visited many caves during our travels but none as spectacularly decorated as Alistrati. It's certainly worth a visit.

Across the cherry orchards of the Macedonian Plain through the town of Serres, we turned off northwards for 1 of the trip's most memorable highlights - Lake Kerkini. The lake nestles under the towering Mount Kerkini chain which forms the border with Bulgaria. Fed by the River Strymonas which flows south from Bulgaria, this man-made lake was formed in the 1930s by damming the river's former inland silted delta. It's a real undiscovered gem, attracting an amazing variety of bird-life, and one of Europe's most impressive opportunities for observing wetland birds. We enjoyed a superb wild-camp, just by the wetlands at Megalohori and during our 2 day stay, our record of sightings included: Dalmatian and White Pelicans, Crested Grebes, Egrets, Storks (several performing their peculiar bill-clattering display), Grey Herons, Night Herons, White Herons, Squacco Herons, Purple Herons, Spoonbills, Pygmy Cormorants and 2 very smart Glossy Ibis. An incredible experience (unfortunately missed on photograph) was watching a Stork catch, kill and swallow a 1m long water-snake - you read about such things ... ! A boat ride across the lake into the in-flowing Strymonas river took us past nesting sites of vast numbers of Pygmy Cormorants (Photo 5) along with Grey Herons (Photo 6). And in camp, using our camper as a hide, we were treated to the sight of hoopoes pecking around the nearby copse with their crest feathers up high. Whether or not birds are your interest, Lake Kerkini for its setting alone, should figure on your programme for a visit to Northern Greece.

Continuing westwards, we visited the archaeological site and museum of Pella, the ancient capital of the Macedonian kingdom, and birthplace of Alexander the Great. The city developed as a major political and artistic centre at a time when the great Classical city-states were in decline; Euripides produced his last plays at the court of Pella. The archaeological site is huge, reflecting the city's scale, and the small area that has been excavated (Photo 7) has produced some real treasures, displayed in the museum. The highlights without a doubt are the wonderful pebble-mosaics, including a scene showing a lion-hunt (Photo 8), and Dionysus riding a panther (see left). The artistry of these works displays a subtlety of movement and soft colour-tones just not achieved in later Roman mosaics. And the staff at Pella were so much more helpful, even empathising with our policy of 'find the gap in the fence' at locked sites. Nearby was another fascinating but little known archaeological site - the excavated remains of ancient Mieza, set among peach and almond orchards. Little of Mieza has been excavated, apart from the Macedonian tombs with their exquisite wall paintings and a small Hellenistic theatre (see left). The most important discovery however is the School of Aristotle, where at Philip II's request, the renowned philosopher established his academy to tutor the 13 year old Alexander the Great and his companions. Here Aristotle taught political and moral philosophy and natural sciences to the future conqueror of the ancient world. The remains are insignificant, but the charming setting in the peaceful grove at Mieza create an evocative aura of where one of history's greatest intellects tutored the young Alexander the Great who in his brief life changed the face of world history.

Our homeward journey has begun, but there are still significant areas to visit - the Prespa lakes nestled on the borders of Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), and the Vikos Gorge in mountainous Epiros, before catching the ferry from Ioumenitsa for return to Venice. Stay tuned for our final 2 weeks, for perhaps the most thrilling climax of any of our travels.

Sheila and Paul                                                                                  Published: Saturday 10 June

Music this week:
Thracian folk tune


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