Our final stop on our northern Greek adventure was Xanthi, a town halfway between Thessaloniki and the Turkish border. We’d read that this was an interesting melting pot of Greek, Turkish and Pomak culture, and indeed we started to notice more eastern elements in the architecture and food, as well as people in Islamic dress and most exciting of all, we could hear the evocative call to prayer from our apartment. It’s been a while!
This trip is really bringing home the fact that international borders are artificial constructs and that communities are normally better understood in terms of the region in which they sit. In this case, the region of Thrace sits across southern Bulgaria, north-eastern Greece and north-western Turkey, and the shift between what we associate with Greek and Turkish culture is happening gradually as we move across the region. We really liked Xanthi for this – and it definitely felt much further from home than anywhere we had visited so far, in the best possible way.
On a smaller (but more personally important) scale, we noticed the transition from Italian stovetop Moka pots to a Greek/Turkish coffee maker in our apartment. Oli surprised me at the beginning of the trip by announcing that he already knew how to make Italian-style coffee (despite not being much of a coffee drinker – perks of his multi-cultural PhD lab), thus immediately earning himself the privilege of making me coffee every morning. I wasn’t about to let this new tradition slip, so he dutifully watched an extremely long YouTube video to learn the Turkish method. Early attempts were not promising – he exploded the first batch all over the kitchen (he even got a bit inside the fridge) and then spilled the second batch all over him, the floor, the bed, the sofa and the balcony doors. Turns out he has an impressive coffee-hurling range.
Xanthi delivered on food, and we had our first experience of being given menus entirely written in the Greek alphabet. We were delighted – this is normally a good sign that the area is relatively un-touristed and also gave us a good laugh because Google Translate delivered its most hilarious and surely inaccurate translation yet.
On our second afternoon, we were undecided about what to eat when we saw an enormous queue stretching down the street. After checking that it was indeed for a food joint, we joined the queue and were presented with a whole roast chicken, potatoes and rice – it sounds simple but it looked and smelt incredible. We knew that to do it justice we needed the privacy (and cutlery) that our apartment could provide. It didn’t disappoint!
We also tried karioka, a local speciality sweet. This was a flat, round disc of chocolate and walnut fudge, dipped in more chocolate. We had high hopes so bought two to share; we enjoyed the first accompanied by coffee while sitting on our balcony, and the second we inadvertently left in the fridge after checking out of our apartment (most unlike me; quite like Oli). It was so good that we actually ran back to retrieve it when we realised! It made for a great bus snack.
We had hoped to visit Thermes – a tiny village 40km to the north of Xanthi that has thermal springs. Our research suggested that there was almost no infrastructure surrounding the springs so it wouldn’t have been a luxury experience (check this out in the only photo I found online!), but we were intrigued all the same. Unfortunately, the only way to reach it by public transport was by taking advantage of the reverse journey of a school bus that departed Xanthi at 5.15am and would then bring children from these small Pomak communities into Xanthi for school. Unsurprisingly, the bus wasn’t running during the school holidays, but we weren’t too sad to have an excuse to skip the early start. Perhaps we should have hired a car instead, but we’re still trying to find the right balance between cost, carbon and fun.
In any case, we liked Xanthi and were happy to spend some time exploring the old town, which was full of grand Ottoman merchant residences in various states of repair. Some were beautifully restored but others were in need of a little love.
We also wandered along the river, where we felt the first hints of autumn in the air and saw our 250th Greek cat! Seeing as it was so popular last time (ok, ok, we had a couple of texts), here’s another Where’s Wally? style challenge. Can you spot her?
Our time in Xanthi felt like the perfect farewell to Greece and we’re very excited to be travelling further east. Next stop: Istanbul!