On the 9th October, we woke up to a cold crisp morning with a bit of mist in the air. It feels very autumny, so, having topped up Heidi’s water tank with water from a roadside spring near Burgas in Bulgaria, we headed south towards Greece looking for more summer. We travelled through rolling wooded hills, with little traffic on the excellent newly surfaced road (Wow!) other than a steady stream of ancient timber trucks. We briefly joined what must be a major truck route into Turkey, complete with scary Heidi-eating potholes, and follow an artic’ as he meanders all over both sides of the road trying to avoid said potholes, before thankfully turning off onto a better and again completely deserted section.
We crossed into Greece just beyond Svilengrad having avoided a short cut through Turkey (We needed a ‘green card’ for the insurance that we didn’t have). The Bulgarian border guards were friendly and more interested in practising their English than checking us or the van out. Then it was across a short bit of no mans land to the Greek border. There was a barrier across the road and no signs in any language. It transpired that I had to walk across the road to the office, where I was received with a grunt, a cursory look at both our passports (Elaine had remained in Heidi), and then an “OK”. I walked back to the van, the barrier was raised, and we were through. So if anybody is looking for a good spot to smuggle anything or anybody into Greece, here’s your spot!
Since we’d come down out of the Bulgarian hills, the weather had rapidly improved. The sun was shining, and it felt hot and dry. As we headed south, the temperature continued to rise and by the time we reached the coast it must have been at least 10 – 15 degrees warmer (in the low 30’s again). After heading west on a good bit of fast motorway, we turn off towards Moroneia and stopped for the night down by the small fishing harbour of Agios Charlambos. The police are by later to check us out. There’s no problem with us staying here, but “watch out for the Bulgarian and the Albanian Mafia” he says. What does that mean?!
We stayed for several days. The weather was idyllic, and it was very quiet and peaceful. We did some washing, which dried quickly in the sun and explored some of the local antiquities. There’s part of a Byzantine wall; a fortification around the harbour, a Roman Propylon (a ‘Monumental Gateway’), various mosaic floors and a little further along the coast an impressive amphitheatre and then ‘Ancient Ismara’. Ancient Ismara supposedly had an acropolis, and ancient gateway and a wine-press. We spent a long time looking for them, but only managed to find the gateway. How can you lose an acropolis! There’s also the remains of an Early Christian Basilica (6thC AD) near the harbour; unfortunately fenced off and locked.
The ground is dry and rocky and predominantly covered in olive groves; they obviously like it like that. There are a mixture of varieties grown here. Some small, some quite large, and in varying stages of ripeness. I’d always thought that olives were rock hard and quite inedible until they’d been soaked many times, but some of the big black ones here seem almost ripe already and quite juicy (or should that be oily?) when you squeeze them. We’ve recently read that some varieties are left to ripen on the trees before they are harvested. We don’t know much about olives as you can see; something else for the ‘self-education’ list. It’s surprising how long this self-education list seems to be, what with history, culture, religion, architecture, languages, unknown flora and fauna, international cuisine etc. etc. No chance of getting bored then!
On Monday 13th, we go into the village; a quiet little place with a couple of small shops. We buy what veg we can find (there seems very little about and it’s not up to much) and some fresh bread. The shopkeeper and the locals seem friendly and we try out our first few words of Greek; which seems to be appreciated.
Next, it’s along the coast for a bit. We’re suddenly out of the harsh, dry, rocky terrain and now it’s flat and sandy again. It seems the only thing that grows here is the odd holiday villa; otherwise it just looks barren and empty scrubland. We stopped at Imeros beach for a couple of days and it remained warm enough for swimming in the sea or wandering this completely deserted stretch of beach accompanied by the ‘guard dogs’. There were 3 of them. They made a hell of a fuss when we first arrived and, with recent events in mind, we nearly didn’t stay, but they turned out to be harmless enough. For the whole time we were there, they remained permanently by our side and followed us on walks for several miles. When we left, they ran after Heidi until they were exhausted. We wondered if they were victims of the hard times here, and whether they were owned and looked after in the not too distant past? They seemed a lot more clingy that the ones we’d come across in Bulgaria.
On the 15th, the weather turned very grey and humid and we moved on. Heading inland a bit, avoiding some of the numerous lagoons and salt marshes that make up this stretch of coast, we found we were driving across huge cotton fields as far as the eye could see. They were busy harvesting the stuff and there were cotton wool balls everywhere along the verges of the roads.
We stopped for the night near Fanari on a narrow strip of land between the sea and a lagoon, the home of Flamingos and Pelicans. Having again struggled to find much fresh food in the few small shops (what do the locals do?) we did a quick trip to Lidl in Xanthi. We were going to head up into the hills, but we could hardly make them out in the low grey cloud, so we went back to the coast for a couple of days and stayed at Porto Lagos; a fishing harbour and small cargo ship port. We spotted a big black 4×4 with tinted windows and Bulgarian plates, it’s occupants, we assumed, lunching at one of the fish tavernas. Were they ‘the Mafia’ we had been warned about? There’s a fair few similar cars around. Or were we just being paranoid? For much of Bulgaria, this is their closest bit of coast.
Saturday 18th, the grey murk had finally gone and it was back to sunshine and clear blue skies. Time to head for the hills. We can see them now! We stop at Xanthi; it’s market day and ludicrously busy. Easing Heidi through the throng of shoppers and not really sure where we’re going, we eventually find parking. It’s bedlam as we get moved along with the crowd past endless stalls, following an old lady pushing a pram full of pot plants. I assume she was selling them and opting for a novel ‘moving stall’. So THIS is where everyone gets their fresh fruit and veg. from! We get 4 Pomegranates for 2euros; about half the UK price.
Escaping the throng we head up the hill to the old part of town with it’s winding cobbled streets, cars and mopeds emerging from the unlikeliest looking ‘streets’. There are several impressive old neo-classical mansion houses hiding amongst the more ordinary. These mansions were once owned by tobacco merchants (around 1860 – 1890). Tobacco is still grown around here, but doesn’t appear to be that common. It’s not something we’re used to recognising though. Maybe it’s all mostly harvested by now?
Hidden amongst it all we find this tiny church..
We’ve been looking into and trying to understand all these icons; rather an alien concept to us. Various sources refer to them as ‘windows to God or into the spiritual realm’, ‘a form of / means to prayer’ etc. Some sources go as far as to say “they participate in the reality which they represent”. They are sometimes referred to as tools for education of the masses, bearing in mind that for the majority of history ‘the masses’ have been illiterate. Some are credited with the performance of miracles. In our minds, that is surely down to the saint that they represent, but the distinction seems a bit vague. Icons are not ‘worshiped’, but they are ‘venerated’, ‘honoured’, ‘respected’; or again, is that the saint they represent? It seems odd that you often see several icons of the same saint in one location, indeed, some are virtually identical.
www.wikipedia.org/wiki/icon provides a good overview.
There’s also the question of why there are Sooo many shrines or ‘little churches’ dotted everywhere here. They are particularly prevalent along roads and their numbers increase with the severity of the bends and the corresponding drop over the edge! The majority, it seems are erected as a memorial to victims of road accidents and some as a ‘thank you for sparing me’. The old ones never seem to be removed. They just put newer, bigger or more elaborate ones alongside. Some even have a small fenced off garden, picnic benches and often a water supply.
Back on one of the main streets of Xanthi, it’s all too busy and noisy for our liking, with all the cafes full to bursting. We find our way out-of-town, rather suspecting the sat-nav of having a laugh at our expense, and stop for lunch at a roadside picnic spot. All is still and quiet. It’s still feeling hot in the sun (28c) and we enjoy the cooler breezes off the hills. I wonder if I could get used to living so shoulder to shoulder in a place like Xanthi with no personal space and it never quiet? Doesn’t appeal much!
Moving on, we decide to go looking for ‘The Ancient Fort of Kalyva’.
At a height of 627m above sea level, the fort of Kalyva, complete with a still intact water cistern, was constructed during the Macedonian King Phillip 2nd’s time (359-336BC) , in a commanding position, as part of a series of forts controlling the Nestos Valley. Various kingdoms used it until the reign of Emperor Justinian’s (527- 565AD)
It turns out to be 9km up a tortuously windy and mainly single-track road. That’s the trouble with randomly choosing to follow a brown tourist sign. When we eventually get there we find it closed off with a high fence all round and locked gates. It’s off in the trees somewhere and there’s nothing to see. Humph. We’re beginning to discover this is common enough practice around here. Perhaps it would be open in season? We’ll think twice before following signs for miles and miles in the future. There’s a picnic site and just about room for us to park up so we stop for the night. It’s very quiet and peaceful with only the distant sound of goat bells reaching us from the valley below.
The morning brings another clear, crisp, sunny day. It feels cold first thing, but soon warms as we head off looking for the Nestos Gorge. It’s marked on far too small a scale map to be useful. We choose a likely looking road. We have various maps, all apparently contradicting each other. Either everything is marked as a ‘minor road’ or one seems to have been picked at random and highlighted as the ‘main route’. Bearing in mind that even a medium quality ‘minor road’ around here would be considered a footpath by most UK drivers, and that Heidi isn’t exactly light on her feet, it’s important which one is picked! Today’s choice seems surprisingly well surfaced and wide. We wind through hills covered in a mix of deciduous trees, their growth stunted by the dry climate and poor soil, until we reach a series of reservoirs, beyond which we hope lies the gorge.
And then the road ends. There’s a barriered off tunnel and an imposing dam and hydro-electric scheme still being worked on. Just as we’re about to turn around and retrace our lost steps, ‘Mr. Security’ approaches us and with a smile and a bit of sign language encourages us to drive up to the very top of the last dam for a look. The scale is enormous! From the top you can more easily see what has been done and the fact that half the mountain has been sliced away. We’re not sure, but rather suspect, that this is where our gorge used to be! Not what we were expecting, but perhaps no less impressive? We lunch and spend the afternoon reading and snoozing overlooking one of the lower reservoirs as we ponder the need for all the energy that can potentially be created here. The resources, fuel, and millions of tonnes of concrete that goes into creating a scheme like this are astounding! Now if everybody had a solar panel on their roof and were as economical with energy usage as Heidi. We have a very quiet night and marvel at the starry sky – shame about the unnecessary street lights on the dam in the distance.
We spend the morning in our continuing quest to learn some Greek with the aid of a teach yourself CD. Today’s task is getting to grip with the word ‘the’. How difficult can that be? Difficult enough; there are 7!! Different words for ‘the’ in Greek. There’s masculine, feminine and neuter, plurals and other subtle changes so it ‘sounds right’ with the surrounding words. Umm, we think?
In the afternoon we travel on more very quiet roads with the steeper hills giving way to flatter plains. Most of the fields are ploughed at this time of year so, difficult to know what’s normally growing. We increasingly spot vineyards as we approach the Ancient City of Philippi, on the outskirts of modern-day Krinides. That’s Philippi as in biblical St. Paul’s ‘letter to the Philippians’. It’s a huge site with the excavated remains of this once great city. There are multiple basilicas and churches, the Roman forum and the bathhouse. After coughing up 3euro each (we thought it would be more) we spend hours there trying to ‘see’ how it once was. For the latter part of the afternoon we are the only visitors, which only served to emphasise the scale of the place.
Philippi took it’s name from Philip II king of Macedonia when he captured and fortified the original colony of Krenedes in 356BC. The city prospered greatly in the Helenistic period when it acquired it’s fortification walls, theatre, public buildings and private residences.
In 42BC the Roman emperor Octavian fought for and changed the character of the city forming a Roman colony developing it as an economic administrative and artistic centre. The ‘Via Egnatia’ (the main route from Rome, across Macedonia, including some of current Albania, to Constantinople) passed through the city in the 2nd century BC making it more important and transforming it into a major centre of the region.
The visit of St. Paul the Apostle, who founded the first Christian church here in 49/50AD, changed the personality of the city once again. The predomination of the ‘new religion’ and the transfer of the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople lent Philippi considerable lustre and reputation. In the early Christian period (4th-6th century AD), there was considerable more building with the cathedral dedicated to St. Paul and four magnificent basilicas.
In the Bible, Acts chapter 16 describes how Paul received a vision guiding him to Philippi. Accompanied by Silas, Timothy and possibly Luke (the author of Acts) he preached the Gospel. He baptised Lydia, a purple dye merchant in the nearby river and exorcised a demon from a slave girl who caused a great uproar in the city. This led to his and Silas’ public beating and imprisonment. An earthquake caused the prison walls to tumble and the gates to fly open. When the sleeping jailer awoke, he prepared to kill himself knowing he would be punished. Paul stopped him, indicating that all the prisoners were still there; the jailer becoming one of the first Christians.
Paul visited the city at least on two other occasions, in 56 and 57. The ‘Epistle to the Philippians’ dates from around 61-62AD and shows the immediate impact of Paul’s instruction.
We drive to the nearby village of Palia Kavalia and spend a couple of days walking. There’s a deep river valley there with some huge trees and a waterfall hidden in it’s depths.
As usual in this part of the world, there have been a lot of changes over time here:
Palia Kavalia was inhabited as long ago as 356BC and was part of the Macedonian Kingdom ruled by King Philip 2nd. However it was abandoned during the Byzantine period in favour of the coastal town of Christoupolis. Christoupolis was renamed Kavalia by the Ottaman Turks when they invaded and occupied the area in the 1391, and the Christian inhabitants once again returned to Palia Kavalia in the hills. With the Ottamans finally ousted and with the effects of the widespread urbanisation of the 1950’s, Palia Kavalia is now only a small village.
All this to-ing and fro-ing, along with a big influx of Greek Christians to the area in the 1923 ‘exchanges’ has meant a well-worn ancient path between here and the coast: we set off to explore the route. There is now a well-signed trail and we got as far as the spring that used to provide the coastal town with its water supply via a series of channels and a very impressive aqueduct.
By the 23rd, the weather has turned. The cloud hangs low over the hills and it’s rained overnight (The first rain we’ve had in Greece so far). Heading down to the coast again, the wind increases, the rain starts in earnest and the waves crash over the coastal road, so having stocked up with food, diesel and gas we find a relatively sheltered car park and hunker down. A brief respite from the weather allows us a look at the old town on the ‘Panagia’ peninsula. We climb up the increasingly steep streets to the castle and hence up the very narrow, winding stairs to the view from the top of the tower. You can see why this spot was chosen! You can see for miles; both inland and out to sea. The most famous ‘sight’ here is the aqueduct; the one bringing water to the city from the spring in the hills we visited yesterday. It was built/rebuilt by the Ottamans during the 16thC, although there was probably a previous Roman one here before.
Well this seems to have become a bit of an ‘epic’; we’ve done a lot in our first 2 weeks in Greece. Time to leave you and have our evening ‘meze’: