When cities can trace their heritage for 4,000 years, and they’re located in fabled Macedonia – land of Alexander the Great, Aristotle and Mount Olympus – “legendary” is not an inflated superlative. Twenty-first century Macedonia has rapidly become an international tourist destination. From the beaches of Halkidiki, the thriving city of Thessaloniki, the ancient ruins of Philippi to the unique Autonomous State of Mount Athos, Macedonia offers everything Greek in its northern location.
Macedonia is the largest geographical region in Northern Greece. The scenic region is blessed with natural beauty. Mountains cover the largest part, and it has many fertile valleys that are crossed by rivers. It is also characterized by lush vegetation. Divided into three sections, Central Macedonia is the location for not only Thessaloniki and Halkidiki, but to the more northerly cities of Serres and Kilkis both steeped in history, natural beauty, wine and fine dining.
Sérres is one of the administrative and economic centers of Northern Greece. Although the earliest mention of Serres dates from the 5th century BC the city was founded probably at the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC. The ancient city was built on a high and steep hill known as Koulas just north of Serres. It held a strategic position since it controlled a land route linking the city with the southern Balkans.
The Byzantine Empire continued using the Koulas acropolis constructing a fortress of significant strength. Several parts of the fortification are preserved and dramatically lit at night. A popular restaurant is located next to the ruins with a panoramic view of the city.
In the early 20th century the city became a focus of anti-Ottoman unrest, which resulted in an uprising in 1903. A Bulgarian army captured Serres during the First Balkan War in 1912, but was forced out a few months later during the brief Second Balkan War when Macedonia was united with the Kingdom of Greece. During the First World War, Serres was temporarily occupied by the Central Powers but was liberated in 1917 by Greek-French Entente forces
During the Second World War, after the conquest of mainland Greece by Nazi Germany in April 1941, Serres suffered much damage and trauma under Nazi and Bulgarian occupation until the Allied liberation of Greece in 1944.
In 1943 Serres’ Jewish population was deported and exterminated. In the postwar years, the city’s population and expansion grew substantially.
My guides for the Serres region were Sofia Bournatzi and her father Theodoros Bournatzis. Sofia’s company Pass Partout Tourism Marketing, DMC, Thessaloniki, has arranged all three of my extensive trips throughout Macedonia over the past 5 years. I couldn’t have had more knowledgeable guides since Serres has been the Bournatzis family home for generations.
The Holy Monastery of Saint John the Baptist
Unlike most Greek monasteries – the oldest dating from the 9th century – The Holy Monastery of Saint John the Baptist was consecrated in 1981. Located in Akritochori, its ecclesiastical architecture is modeled according to the standards of Mount Athos, while the exteriors are very nicely landscaped with trees and plants. Among other things, the monastery has a wonderful view of the wetlands, Lake Kerkini, and the plain of Serres.
Approximately forty nuns live permanently at the monastery and besides contemplation of the divine, they care for extensive vegetable gardens, fruit trees, cows and most of the work necessary in maintaining a large complex. Hospitality is customary when visiting all monasteries in Greece, and the nuns presented delicious traditional cookies, lukuma, and Greek coffee.
Lake Kirkini was a shallow wetland before the controversial government initiated agricultural infrastructure projects of the 1930s. Building high earthen embankments along the shoreline flooding the wetlands created a shallow lake – Lake Kirkini. Agricultural irrigation was improved, and it did not disrupt this location as an ancient and pristine bird sanctuary on a major European flyway. In reality, according to guide Vasilis Arabatzis, creating the lake vastly improved the wetlands as a bird sanctuary. Whereas prior agricultural use of wetlands water poised a threat of drying the area, the lake has provided a regulated flow for agricultural use.
The wetlands is a traditional breeding ground for the Greek water buffalo. This huge animal is bred around the lake and generates many products. Apart from the actual meat, which is quite tasty, buffalo milk is used to produce dairy products and sweets.
Lake Kirkini has become a favorite for fresh water fishing. A unique, sleek narrow old boat design proved perfect for an excursion out on the lake. For bird watchers, Lake Kirkini is a paradise.
Guesthouse Oikoperiigitis, Kirkini-Serres
For the tourist that’s never visited the interior north of Greece Guesthouse Oikoperiigitis, Kirkini-Serres, does not look anything like the white washed, blue shuttered postcard buildings of coastal Greece and the islands. This is the land of winter with sturdy stone and timbered buildings, similar to the remainder of the Balkans. The interior is a work of art by the owners with hand made furniture and original nature murals on walls and ceilings.
Dinner was equally a northern menu with of course Greek Salad, various spreads, fried potatoes, cheeses and local buffalo made into sausages and patties. The grape distillation, tsipouro, and local wine rounded out the meal.
Monastery of St. Timios Prodromos of Serres
The Monastery of St. Timios Prodromos of Serres is located 8 miles from Serres in an area full of cypress trees and pines. The monastery was built in 1270 AD and despite having being heavily damaged repeatedly in the past it is still an astonishing monument of Byzantine Art. Currently a convent, the nuns maintain an extensive museum to the history of the Monastery’s wine making centuries. Yet it’s the location, preservation and restoration of priceless Byzantine art that will take your breath away.
I had just crossed the Bulgarian border at Kulata into Greece traveling from the resort town of Bansko through the beautiful mountains of Pirin National Park into central Macedonia. Sofia Bournatzi, and her father told me we’re on our way to Fort Roupel.
Although Fort Roupel was originally planned in 1914 it was not fully developed until the 1930s when the Metaxas Line of fortifications were constructed by Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas. Yet why was I being taken to a major World War II monument if my journalist assignment was to write about Greece during World War I, specifically the Macedonian Front 1917 ?
It didn’t take me long to understand I was standing on top of the Macedonian Front, which did hold back combined Central Power invasion attempts during World War I. Fort Roupel ultimately fell in 1941 after a heroic and lengthy defense by a handful of Greek soldiers against one of the Nazi army’s crack divisions.
Arranging a tour of Fort Roupel and it’s astonishing maze of underground bunkers and connecting tunnels conducted by young multi-lingual Greek soldiers is instructive and emotional.
Ντοματα Restaurant, Serres
Lunch with Sofia’s brother George Bournatzis, father Theodoros Bournatzis and manager Nicole Fyntani at Ντοματα (Tomato) Restaurant was an exploration of Greek meze. Artfully arranged dishes of grilled calamari, eggplant spread, savory fried balls (fritters) of shrimp and cheese, grilled meats – beef and buffalo – with tsipouro and wine was relaxing, as all Greek meals.
Elpida Resort Hotel
From the Elpida Resort Hotel in Serres a guest has a nice view looking up towards the Koulas acropolis. The Elpida is a full scale modern luxury resort with conference space and a large pool complex set on the hillside with rolling expansive lawns. Exceptionally spacious rooms offer every comfort including large balconies, and the breakfast buffet provides enough variety to nourish anyone contemplating a day of hiking the historic hills of the Serres region.
Kilkis is an industrial city in Central Macedonia. It is also the capital city of the regional unit of Kilkis. Findings dating back to as early as the Bronze and Iron Age have been excavated in the vicinity of Kilkis, including ancient tombs of the 2nd millennium BC. In classical antiquity Kilkis thrived under the expanding power of Macedonia in the 4th century BC and continued as a strategic city during the successive empires of Rome, the Byzantine and the Ottoman.
The First Balkan War of 1912, resulted in the Balkan League’s defeat of the Ottoman Empire, which was forced to concede almost all of its European territories, including Macedonia. During the First World War, Kilkis played a significant role for Greece as it was on a main route between Thessaloniki and the Macedonian Front on the Bulgarian border. The defeat of Greece in 1941 by the Axis Powers in World War II resulted in Kilkis being included in Bulgarian occupied Macedonia. Like Serres it suffered greatly, but it’s agricultural and industrial position allowed it to return to prosperity in the post war years.
The Hill of Heroes
The First Balkan War’s 1913 treaty ruptured the Balkan League (Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Albania). Allies during the war, Greece and Bulgaria had long been rivals over control of Macedonia. In a secret agreement Bulgaria was granted certain areas historically part of Macedonia and claimed by Greece, which within months led to The Second Balkan War between the two countries.
It ended very quickly at the Battle of Kilkis-Lahanas on the Hill of Heroes, 19 – 21 June 1913. The hill overlooks Kilkis and was strategic to taking the city with the objective to then capture Serres with a clear road to Thessaloniki. The Greek army captured the city from the Bulgarians after the three-day battle, but it was costly, with over 15,000 casualties between the two armies.
I climbed that steep hill and the carnage must have been horrendous. There’s a small museum to the battle at the hill’s summit.
World War I Doiran Cemetery
World War I Doiran Cemetery: the significance of the battles at Lake Doiran in 1917 and 1918 were that they stopped the Bulgarian advance in their attempt to invade Greece and break through the Macedonian Front. But the front held in 1917, and in 1918 the Bulgarian’s withdrew and pulled out of the war.
Skra is a small village in the northwest of Kilkis. Lake Dorian is close by and the border with the Skopje (aka Republic of Macedonia) is less than 3 miles distance. The culminating battle of World War I on the Macedonian Front took place at Lake Doiran. I had coffee in the village square of Skra under a towering and historic olive tree where generals and politicians held strategic meetings.
Besides history, Skra is famous for its waterfalls. The falls are reached by an easy 20 minute walk down narrow paths into a lush forest reminiscent more of a sub-tropical micro-climate than northern Greece. The serenity is calming, the delicate falls stream through lush vegetation and create turquoise pools reminiscent of Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Lunch at Hotel Doviros on Lake Dorian was tender fried grivadi fish (freshwater carp), taziki salad, stuffed eggplant, marinated beet salad with garlic and ouzo.
St. George’s Cave, Kilkis
There are over 15,000 caves in Greece with 25 open to the public. Vasilis Makridis gave me a personal tour of the extraordinary rock formations of St. George’s Cave.
Art Club Polis, Kilkis
Not all in Greece is antiquities. Zoi Tzimitra is the director of Art Club Polis. The artist members of the club both work and exhibit in a restored early 1920s tobacco company warehouse. Zoi and the club work with primary school teachers to bring art and architecture into the schools. She has also cataloged the remaining historic structures in Kilkis and those of architectural significance in Serres and is encouraging government preservation protection.
Evridiki Hotel, Kilkis and Dimosthenis Traditional Guesthouse, Goumenissa
Evridiki Hotel, Kilkis and the Dimosthenis Traditional Guesthouse, Goumenissa, are both select accommodation choices in the Kilkis region. Both hotels put the guest directly in the middle of these two locations.
The Goumenissa P.D.O. (Protected Designation of Origin Goumenissa ) lies within the lush rolling hills of the Kilkis district. The zone lies on the southeastern foothills of the Mount Paiko in the southwestern part of the Kilkis territory. The boundaries of the wine growing PDO Goumenissa zone cover the areas around the town of Goumenissa,
Although a compact growing region it’s rich in quality. Xinomaveo and negoska are famous indigenous red grapes of the Goumenissa region. I tasted the wines of three Goumenissa vineyards – Aidarini Winery, Domaine Tatsis Winery, Chatzivaritis Estate – and they once more proved the world class quality and complexity of thousands of years of Greek wine tradition. Lunch at Paryphés Hotel and Restaurant topped the day with relaxing views of the region.
Special thanks to Marianna Skoularika, Michelle Karamisakis and Fotis Altiparmakidis of Kilkis Region Tourism for being my guides.
When you go:
Both Serres and Kilkis are easily reached within less than 90 minutes from the gateway city of Thessaloniki either by car or comfortable coach buses.
Disclaimer: The author was the guest of the hotels, restaurants and wineries mentioned in this article, but all opinions are my own. Arrangements were facilitated through Pass Partout Tourism Marketing, DMC and Kilkis Region Tourism.