Xanthi, Drama, Kavala, Philippi: the names themselves are exotic and rightfully so. At the epicenter of three worlds – Asia, the Balkans and the Mediterranean – these cities of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace created and witnessed a flow of human events few regions ever experienced. Only one, Philippi, succumbed to the forces of nature, more than men, yet even that great ruined city lives on in the footsteps of St. Paul.
The lush mountainous terrain of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace make driving difficult. It’s not the well-maintained roads; it’s the distractions. I wanted to constantly pull the car over, get out and take yet another photo of scenes that I know the Greats of the ancient world witnessed. Every few miles another sign pointed to a sanctuary of the pantheon, sacred cave or ancient theater.
Eastern Macedonia and Thrace is a 20th century administrative unit of today’s Republic of Greece. Yet both Macedonia and Thrace have a millenniums-old, multi cultural history. Their legacy is a region that’s still home to the mix of ethnicities and religions that have settled on these lush, mountainous lands.
The Thracians, of Indo-European origin, are so ancient as to be lost even within Greek mythology. Yet what can be identified as the ancient Kingdom of Thrace included not only the eastern most portions of modern Greece but parts of present day Turkey and a good percentage of Bulgaria. Thrace secured a legendary position in human history being credited as the first great wine region of the world.
Today’s Eastern Macedonia and Thrace are basically lands added to ancient Macedonia by Phillip II and his son Alexander the Great during the 4th century BC. The entire region was a natural conduit for the legendary Silk Road and Spice Route that stretched from the Mediterranean to India and China. In the 2nd century BC Rome built the Via Egnatia – a 700-mile long road – connecting their Balkan, Macedonia and Asian provinces creating a tangible link between its western and eastern empires.
Of these four exotic cities, Kavala is the granddaddy. For the modern traveler Kavala’s not often on a Greek itinerary unless following in the footsteps of St. Paul.
Kavala’s advantageous location on the northeastern Aegean coast made it a major port. Founded by an expanding Thasos Island kingdom in the 7th century BC, Kavala was absorbed within the sphere of Philippi for over a thousand years serving as the port for that fabled Macedonian/Roman/Byzantine city. St. Paul began his first European mission when he disembarked at Kavala.
Under Ottoman rule (late 1300s – 1912) the Byzantine fortress was expended, and the city walls continued to guard the harbor through the First World War. Perched atop the acropolis of the Panagia peninsula (old city), it’s a steep but pleasant walk through streets generally too narrow for cars. Numerous restaurants and cafes – equally popular with locals as with tourists – make it difficult to choose as one explores the historic core. I particularly enjoyed the ambiance and cuisine at To αραλικι on Poulidou 33
It’s easy to marvel at the engineering beauty of the Kamares from the fortress. What remains of this magnificent fresh water aqueduct gracefully snakes through the lower city. Built in 1530 as part of an impressive Ottoman water system, the aqueduct served the city until the early 1920s.
A must see when visiting Kavala is the Tobacco Museum. The region’s conquest by the Ottoman Empire had a major economic impact. Tobacco farming was introduced in the 16th century.
Kavala became an internationally significant port for the export of high grade Turkish tobacco. The waterfront was lined with vast warehouses as tobacco farming and processing spread throughout Macedonia and Thrace. The industry saw a steady decline during the 20th century as wars battered the region. The Tobacco Museum, housed in a 19th century warehouse, chronicles the history and evolving technology that once made this product as lucrative as gold.
Airotel Galaxy Hotel, located on Kavala’s harbor waterfront, offers panoramic views of this major port city. Commercial fishing was the economic activity for centuries before tobacco and continues today. The fleet shares space with yachts and ferries to Thassos Island. Airotel Galaxy’s sumptuous breakfast buffet on the Roof Garden Restaurant will fortify anyone for a day of exploration.
Founded in the 4th century BC Philippi served three empires, and the ruins of this once influential city are a pleasant 10-mile drive from Kavala. The gold and silver of the Pangaion Hills did indeed enrich the Macedonian Kingdom, and Alexander the Great would use Philippi as the doorway to Asia Minor, tapping Kavala as its sea link. Within a short period of time, Philippi was a wealthy strategic city.
Despite Roman conquest in the 2nd century BC the city’s position on the Via Egnatia only added to its importance.
Along the shady meandering Zygaktis River – to the ancients a portal to the underworld – history changed. After disembarking at Kavala, the future St. Paul made Philippi his first stop in Europe. His party was the houseguests of the wealthy businesswoman Lydia of Philippisia. According to tradition, already interested in the Judeo concept of one god, she became St. Paul’s first convert in 49 AD receiving baptism in the Zygaktis River. An important patron of the early Christian church, she is revered as St. Lydia of Philippisia. Philippi and Lydia are essential stops for the popular “following in the footsteps of St. Paul” pilgrimage tours.
After reaching its zenith in the 5th and 6th centuries under the Byzantine Empire, outside pressures, coupled with some serious earthquakes, slowly weakened Philippi, leading to its abandonment in the 1300s. During the Ottoman Empire, Kavala took over as the trading center linking Asia with Macedonia.
Next door to Lydia are the naturally occurring volcanically heated Krinides Healing Clay Baths. Known for centuries, the therapeutic hot mineral mud baths are the central feature of a municipal park. Provided with all modern facilities, men and women bath in separate communal pools. This modesty is dictated by the therapeutic requirement that the bather be naked. An 18th century brick and stone Turkish hydro bathhouse has been fully restored for modern use.
Although Drama had been a town since ancient Greece’s classical age, it did not become an important commercial center until the Byzantine era. Conquered by the Ottoman Empire in the 14th century it achieved great prosperity when tobacco farming was established in Eastern Macedonia and Thrace. The Hydrama Grand Hotel epitomizes the prosperity tobacco brought.
The less than two-year old luxurious hotel is a stunning adaptation of historic architecture. The building was the vast Spierer Tobacco House, which dominated Drama when it was completed in 1924. The adjacent wetlands once provided the waterpower required for the tobacco enterprise. Today the 60-acre Park of Santa Barbara with its lakes, ducks and meandering walking paths is a beautiful front garden for the Hydrama Grand Hotel.
The hues of local stone of the building’s exterior give way to rich soft tones of exposed stone interior with the original, massive, wood beams. Extensive use of glass walls allows the eye to experience both the past and present – modern, comfortable furnishings, original artwork and state-of-the-art high tech guest rooms and suites. The walls of the Crystal Cave Spa are glowing natural salt blocks.
With eighteen commercial wineries in the Drama and Kavala region, Hydrama Grand Hotel’s wine cellar is a showcase. Besides extensive wine lists in the hotel’s S’ev restaurant and the indoor/outdoor Ducktail cafe, the Wine Warehouse boasts the latest technology for dispensing an impressive array of wines by the glass. The Wine Warehouse offers wine tastings and wine education classes.
At dinner in S’ev, young Greek Chef Grigoris Amanatidis had never been to the southern United States yet classic pork belly with sweet potatoes on a bed of caramelized red onion with apple and mustard seed glaze was a dish fit for the gods! The pork belly was fork tender, soft as a feather pillow, succulent and free of the annoying layer of fat that’s often half this cut of pork.
Agiorgitico by Chateau Nico Lazaridi was the wine pairing with this main course. A blend of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, it had a pleasant nose of tar and tobacco. Tar, tobacco and chocolate were dominant taste notes with soft, dry tannins. It enhanced the subtle smoky rich pork belly.
A first course of tender fried calamari and shrimp on pea puree was pleasantly peppery and accompanied by smoked pancetta. An Estate Oinogenesis sauvignon blanc had the aroma of a field of late summer grasses. The mouth tasted late summer floral notes rather than fruit. Both wines had smooth finishes.
Dessert was a frozen caramel mousse on a bed of chocolate sauce with chocolate shavings. With Food and Beverage Manager Savvas Tzintzoglou, cuisine is as dramatic as the Hydrama Grand Hotel’s architecture.
Eastern Macedonia and Thrace are actively promoting ecotourism, wine tourism as well as its storied history. Drama’s Agia Sophia Byzantine Church (10th century) is the oldest in the city. Nearby are segments of the original Byzantine fortifications. The Archaeological Museum is a must see with exhibits ranging from a Giant Mammoth tusk to Byzantine antiquities.
Chateau Nico Lazaridi, one of the largest wineries in the region, produces, 1.1 million bottles annually with vineyards in Drama and Kavala. Three surrounding mountains funnel steady breezes that provide ventilation preventing mold and other issues. The land is also on an ancient riverbed, now dry, providing an abundance of rich minerals. Open Cellar Doors is an annual wine festival the last week of May in the Drama region.
The annual September Drama International Short Film Festival, in its 23rd year, draws serious worldwide interest.
Like Drama, Xanthi prospered greatly after the Ottomans created the tobacco industry in Eastern Macedonia and Thrace. Considered the most aromatic on Earth, Basma tobacco thrived due to calcium levels in the soil and the dry weather. With the success of Basma, Xanthi attracted many Greeks from other regions as well as immigrant workers and investors from Russia, the Balkans and Eastern Europe.
Over 100 tobacco growers and merchants settled in Xanthi during the 19th century. By 1912 it was the wealthiest city in the region with a population of over 90,000, and railways had connected both Xanthi and Drama to the port of Kavala.
Serious violence in the 20th century adversely effected Xanthi – the First Balkan War in 1912 to Greek unification in 1918. Yet in the interwar years (1919 – 1939) the city entered a belle epoch of economic expansion. International investment soared, by 1926 the city was electrified and in 1929 the first Ms. Xanthi beauty queen was crowned.
The outbreak of World War II brought this golden age to a tragic end including the extermination of the ancient Jewish population during Nazi occupation, followed by the tragic Greek Civil War through1949. The population of Xanthi was reduced to a third of its pre-war prosperity. “Before the war everyone made money in smoke. During the war it went up in smoke,” became a local lament.
Besides wandering its attractive old city a must-see is the Folk and History Museum of Xanthi founded in 1975 and housed in the Kougioumtzoglou mansion. Willed to the city by the family, the mansion is a superb example of 19th century Greek neo-classical architecture with an interior of impressive frescoes. The mansion reflects the lifestyle of wealthy tobacco merchants in the years before World War II, and the museum’s exhibits provide a detailed look at the muti-cultural daily life of the region over the centuries. The Museum has its own radio station as well.
Like all Greek towns, restaurants and cafes abound. Lunch at Dromaki ( Δρομακι ) in the historic core offered traditional Greek dishes and local favorites such as buyurdi, a melted cheese, tomato and hot pepper dip for bread. Kipos Cafe along the banks of the Kosynthos River serves a wide variety of specialty coffees and cocktails.
Eastern Macedonia and Thrace will soon be on everyone’s Greek itinerary. A traveler will experience iconic historical sites, sandy beaches, hiking in mountains, vineyard wine tastings, waterfront dining, luxury accommodations and walk in the footsteps of the ancients.
When you go: Kavala is an easy 2-hour, 95 mile drive from Thessaloniki – some sections charge a toll. From Kavala: Phillippi and Lydia are 10 miles northwest on the way to Drama, an additional 13 miles. Xanthi is 34 miles northeast. Intercity buses serve all destinations.
Disclosure: The author was a guest of Airotel Galaxy Hotel, Hydrama Grand Hotel, Chateau Nico Lazaridi and the Folk Museum of Xanthi through the cooperation of the tourism departments of the municipalities. Arrangements were facilitated by Pass Partout Marketing.
Travel with Pen and Palate every month to Greece and the world in the Hellenic News of America.