Low-key but with elements that will charm even the most demanding traveller, Thrace is a destination full of surprises. With ‘headquarters’ in the northeastern part of Greece, it’s main cities Xanthi, Komotini, Alexandroupoli, Orestiada, Didymoteicho are ready to enchant you. Two continents meet here, but even more cultures mingle and unique ecosystems abound. In this corner of Greece you’re at the gateway to the mysterious East and you’ll feel its proximity in mosques, menus and bazaars, and in the wealth of Byzantine, mediaeval and Ottoman monuments.
But you’ll also be enthralled by the natural wonders: the virgin forest of Rhodopi, the meandering Nestos River, the lakes and wetlands of Vistonida and Porto Lagos, the WWF bird sanctuary at Dadia and the magnificent Evros River delta. And if that were not enough, you have a wealth of antiquities and fine museums to explore. Thrace today is an intriguing combination of Muslim and Christian heritages, two societies and faiths that have coexisted for centuries. Here in this border region, you’ll find there are no borders between them. Welcome to Thrace.
A select few, but worthy of a dip
At Fanari beach, near Komotini and all along the coast from Makri to Alexandroupoli, you’ll find lovely beaches that are easily reached by car and conveniently close to towns and cities with a great variety of cafes and restaurants. Several large hotel complexes in the area also have organised beaches on their grounds.
A date with Thracian culture
One destination, dozens of attractions: Get to know Ancient Abdera, the birthplace of Democritus, and its wonderful museum. Then visit the Pomak villages, scattered throughout the region. Herdsmen and tobacco farmers, the blue-eyed, blond Pomaks are a Muslim tribe of unknown origin, who have remained apart from both Turks and Greeks. Take a tour of the Ethnological Museum of Thrace in Alexandroupoli, one of the country’s most important, with its exhibits of local costumes, the cycle of religious worship and daily life in years gone by. Visit the dolmens, monolithic grave monuments from the Iron Age, between the villages of Mikros Dereios and Roussos, at the old Muslim cemetery at Mylopetres, Dikella and Dadia. Finally, head north to Soufli, the centre of silk production, where a fascinating museum will walk you through every stage of it.
Getting close to nature
Holidays mean action and adventure: Thrace is the perfect place for activities in nature. Get to know the Nestos forest by taking a canoe/kayak, alone or with a group, down the river that has cut a winding route between two steep mountains. You can also hike along its bank or head east to the Dadia forest which has four well-marked paths. Birdwatchers will be in heaven, flocking like the birds themselves to the Evros Delta in a little boat, checking out the wetlands at Vistonida and Porto Lagos, and then spying on the last refuge of the rare Black Vulture (Aegypius monachus) at Dadia. You can also ride horseback in the Nestos valley, mountain bike in the Kotza Orman forest near Xanthi, and go on an off-road adventure there and around the Pomak villages of Evros. The route between Maronia and Mesemvri Zoni is unforgettable. Thrace is a nature-lover’s paradise.
Thracian cuisine, a multi-culti feast
In Thracian cuisine, you’ll notice the heady aromas of cumin and paprika. And you’ll taste them in local sausages and preserved meats like pastourma. Keep a look out for kouskousi, similar to Moroccan couscous, which you can buy from the Thracian Women’s Cooperative, pickled cabbage in pies and with meat, as well as lamb with rice, a shepherds’ dish. Komotini is famous for its roasted chickpeas, a popular snack; pastelli (sesame bars) and soutzouk loukoum, gummy ‘sausages’ of Turkish delight; and sweets made with tahini, sesame paste. You’ll find excellent fish and seafood in tavernas and fine restaurants at Alexandroupoli and other coastal towns and farmed game at many inland eateries, such as Pentalofo near Evros. There’s even an all-organic restaurant at Prangi, Evros. Xanthi’s treats are wide-ranging, spanning both the Anatolian and mainstream Greek kitchen.
Thrace: Nine picture-perfect sights
1. Komotini: Make a point of walking through the bazaar of Komotini – half-Anatolian, half-Western – and the narrow lanes behind Orpheus Street, where old trades are still practised.
2. Xanthi: The old town of Xanthi. Aristocratic tobacco mansions, a pretty riverside and a Muslim quarter with labyrinthine streets and typical Balkan architecture.
3. Alexandroupoli: The lighthouse, Alexandroupoli’s emblem, welcomes visitors from Asia to their first city in Europe.
4. The Evros Delta: 200,000 sq m of incomparable value, home to 316 of the 420 bird species found in Greece.
5. Agios Nikolaos -Porto Lagos: A lovely church set on an islet in the middle of the lake.
6. Lake Vistonida: More than 300 species of birds live in this unique ecosystem.
7. Didymoteicho: It may be small but it has significant sights: Visit the twin Byzantine walls and its enormous mosque, the oldest on European soil.
8. The Pomak Villages: In this special corner of Thrace, the unsurpassed wild, natural beauty borders with Bulgaria. Fifty isolated settlements with their own identity, many of them close to Xanthi.
9. Haidous Forest: The Haidous forest in the Rhodope Mountains, an earthly paradise with beeches 30m high threatening the sky.