Thassos’ marble sculpting tradition dates to the 7th century BC
COVER STORY

Culture guide to Thassos: Traditional crafts and local products

If there’s one material for which Thassos is known internationally, it’s marble
READING TIME
As long as it takes to drink a Greek coffee

There are so many reasons to fall in love with Thassos. The turquoise water and exotic beaches are the perfect ingredients for a dream holiday on a Greek island … but so too are the mountain villages and greenery of the mountainous interior. And if you really want to get to know Greece’s northernmost island (just a short drive and ferry crossing from the city of Kavala) then it’s time you were introduced to Thassos’ local products and traditional crafts. You’ll get to meet the people behind the crafts, helping you forge an even closer bond with the island. Pottery, weaving, marblework, olive oil and honey … learning all about their secrets is amongst the best things to do on your holidays in Thassos. 

THASSOS LOCAL CRAFTS

Ceramics and pottery

There are so many unbroken lines of creativity and skill that link the ancient Greek world with today and the first of your crafts in Thassos is one of the most common yet often overlooked examples. Ceramics and pottery were a vital part of everyday life in the ancient world, with clay jugs, vases, amphorae, votives (gifts for the gods), toys and other items unearthed by the dozen at excavation sites around the island.

You’ll witness as much in Limenas, starting at Thassos’ Archaeological Museum, through artefacts dating from the 7th century BC. Visiting the museum, you’ll see the evolution of the artwork on ancient pottery, from stripes, coils and lines to depictions of flowers, leaves and animals and of course people in life-affirming moments such as scenes of battle, marriage, birth and death. 

Taking part in a traditional ceramics workshop in Thassos The workshop of Costis Chrisogelos in Limenas

Your newfound knowledge sets you up perfectly as your crafts journey around Thassos continues a short walk from the port, at Costis Pottery, the workshop of Costis Chrisogelos (he’s known to everyone as Kyrios Costis or Mr Costis). His shop is one of the most Instagrammable spots in Limenas and you might even find him at his foot-powered pottery wheel – just as you would have found his grandfather in 1908 after joining the potters of Sifnos island in moving to Thassos.

Back in the day, around two dozen people would have been employed at the workshop, bringing soil, making clay, shaping, glazing, firing and carrying the products (mostly functional items like bowls for bread, jars for olives and plates) to boats for export. Today’s items are more delicate and detailed. Some are still produced on a foot pedal-powered turntable and others on an electric wheel, but they are all glazed and double-baked in a kiln with the love and attention of old. Buy yourself something as a reminder of your newfound knowledge (mugs, candlesticks, plates, vases etc with lovely designs). And once you’re done, you can set off on the circular 3.5km route from the Old Harbour that takes you past the city’s ancient Acropolis and Theatre, the Temple of Athena and Sanctuary of Panas and other sites, imagining all the ceramic artefacts unearthed there.

The view from the Costis Pottery workshop in Thassos

Weaving and embroidery

Another ancient craft intertwined with everyday life over the centuries is weaving. The goddess Athena (who gave Athens its name) was considered the patroness and teacher of the craft, while Ariadne (whose thread helped Theseus escape the clutches of the labyrinth-roaming Minotaur) is depicted in the frescoes of Knossos as weaving the costumes of Minoan women. But it was during Greece’s Byzantine years that weaving really took off, from bedclothes and other household items to the ornate vestments of priests and emperors. Most importantly, it was a skill passed from mother to daughter as embroideries were a valuable item of dowries.

Embroidery was traditionally a skill passed from mother to daughter in Greece Weaving and embroidery craft in Thassos

You can learn all about the local weaving tradition at the Thasitiko Spiti (Thassian House), within the Kalogeriko in Limenas’ Old Harbour. The Kalogeriko is a handsome two-floor 19th-century building in the Old Harbour whose second floor has been turned into a folklore museum, with exhibits contributed by more than 50 families, including local costumes and other examples of items of daily life (bags, towels to cover rising dough, bed and sofa covers and blankets). 

The museum recreates a traditional Thassos home, including a bedroom, kitchen and living room, with embroidered items in each room. You’ll be impressed by the bright colours (greens, reds and yellows) of embroidery created on a foot-powered loom using cotton or wool. Note how the strict geometric patterns (stars, rhombuses etc) evolve into more intricate designs (flowers, butterflies etc). 

The Thasitiko Spiti museum in Thassos’ Old Harbour recreates a 19th-century Thassian house You can learn all about the local weaving tradition at the Thasitiko Spiti

Marble mining and artwork

If there’s one material for which Thassos is known internationally, it’s marble. Thassian marble is marvelled for its snow-white colour and purity, appearing almost translucent. Around 10 marble quarries operate today, which is astonishing given the evidence (near the villages of Limenaria and Maries) that marble was mined here in Prehistoric times, making it one of the oldest marble mining sites in Europe.

Hoop earrings made by Thassian Marble

Thassian marble is marvelled for its snow-white colour and purity Thassian marble is marvelled for its snow-white colour and purity

The heyday of Thassos mining was in the 7th and 6th century BC when settlers from Paros (another island with a rich marble history) arrived to exploit Thassos’ natural resources (including gold and timber). As well as establishing marble quarries, they set up the famed ancient School of Sculpture, producing many of the statues, friezes and funerary steles you can enjoy in the Archaeological Museum. Thassos became an exporter of marble, not just within Greece but also across Asia Minor. If you visit Alyki beach, you can still make out the (now half-submerged) ancient quarry near the beach. As you stand there, imagine the 7th-century BC scene of boats within the bay awaiting their cargo and the complex loading mechanism of ropes and pulleys to move the marble slabs.

Kostas Lovoulos continues that tradition in his outdoor workshop in Limenaria, which is a treasure trove of marblework (if you pass by, you might be lucky enough to find him turning stone into extraordinary works of art). And if you visit Theologos village, in the heart of Thassos, you’ll find Ladis Marble Art and the workshop of Stavros Ladis, who creates stylish bracelets, lockets, earrings and other jewellery with marble. It’s also a good excuse to take a walk around Theologos (Thassos’ capital in Ottoman times) and explore the foothills of Mt Ipsarion.

Wrapping up your marble tour of Thassos, the Polygnotou Vagis Museum in the main square of Potamia (in a two-storey building that was once a primary school) is dedicated to the life and work of the famous sculptor. The son of a carpenter, Vagis was born in the village and moved to America in 1911, where he had a successful career as a painter and sculptor. The museum exhibits 98 works of sculpture and 15 paintings from 1920-1960.

THASSOS LOCAL PRODUCTS

Olives and olive oil

Moving on to local products now, there’s another export for which Thassos is renowned … the throuba olive, a medium-sized, high-quality olive that makes excellent low-acidity extra-virgin olive oil with large amounts of antioxidants and a great colour, aroma and flavour. Local olive oil will accompany your every meal in Thassos and you can pick up a bottle to take home in shops all around the island. But to learn more about Thassos’ famous product and really understand the relationship of the island with the ancient fruit, visit the Sotirelis Olive Oil Mill in Panagia. It was founded in 1915 and was still operating in 2007, after which it was turned into a working museum.

You’ll witness the extraction process powered by a watermill and using no chemical treatments… just cold extraction with stone mills that grind the olives into a paste at temperatures that never exceed 27°C (ensuring essential oils are preserved). After grinding, the olive paste is transferred into malaxers (where the juices are slowly mixed) and then separators (where centrifugal power separates the olive oil from the vegetable water. You’ll never look at olive oil the same way again. 

The local honey

The final part of your crafts and local products tour of Thassos is to learn about the island’s sweetest tradition. Honey is as ancient a product on Thassos as olive oil and marble, once being the only way to sweeten food. There are plenty of small honey producers who are active members of the Beekeeping Cooperative of Thassos and you’ll find jars of honey for sale in roadside stalls as well as in shops. But one of the best places to learn about honey-making in Thassos is the Koutlis Honey shop in Potamia.

It’s a 3rd-generation family-run business and there’s nothing they don’t know about honey. The secret to the taste of the honey they produce (apart from it being totally organic) is the vegetation on which the bees feed, with pine tree & blossom honey, orange blossom honey, thyme honey, chestnut honey, forest and oak honey, heather honey and more. And if you really want to dig deep into the products of the Koutlis family apiaries, you can buy fresh pollen, royal jelly, propolis (a natural resinous mixture produced by honeybees known for its therapeutic properties) and beeswax balm for the skin. 

The traditional crafts and local products of Thassos

Beaches, villages and now a rich heritage in crafts and local products … the reasons to visit Thassos keep coming. What’s going to be on your wish list of things to do on your holidays in Thassos?

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