The gateway to the East

All of a sudden something is different. This is not just another Greek city. Xanthi, with its mixed Christian and Muslim inhabitants, feels to me like the gateway to the East.

I have not come across anything like this in the year that I have been in Greece. The sounds and smells of the old town are different: spices linger in the air, and for the first time in my journey, the call to prayer from the muezzin floats across a city, pricking my ears. There is a change in the people, subtle and yet at the same time so obvious. As I wander through the alleyways brightly coloured headscarves cover the heads of ladies, the faces have changed, and there are distinct influences from Bulgaria in the faces of the people – unsurprising given the vicinity to the border. The mountainous area North of Xanthi contains a distinct ethnic group, Pomaks, who are the second most numerous Muslim group in Greece after ethnic Turks, and until the early 90s they were socially and economically marginalised.

Xanthı Old Town
Xanthı Old Town

Durıng my final month in Greece I was travelling through the heartland of the Old Macedonian Empire, from where Alexander the Great began his conquest of the known world.

Wandering through Macedonia
Wandering through Macedonia

I stopped in Vergina to visit the tomb of Philip and I was blown away. The silence was almost complete inside the heroon, the grave mound erected over the marble tomb of the dead king. For 2,300 years it remained untouched, only the ghosts of a distant past lay encpsulated inside. A time of myths and warriors, when deeds of incredible spirit and strength were the goal of men, idealised in the trials of the gods and demi-gods captured in perfect form in the artwork. These ghosts and stories watched over the sleeping king until they were brought to light in the 1980s by the archaeologist Manolis Andronikos.

Facade of Philip II tomb, Vergina
Facade of Philip II tomb, Vergina

The museum of Vergina is unlike any other I have ever entered. I felt an overwhelming peace and magnificence as I stepped through time. And this was the point of the mausoleum. In the preservation of the tomb and artifacts, the archaeogists attempted to preserve the atmosphere of the place:

“The darkness that reigns in the space arouses awe and turns voices into whispers, suggesting the atmosphere in the land of the dead…[but] the exhibition cannot avoid expressing the aesthetics of contemporary viewers, ideological needs it addresses”

There are sites here in Greece where I have been the only visitor, and I was lucky enough to have the place to myself for a full hour, before the coach loads of schoolchildren arrived. It is a privilege I treasure, as I wander through history, absorbed in the atmosphere, taking the time to completely feel and listen to the spirit of the land.

In Vergina I could sense the power – was this the presence of the spirit of the king of old? The incredible force who unified Greece as never before, and paved the way for his son’s path to limits of the known world? Surely there was something of this spirit which filled Alexander? One can see the power in the opulence if the grave goods, the exceptional beauty and craftsmanship of the offerings, which the dead king would use in the afterlife. Alexander set a precedent on his fathers death by offering such wealth to the gods and the memory of his father. And he was rewarded with Greatness.

As I left Vergina the rain was pouring down. The hills were shrouded in mist and my decision to brave the north of Greece in winter (even the end) beginning to look somewhat reckless. There comes a time when you really cannot get any wetter, but it’s ok if you know there’s a hot shower and a warm bed at the end. Otherwise it can be a little miserable! My road took me to Thessaloniki, through endless expanses of peach trees and suddenly I remembered that song from years back: peaches do not come from a can, and although they were put there by a man, they have to grow first. In Macedonia, they grow A LOT!

Oh and one other thing I learned, and this is very important…Macedonia is definitely NOT a country. But if you want to have a good argument / discussion / debate, then all you need to do is come here, find any random person and tell them that you really love Macedonia, especially the capital Skopje. Chances are you’ll have your ear chewed off for the next few hours, but by the end you’ll realise that their is a good deal of history connecting all these countries, from Croatia all the way to the Turkish border.

I stopped in Thessaloniki, second city in Greece, and the old capital of Galerius when the Roman Empire was divided in four by Diocletion. Now it’s a bubbling, lively student filled city. But in cities I often feel at a loss, so after just a couple of nights I headed to Mount Athos. 20 monasteries contained within one finger of Halkidiki, it is officially called the Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain, and has a magic and place in history all of its own. For now I will say only that it was definitely unique!

Mount Athos
Mount Athos

From Mount Athos I followed the coast, heading Eastwards. I could feel that my time in Greece was coming to an end, and I was craving something new, feeling the call of the unknown.

I passed clusters of houses, caravans, seaside cafes and bars, all more or less closed and creaking, waiting for the sun and the crowds. I stopped for a few days ın Thassos an island of fame ın the past, where life revolves around marble, olıves, sheep and tourısm. But in winter life has paused. Only workers on the roads and houses, making preparations for the tourist season. Otherwise it’s the sea, and the wind, blowing lonely on the beaches.

Thassos marble has been the wealth of the island for centuries
Thassos marble has been the wealth of the island for centuries

And so I arrived in Xanthi, where I ended up staying for a week. The rain poured and I was very happy to have found fantastic hosts through couchsurfing, and not be stuck outside. As the heavens opened for almost 4 days non stop, I stayed with Eri and Iordanis. I was given a tour of the firestation (Iordanis is a fireman), and thanks to Eri I was able to get the Greek hospital experience, thankfully not as the patient!

Iordanis showed me around the fıre station
Iordanis showed me around the fıre station

I had decided to stay and see the bazaar, which is an open air market held every Saturday. Supposedly it brings together all the various cultures, from Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece. But, as luck would have it, this particular Saturday it was cancelled  – I was assured that this was very VERY unusual. However, because there was no market I had time to explore a little. I wandered the backstreets, watched the old men playing cards in the squares…


And then came across a wonderful art exhibition – The House of Shadows. The artist, Triantafilos Vaitsis, uses trash and all sorts of different materials to create shadow art on the walls. Each piece is handmade, and I found it to be a very moving collection. It is a beautiful, haunting, and atmospheric exhibition, and behind each piece of art there is a philosophy on life.

The Unbearable wılderness of the beıng. Shadow art - one piece of art casts two contrasting shadows. What is wilder, man or beast?
The unbearable wilderness of the beıng.
Shadow art – one piece of art casts two contrasting shadows. What is wilder, man or beast?

And the overall message which Triantafilos wants to convey is this:

What we see is always less than what we are looking at

Greece you have moved me, and opened my heart and mind over the last year, and as ever it is with excitement and with incredible memories that I say goodbye.

But Ithaka still evades me, and the unknown world calls me onwards…

2 thoughts on “The gateway to the East

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