Xanthi: Northern Charm For The Winter Sun
Greece’s history is multilayered, that much is known. From classicism and the golden age, to the Hellenistic and the Byzantine period, Greece has been around to witness a sizeable chunk of turmoil and change. Its position as the nexus connecting east and west is well documented. The north of Greece especially has seen its fair share of it. The region of Thrace, thus, is credited as being a pivotal part of the bridge connecting the worlds of Africa, Asia and Europe. The town of Xanthi in particular is after all a strategically vital access point to the Black Sea, the Aegean and Europe. This is immediately obvious on account of the several minarets that still dot the skyline. Xanthi sits at the foot of the Rhodope mountain range, which is a natural border with Bulgaria. Xanthi then, is a singularity in Greece. And not just because of linguistic-cultural reasons. Its natural beauty is only surpassed by its impressive resume.
Xanthi, just like other northern Greek towns is inextricably linked to the tobacco trade that flourished there at the turn of the century. From the 1860’s up until the middle of the 20th century, Xanthi thrived as a production and processing center that attracted wealthy merchants and immigrants from neighboring areas. This wealth manifested itself in grandiose manors and stately neo classical edifices that are now a protected cultural legacy. All along its cobble stone streets and quaint alleyways one can imagine what life was like back then. The town, divided by the Kosythos river is home to students and locals, creating a vibrant mix of old and new that renews its commitment to its past with an eye on the future.
The old tobacco warehouses have turned into galleries and cafes and even though the melting pot of Pomak Bulgarian, Muslim, Arab, Armenian and Asia Minor is no longer there, one can certainly get a feel for what the town was like back in its heyday. The foodie scene is all about the meats and kebabs, although its close proximity to the sea guarantees its pedigree. By no account should one consider leaving without trying the ample selection of delectable sweets. The town’s heritage as an Ottoman outpost is all one needs to know as per its confectionary credentials.
As one might expect the old quarter is a rich tapestry of religious and cultural vestiges and is best enjoyed with sturdy walking shoes and an appetite for strong coffee. People watching is absolutely one of the things one should indulge in. The vast array of castles, monasteries, mansions, stone bridges and minarets is frankly vertiginous. A fair amount of time to see everything is advised.
Xanthi, appropriately, also happens to be a rather convenient springboard from which to explore the adjoining region. A mere 13 kilometers away the river Nestos crisscrosses the region forming a natural moat between Greece and Bulgaria, with the Rhodope mountain range acting as a fortifying barrier. The wetlands that form the delta have been designated as a protected ecosystem and the Porto Lagos lagoon is a natural habitat for migrating flamingoes. As one might gather, the walks and trails around this area are as scenic as one is likely to encounter. The adjacent lake Vistonida is also home to several other species who ensconce there during their downtime. Look out for white storks, pelicans and cormorants.
Xanthi is nothing if not quaint. And it’s nothing but a couple hours away from Thessaloniki by car. Take advantage of the situation and carve a slice of memory gold in this true Greek gem.