posted by mh on 2006/03/04 17:23

[ travel ]

On the occasion of traveling to Athens for the conference Grecs d'Anatolie et d'Istanbul de 1821 à 1964, taking the train via Thessaloniki, a colleague and I chose to make a brief stopover in northern Greece’s cities of Kavala and Xanthi (Iskece). One motive for visiting the former was to take a glimpse at the restored imaret complex built by Kavala’s most famous native, Mehmet Ali of Egypt, for the purportedly superb revitalization of the building had received some media attention (1), as reported earlier on this weblog. (read the full text by clicking on "more" below) ---

Kavala (pop. 53,000) is a fairly old city not unattractively clustered around a bay like an amphitheatre. As in so many cities of modern Turkey and Greece, an amassment of unorderly post-war apartment buildings wrestling for a view dominate the panorama. Panagia, Kavala’s neat historic core is located on a peninsula (pic) to the east of the harbor area, a ferry hub much frequented in summers by tourists heading for the islands of the northern Aegean. At the friendly Tourist Information Center (“In Kavala we make sure you don’t miss anything!”) the visitor can choose between a handful of brochures. There, it is also suggested to take the free “train” up the steep streets of the old town. This toyish electric vehicle (pic), known from other tourist centers (and often serving to complete their visual “disneyfication”), however, seems to mostly serve elderly locals living in the Panagia area.

Topped by a Byzantine fortress, the old town boasts a fine collection of typically Ottoman 19th century houses, while a few pre-WWI mansions (pic) – including a comically Tudor-styled building now housing the city’s folkore museum – are lined behind the harbor area’s main thoroughfare, (Eleftherios Venizelos, unsurprisingly) exemplifying that in this period quite a couple of local entrepreneurs made a considerable fortune. Outside the old town we also find two more monumental structures from the Ottoman period: an aqueduct (pic) built under Suleyman the Magnificent’s reign to serve the historical peninsula, and a large church with a 20th century belfry not quite effectively betraying the fact that the building once was a mosque.

Entering the city from the road from Drama, on a signpost depicting a map of the Mediterranean island with its northern half colored blood-red one is also reminded to “not forget Cyprus!” Having descended from the rocky hinterland, several signs point to the direction of “Konstantinoupoli - Constantinople (463km)", complete with a Byzantine eagle. Mehmet Ali, however, is a local hero, who here owns a street, a square, an equestrian statue, and a house museum (pic). His imaret mosque/complex, stretching along the western slopes of the old town, is one of the city’s prides.

That Kavala also was a focal point of post-WWI migration from inner Anatolia exemplifies not only the presence of a Museum of Cappadocian Greeks, but is also told by locals like Andonia, born a Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christian in the Konya region of Asia Minor, who owns a taverna just opposite the ‘Hotel Imaret’. Owned by the Egyptian state and long used as a warehouse, it was recently renovated and turned into a luxury hotel. While the curviness of its eastern façade (pic) and the dome/drum bear testimony to the interesting architectural current of its time of construction (1817-21), it is only this view from the outside that is granted to the casual visitor. This architectural monument is now “private”, as the receptionist of the Imaret Hotel promptly informs us.

A one-hour ride to the east, Xanthi (pop. 53,000) presents a somewhat different picture. An old town (pic) of unexpected scale is tucked away on the hills behind the modern and largely faceless part of town. Owing to its role as centre of tobacco production, next to the typical Ottoman-period houses one also finds a considerable quantity of fine neoclassical and eclectically-styled houses from before WWI (pics). In Xanthi, German (due to the Gastarbeiter-connection) and Turkish (the local minority, exempted from the ‘population exchanges’ in the 1920s) are much more helpful than English. However, in the narrow streets and antiquated coffeehouses we also hear Bulgarian, or rather a dialect of which is spoken by the Muslim Pomaks.

Visitors from Istanbul can expect invitations on coffee, free rides to the (absurdly distant) train station, and a few local anecdotes. While life, in general, is reported to be good, particularly after EUropean integration, the relations with the Greek majority and government are not always told to be rosy. The “Turkish” café we visit really turns out to be a meeting place of all local Muslims. Turkish, Pomak, Greek, and even some Bosnian is heard; less so on the streets of Xanthi, where surprisingly many women do wear headscarves. The minarets of the city’s seven mosques, however, scrape the sky only rather discretely and in no way dominate the panorama.

I leave Greece in the unreservedly comfortable Friendship-Express (Thessaloniki-Istanbul), in my expectations a slightest bit disappointed by Kavala, but fairly enthusiastic about Xanthi. Without any seriously central urban functions its old town remains a residential quarter, or rather a couple of quarters, uphill. Now only an infrequent reference in guidebooks on Greece, in a region (Thrace) mostly portrayed as a backwater and mere transit point to more popular destinations - hence virtually untouched by the mass tourism that had befallen Greece after WWII - on the lower slopes of Xanthi’s old quarters a few cafes/restaurants/bars and art galleries already indicate the development this area might eventually take. I eventually depart with the intention of returning, sooner or later, and to further explore the rest of this relatively neglected historical region divided between three countries in the 1910s and ‘20s in the hope to be met by further surprises.


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