The region of Thrace sits to Greece's east, at the gateway of the exotic north. This is a land of jaw-dropping landscapes, with the majestic Rodopi mountain range standing guard over the Nestos and Evros rivers, as well as richly diverse wetlands, lush forests and white-sand beaches.
The region often gets overlooked in favour of Santorini, Crete and the other Greek islands, yet it's no less beautiful. From the ancient rock wine presses of Komotini to the lighthouse of Alexandroupoli, here's everything you need to know about Thrace.
Komotini, Thrace, Greece : cultural capital
In Komotini – Thrace's regional capital and cultural centre – rich Ancient Greek, Byzantine and Ottoman history runs through every row of beautiful, labyrinthine alleys. Right in the city centre, you'll even find the remains of an ancient Byzantine fortress and the old city walls – all dating back to the 4th century AD. A short drive away are the deeply forested Rodopi mountains, an incredibly beautiful area where you'll find mountain lodges and old wine presses carved into the rock. Here, in the Chaintou forest, you'll wander past age-old beech trees that tower to more than 30m above you, as well as pine, fir and red spruce trees that together provide a home for an array of wildlife including bears, wolves and deer. A large part of the Chaintou forest has been designated a 'Monument of Nature' and protected area, making it the perfect place to spy rare species of flora and fauna.
Xanthi, Thrace, Greece: a tale of two cities
Often referred to as the 'noble Lady of Thrace', the city of Xanthi is built into the foot of the Rodopi mountain chain right at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. The city is divided in two by the Kosynthos River, with the Old Town and its mansions, Byzantine churches and picturesque squares to the west, and a rich natural environment in the east. Get your head around the region's varied history at the Folk Art Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Municipal Gallery and the Abdera Archaeological site.
Thrace sits at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and the food combines the best of the two
The other brilliant thing about Xanthi is its food: because of Thrace's position at the crossroads of two continents, the food on the menu combines the absolute best of both. You'll see roasted chickpeas and kebabs alongside fresh local fish, seasonal vegetables and regional delicacies like pastourma pie – a savoury pie filled with flavourful cured beef. Thrace is also known for its wines, with local grape varieties including roditis and assyrtiko.
Then there's the area's natural landscape: to Xanthi's south is the Nestos river delta, with lagoons, sand dunes, fresh water lakes and more, forming one of Europe's most important wetlands. Nearby is Lake Vistonida, home to more than 300 species and subspecies of plant and animal. The lake is particularly good for birdwatching, with several rare or endangered species visting the area, like the red-breasted goose, the ferruginous duck, eagles and hundreds of bright-pink flamingos. And if that's not already enough, to the south of the Rodopi range is Ismarida lake, home to 190 bird species, as well as diverse fish and trees for you to admire on a long walk. >
Alexandroupolis, Thrace, Greece: at the crossroads
Perched at the point where Europe and Asia meet, Alexandroupolis forms the centre of a fascinating, cosmopolitan region. The beautiful white lighthouse is the city's key landmark, while the 19th century saw the construction of wide roads, neoclassical buildings and the arrival of the legendary Orient Express train.
Today, modern Alexandroupolis mixes fishing village charm, stunning sunsets and archaeological sites at Mesimvria and Maroneia, ideal for long evening ambles. You'll stroll past the ruins of two mosques, past an old town hall, the church of Agios Eleftherios and the Ecclesiastical Museum, which exhibits refugee heirlooms and artistic treasures from all over Thrace. Elsewhere, the Ethnological Museum of Thrace displays artefacts from the 17th to 20th centuries, and the Folklore History Museum is home to painting and photography exhibitions that showcase the history of the local area.
If you're looking for some history of a more mythological kind, head a few miles west to the village of Makri, where you'll find the legendary Cyclops' Cave made famous by Homer's Odyssey. Just a 300m walk from the village square, it's a worthwhile trip for any lover of Greek myth and legend.
A short drive in the other direction from Alexandroupolis lies the village and forest of Dadia. Originally founded by lumberjacks fleeing from a deadly epidemic, the village is home to the remains of a Byzantine Castle, while the forest is a brilliant location for birdwatching, hiking and mountain biking. A visit to the Ecotourism Centre will tell you everything you need to know about the local biodiversity, and down the road is the fossilised forest in Fylaktos. Volcanic activity in the area 25 million years ago perfectly fossilised trees including a 19m-long oak.
in the Dadia forest, you’ll find byzantine remains, birdwatching, mountain biking and hiking
The city of Alexandroupolis also has a long-standing seafaring tradition, but these days it's the city's diving clubs that wow: giving you unfettered access to underwater sand dunes, beds of rippling sea grass and jaw-dropping phosphorescent reefs.
Samothrace, Thrace, Greece
Directly south of Alexandroupolis in the Thracian Sea is the island of Samothrace, or Samothraki. The isle is home to Mount Saos, the highest mountain in the Aegean – legend has it that this is the spot from where the sea god Poseidon watched the Trojan war.
The steep peaks, streams, rivers and pebbled beaches are so beautiful its no surprise they inspired ancient legends. Waterfalls and plunge pools provide perfect spots to sit and catch your breath while striking out on a hike or trek across this extraordinary island. These watercourses make their way down from towering Mount Saos, forming a unique local phenomenon known as vathres, or step-like natural pools filled with crystal-clar waters.
And hidden among these natural wonders are history-laden ancient sites. There's the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, dating from the seventh century BC; a three-aisled Early Christian basilica; and the medieval castle of the Gateluzi family, its towers offering unrivalled views over the sea. If you want to understand a bit more about what you're looking at, make sure you visit the Archaeological Museum, where the area's major finds are on display, too.
From bubbling streams to forested mountain peaks, Thrace is a region with it all. If you're after unrivalled beauty, you've come to the right place.
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