Correction: A credit accompanying two photos in an earlier version of this story was incorrect. The photographer was Loring Danforth, not Nick Danforth. This version has been updated.
Northern Greece is ideal for the undecided: It’s the perfect place for lounging on the sun-soaked beaches of the Aegean by day and shivering in the rain-soaked mountains of the Balkans by night.
I was traveling there with my girlfriend, who preferred the former, and my father, who preferred the latter. And for a brief moment, we were lost somewhere in between. Greece’s Thracian panhandle extended off onto another map that was in the trunk of the car, and the tower of a cement factory obscured any view of either the mountains or the sea.
Our destination was the old tobacco port of Kavala, perched on a hill overlooking the water in what would turn out to be the direction of the cement factory. We finally arrived after belatedly finding it on the map, then detouring in search of an ultimately inaccessible castle that we also found on the map. In terms of history and architecture, Kavala seemed a perfect compromise between Greece, which my father insisted had been the meeting place between East and West in his day, and Turkey, where they supposedly meet today.
Then we planned to visit Prespes National Park, two stunning mountain lakes straddling Greece’s northern frontier, complete with pelicans, water buffalo and overgrown island churches. More important, Prespes is also one of Europe’s flagship transboundary parks, making it ideal not just for transboundary park enthusiasts but also for those divided on the merits of hiking with German nature-lovers in Greece, Albania or Macedonia.
A journey to either Kavala or the Prespa region probably begins in Thessaloniki, the capital of northern Greece. Repeatedly described as the most erotic city in Europe by a man I once met on the bus, Thessaloniki also has Greece’s finest Byzantine history museums and the country’s best breakfast pastries.
Amid the cinnamon-and-sugar-topped phyllo dough, omnipresent graffiti and Alexander the Great statues, there was little evidence of eros, which perhaps is what the people handing out ads for gay vacations in Bulgaria were hoping to capitalize on. We opted to continue on to Kavala.
Kavala’s main charm lies in its castle-topped, aqueduct-fed old city, which is built on a promontory jutting out into the Aegean. Art-deco tobacco warehouses provide a backdrop to graceful monuments commissioned by Kavala native MuhammadAli. He was the Albanian from Greece who founded modern Egypt in 1805, fought for the Turks against Greece and then invaded Turkey.
Patriotic confusion ensued throughout the Eastern Mediterranean over who exactly should hate him and why. In Kavala, locals desecrated the grave of Ali’s mother, erected a giant statue in his honor, then turned his soup kitchen into a luxury hotel, charging anywhere from $170 to $400 per night, depending on the state of the economy when you visit.
When we visited, we looked as if we were hardly in a state to take a room at either price, but staff members proved happy to walk us through the buildings’ many delicately poised courtyards. They then suggested that we visit the accompanying museum in Ali’s former home at the top of the hill. It was a building so tastefully restored as to be completely empty, with ethereal Sufi music filling the rooms in place of furniture.
Much better suited to our circumstances was the Akropolis hotel, a solid stone edifice with a sign in 1930s neon. The entrance was tucked away on a side street; the harbor had not yet been filled in to make the city’s main street when the hotel was built, and the sea had originally lapped up against its facade. Some rooms had wireless Internet, others, in the back, a view of the ocean. The elderly proprietress listened to the news on her radio with the television on mute, smoked hand-rolled cigarettes in the lobby and discussed left-wing politics with friends over cheese and nuts.
She was the one who recommended the tobacco museum. Stretching out along the waterfront beyond the walls of the old city, 19th-century brick warehouses stood alongside larger concrete ones from the ’30s and a host of modern buildings. Past the naval museum (one room, model ships, rigging), we eventually found the tobacco museum building, then the tobacco museum. (Go in the main door, go up the stairs, get sent back downstairs, find a doorbell with a Greek word that looks like museum, then push the door open without bothering to ring.)
The tobacco museum is a museum of things: machines for sifting tobacco, presses for baling it and hand carts for moving it. And for moving it without hand carts, a “human saddle,” designed to hold the load on a porter’s back. Leftover space is filled with plastic-wrapped packages of pressed tobacco leaves tied with ribbon — sample wares prepared for a 1980s fair. And, unexpectedly, an astounding collection of maps. Maps showing happy peasants planting tobacco, maps showing routes for shipping tobacco, maps of tobacco varieties (Basma, Bachi-Bagli, Kaba-Koulak, Myrodata, Mavra) and finally an ordinary map of the region, made from tobacco leaves.
If the human saddle didn’t arouse sympathy for the workers, other details did: Factory employees took the nicotine-laden dust from sifting the tobacco leaves home to sprinkle in their garden, where the nicotine acted as an insecticide. There was a sanatorium up in the hills for workers who contracted tuberculosis after years of steaming tobacco leaves in confined spaces. As one visitor had written in the guest book, “You can smell the history.”
Like other cities in Greece, Kavala has several Byzantine churches that were turned into Ottoman mosques before being turned back into Greek Orthodox churches, resulting in an assortment of architectural features from each incarnation.
There’s a building built as an Ottoman mosque that had been transformed into a church, and another mosque turned into an art gallery. Beneath faded blue flower frescoes from a 19th-century renovation, the Czech curator was stacking some modern sculpture — a winged turtle and a wooden nude — with the help of several workmen who communicated with us during our brief visit entirely in high-fives.
The surrounding countryside offered a full spectrum of religious conflict and commingling. In one nearby village, we stood on the ruins of a mosque whose vanished floor revealed the even scarcer ruins of a Byzantine basilica beneath it. In fields of corn outside another village, we visited a shrine to Saint George with an icon-filled antechamber that led into the tomb of a Muslim holy man. His broken tombstone lay in the center of a gravel floor, beside a single prayer rug covered with bird droppings. The Koran, however, nestled in a niche in the wall, was protected from the resident hawk by a tattered plastic cover. Both rooms had brass tray-shaped candelabra filled with sand and melted wax. All around lay empty matchboxes.
Beyond the outskirts of Kavala, the coast of Thrace (the panhandle) stretches hundreds of miles to the east, with marsh and gravel beaches punctuated by RV camps and the remains of ancient hilltop cities. In addition to its shrines, the Thracian coast has some nice, if gravelly, places to take a solitary swim before setting off inland.
Our route to the Prespa Lakes followed the path of the Roman Egnatia Way west along a new, European Union-funded Egnatia Motorway. Turning off to the north — because it’s Greece, the exit sign says “Exodus” — we climbed up into the mountains. The scenery there is reminiscent of the Alps, at least to the extent that I, as an American, find all European mountain scenery vaguely reminiscent of the Alps. Oaks and firs replace olive groves and fruit trees, and the drive is more than enough to satisfy those who savor the feeling of Europeanness they experience when honking and shifting gears to accelerate around an uphill hairpin turn.
The Prespa Lakes themselves are probably the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, though the staff at a small welcome center seemed far more interested in highlighting the fact that they are also Europe’s oldest. My claim, I felt, was indisputable, especially looking down from the spot where the road begins its descent out of the hills. The staff’s claim, meanwhile, was quickly challenged by a German visitor standing next to us, who generously placed them at third- or fourth-oldest.
Prespa has relaxed hikes on hundred-year-old limestone paths looking out over the water, as well as more intense uphill options for people who insist that a good day should end with one arm swollen from a spider bite and the other still tingling from a brush with an electric fence. If the fence wasn’t able to keep me from taking a picture of some surprisingly colorful beehives, I don’t see how it could stop a larger, presumably more determined bear from reaching the honey. In fact, although signs warned of bears, we had both sets of trails largely to ourselves. The only signs of human habitation were some occasional goats and Albanian cigarette wrappers left by the men hired to look after them.
Prespa also has churches in every stage of picturesque abandonment. Some are so ruined as to be nearly nonexistent, just a prostrate column beneath the brambles. Others, despite their appearance, remain in use, with bags of dirt-caked bones stacked in the corner to be washed and re-interred according to Orthodox custom.
At the bottom of a steep trail down to the lakeshore, narrow Byzantine bricks nestled into the protruding cliff face formed a small chapel for a 13th-century hermit. On another shore of the lake, the once grand basilica built by the medieval Bulgar Tsar Samuil is now two walls and a series of arches framing the mountains behind it.
Deeper still into the underbrush is the church of a now-vanished monastery. The north wall was rebuilt after shelling in World War II, but painted fragments of the old one lie stacked inside on the dirt floor, barely visible in the light from a low window. After a day of seeing ruins, we found a surprising stateliness to the square village church standing perfectly intact at dusk amid a field of completely leveled houses. The inscription over the door was defaced, but the interior woodwork was painted and intact, still showing the form of the trees out of which it was partially carved.
The fields surrounding the lakes were filled with reed tripods, woven together as frames for growing the region’s famous flat beans. (Reeds from the lake itself, we learned, are too brittle, so farmers import sturdier reeds from lakes farther south.) The beans, sold at roadside stands by the bag or served in every local restaurant with an excess of tomato sauce and olive oil, are delicious. Still, you can only walk past so many goats in an afternoon without wanting to eat something more substantial.
We were staying in Agios Germanos, a town whose grand stone houses belie its small size. Built where the mountains marking the border with Macedonia open into the lake, it had one open restaurant, with a final portion of grilled mutton on the spit, resting as if exhausted from turning all evening. The meat was served on an upside-down curved roof tile, and the waitress made a point of telling us to eat the fat.
In his book “Prospero’s Cell,” famed British travel writer Lawrence Durrell claimed that while every country offers you discovery, “Greece offers you something harder — the discovery of yourself.” His penchant for this kind of nonsense largely explains why no one reads his books anymore, and I certainly have no idea what he meant. If by something harder, though, he meant impeccably cooked, crispy-yet-soft lamb fat, Greece certainly offers you that.
Amid the hiking and the history, that almost tastes like self-discovery.
Danforth is a PhD candidate in Middle Eastern history at Georgetown University. He writes about history, politics and maps at www.midafternoonmap.com.