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Xanthi: Thracian Delight in Greece’s Hidden Northeast

July 4, 2006

By Christopher Deliso

With the summer finally here, visitors as always are flocking to Greece– and, of course, the islands. However, not far from the sea are unusual and evocative places that, while less visited, have a lot to offer in their own right. Today we focus on Xanthi, which lies on the western edge of Thrace in northern Greece.

Xanthi is a dependably solid Thracian town and one of the most distinctive in northern Greece. It is marked by a distinctive Balkan atmosphere, and is famous for its mixed cultures and cuisines. It is easily accessible from the major city of Thessaloniki, which lies 230 km to the southwest. It is also not far from the sea, standing roughly halfway between Kavala and Alexandroupolis, which host the ferries to the popular islands of Thasos and Samothraki, respectively.

While it is a lively place with many bars and cafˆšÂ©s, fuelled by a university presence, Xanthi’s charms are most apparent in its old, Turkish-influenced upper town. The colorful, crumbling houses and bulbous whitewashed plaster walls, bubbling across narrow stone alleys like in a Greek island, lend an eloquent and understated touch of civility to an enclave that was quite a wealthy commercial center in Ottoman Turkish times.

Much of Xanthi’s wealth centered on the tobacco trade, and it is in fact in the preserved mansion of the former tobacco baron Kouyioumtzoglous family – now the town’s folk museum – that it has been preserved, in the form of ornate neo-classical architecture, grand ceiling paintings, and moveable relics from centuries of life in the area. (The Xanthi area still produces a potent and prized local blend of cigarettes, kiretsiler).

The museum stands impressively on Antika St., at the base of one’s ascent into the old town. Further up is a somewhat unusual facility for a Greek town – a working mosque, catering to Xanthi’s Turkish-speaking minority who have long lived in the upper quarters.

While the more visited coast is not too far away, Xanthi is worth seeing in its own right and is a destination for all seasons; it boasts one of the most famous winter carnivals in Greece, while Easter and numerous other religion-inspired festivities, as well as musical and theatrical performances, enliven the spring and summer months as well. It is bisected by the River Kosynthos, which winds its way down from the pristine Rhodope Mountains and empties into the delta at Lake Vistonida to the southeast.

Finally, Xanthi is host to several tavernas and cafes located where the new town meets the old, and is also famous for its Turkish sweets- it has perhaps the best baklava this side of Istanbul.

What to See in Xanthi

Cafe Antika, at Vasileus Konstantinou 86

A very cool cafe located in the center of town, though slightly hidden, the soft-lit Antika is framed by well-polished wood beams and decorated with plush couches and antiques, playing ambient or Greek music and (like other places in Xanthi) offering over 10 varieties of hot chocolate.

The Folk Museum (Laografiko Mouseio) 5-7 Antika St.

Xanthi’s folk history museum is located in a double mansion built between 1870-1880. The imposing residence, which today features all the original furnishings and is decorated throughout with paintings and ornamental flourishes, was built by the Kouyioumtzoglou clan, a family enriched by the tobacco trade during Xanthi’s late-19th century peak. The mansion also features various relics and texts of historical value, and occasionally hosts classes for the Open University of Greece. The friendly staff will be happy to show you around.

Nentim, at Vasileus Konstantinou 35

In a town full of tempting zakaroplasteia (sweet shops), Nentim is perhaps the most famous, offering as it does an amazing range of authentic Turkish sweets, ranging from several kinds of baklava and wrapped pastries to cream-laden taouk giouksou and ekmek kantaifi, as well as the famous dondurma– a whipped sort of Turkish ice cream made of sheep’s milk.

But the offering that will really send you to the dentist is the unique local favorite: the soutzouk loukoum, a block of loukoumi dusted over with confectioner’s sugar, all laid out in a curling sausage shape.

More information can be found on the website of the Municipality of Xanthi and the Greek National Tourism Organization.

A version of this article was also published in the Guardian’s BeenThere travel section.

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