21.08.2016

MY ANCESTRAL LANDS: WESTERN THRACE

MY ANCESTRAL LANDS: WESTERN THRACE, Meltem Bozkurt Kaya | 21.08.2016

As someone who has travelled to many of the farthest places in the world, I finally got to see the special places that are closer to home by going on four trips in the last six months. I didn't realize how easy it was to go on these trips; apparently having a Schengen visa and 100 euros in your wallet was more than enough... I hadn't known how beautiful these places were… How beautiful it feels to be in foreign lands while feeling that you are at home... I can’t describe to you how mad I was at myself for not going there sooner.

I would like to tell you about my trips to Xanthi, Kavala, Komotini, Alexandroupoli, and particularly Thessaloniki. All of these cities are very special and important cities for us because historically they were Turkish cities and they carry the marks of our ancestors, but most importantly because of the Turkish population living in them.

I didn't use my pass tickets from Turkish Airlines on these trips of mine, instead I chose to go there by road. Many tour companies (Neşeli Tur, Megalo, Tatil Bahçesi, Hola Travel etc.) organize tours starting on Friday and ending on Sunday from Istanbul to Western Thrace. A while ago, my parents returned from the Western Thrace trip that I had gifted them for their wedding anniversary feeling immensely satisfied and happy. I signed up for one of the tours that have been becoming more popular by the day.

My first trip to Western Thrace was in October 2011. When I got on the tour bus at the Ömür bus stop in Bakırköy on a Friday night, I was told to go to the back of the bus to sit in the corner seat, which wasn't to my liking at all; but how could I have known that the seat would be the start of a good friendship between three cousins and me. We got to know each other even before we had arrived at the İpsala border gate. It was such an amazing coincidence that I got to sit with the same cousins on our next trip, in the same seats.

You reach the İpsala border gate at around 3 a.m. The tour guide collects the passports; people who have paid their departure fees in advance get to wait while those who don't go to the pay desk during the stop. The wind in Thrace will make you shiver while you are groggy. That's why I would advise you to pay your fees in advance at the bank before boarding the bus. Once you leave İpsala you also wait for a while at the Kipoi gate, which is the entrance into Greece. The most tortuous part of the trip are these gates. If there are other tour buses, your waiting time can be even longer. The passports are collected from you and handed back a couple of times. Depending on the officials, you may also enter one by one.

KAVALA

Our first stop is Kavala... We have breakfast at a small establishment. Anastasia offers us the brewed tea she makes. You can either eat what you have brought with you or have some soup if you wish. Of course, the amazing Kavala cookies are offered in abundance.

You enter the city center by going under the aqueducts built during the era of Suleiman the Magnificent, a city landmark which still stands tall... The Kavala Castle and the Ibrahim Pasha Mosque (now called the Agios Nikolaos Church) are the city’s historical attractions. Kavala is also birthplace of the Ottoman governor of Egypt Muhammad Ali Pasha. The house in which the Pasha was born in is open to visitors as a museum. His statue on horseback in the garden is quite majestic. Even though we were surprised to see an Ottoman Pasha's gigantic statue in Greece at first, seeing the description of "Egyptian King Muhammad Ali who rose against the Ottoman Empire" made things clearer. Apparently the relationship between Muhammad Ali Pasha and the Ottoman government went sour back in their day. There is a long story about it.

The Kavala seafront is filled with seafood restaurants and small souvenir shops. You can find some great seafood here. The rice with mussels are particularly good. The squid is very crunchy. The grilled octopus is fantastic. You may also see some Turkish names in the menus such as musakka (moussaka) and caciki (tzatziki)... The Kavala cookies just can’t be described, you really need to try them. It is a type of cookie in the shape of a thick crescent, made of flour, almonds, and lots of powdered sugar which leaves a taste different to any cookies you have tasted before. I buy a couple of boxes of them from Anastasia.

Another thing that caught my attention in Kavala was the fact that many soldiers from this city had gone to Cyprus for the war. The casualties were of course very high. That is why they say that people from Kavala do not like Turks as much compared to other cities. There is even a map of Cyprus at the exit of the city; blood is dripping from the north side of the island and the sign under it says "remember Cyprus". Another sign attracts our attention: Kostantinapolis 460 km. You can travel to the island of Thassos by ferry from here. I visited this island on a weekend. The beach in Kavala isn't great for swimming but Thassos and Halkidiki, which I haven't yet visited, are summer locations that are big attractions for the local people and tourists.

THESSALONIKI

Thessaloniki is the birthplace of Atatürk, the founder of our republic, the great writer Nazım Hikmet, and also my father's father... That is why I call these lands "ancestral lands", that is why they are so special to me... My longing for this place was at a peak partly because of the "syrtaki" lessons I had begun taking six months ago.

Thessaloniki is Greece’s 2nd largest city after Athens. If you ask me, I would say that it has a much more beautiful feel to it compared to Athens. The seafront reminds you of İzmir. It actually isn't too over-developed. The old antennae on the rooftops will catch your attention. They say that the subway construction in the city, which began 9 years ago, will take about that much more to be finished. The people are very lazy and complacent. The people of this country, which is going through an economic crisis, don't even open their stores regularly and are too addicted to entertainment. They live at night and sleep during the day. We are surprised to learn that officials who go to work on time actually receive bonuses. I call this country "The naughty kid of Europe". During the trip, our guide tells us about Greek Mythology and its importance. The stories that they tell us are fascinating.  I believe that Greece shaped the world in this regard.  But they don't have the same influence that they once did in the past.

First we visit Atatürk House Museum, which is the house that Atatürk was born in, at Thessaloniki. This house was gifted to the Turks by Greece and it is also within the garden containing the Turkish Consulate. We view the house with our emotions running high. The items inside aren't originals but the house was decorated like it would have been originally. Everything is shiny and beautiful. The garden is quite wide and filled with flowers. You think that the whole trip is worth it just from seeing this place.

The next stop is the Hagios Demetrios, which is the largest cathedral in Greece. People here apparently write down their wishes on a piece of paper and then throw them into the jars that are located in several places, the priests then collect and read them and pray for them. We write down our wishes in both English and Turkish and throw them into the jars. Then we climb the hills to see the sights of the city from the castle, it is quite nice to have the famous iced coffee called Frappe here. It is also a prime spot to take photos.

Once we get to the seaside we walk on the waterfront and soak up the sun. Beyaz Kale (the White Tower is located here. Because this tower was once a place where prisoners were locked up and killed during the reign of the Ottoman era its old name of "Tower of Blood" was changed.

The Statue of Alexander the Great stands magnificently just by the sea. Aristotle Square is just up ahead; this is a large square with many charming cafés, restaurants, and entertainment venues.  It has two important avenues: Eknedsiya is the largest one. I love this city that is so full of life and I lose myself in the many stores. You can walk to any place here anyway. All of the roads leading up to the avenues end at the seafront. There are countless cafés around.

During each of my visits to Thessaloniki I stayed at different hotels (Holiday Inn, Capsis, and Anatolia) and all of them were very comfortable. After resting for a little while at the hotel we get ready for dinner and head off to the tavern that our guide is taking us to. Because the place we visit on my first Thessaloniki trip is a place dedicated to tourists, it feels like it has a wedding celebration vibe to it. No one knows how to dance Syrtaki and they even sing Turkish songs for the guests. The food, mainly the seafood and olive oil dishes are quite delicious.  Actually seafood is amazing at any place you go to. On my other visits I find places where there are Greeks and get the chance to dance Syrtaki in them. The Greeks applaud me excitedly and throw napkins over my head. They love seeing a Turk performing their dance in their home. Syrtaki is a folkloric and choreographed type of a dance. There are many kinds of Syrtaki as well. Normally it isn't danced solo, the one where you dance alone is called Zeibekiko. These dinners feel like you are amongst friends, the jovial people welcoming you to their group. The night never ends in Thessaloniki. Those who get hungry eat kokoreç or have some  işkembe çorbası (tripe soup) like we do. Döner is even more delicious here.

People really love Turks and generally know how to speak Turkish. One in three people you meet is connected to Turkey somehow. I feel the sadness of not knowing a word of Greek even though my roots come from here. I learn the words; kalimera (good morning/hello), kalinihta (good night), efharisto poli (thanks a lot), pame (come on), sagapo (I love you). :) My grandfather's village was Kilkis, which is located at the Thessaloniki-Macedonia border. I see its signs and feel bad inside. I follow my uncle’s advice to call his friend Ilyaraskos. We speak Turkish even though it is difficult, and he gets emotional for getting the chance to talk to me. He insists that I visit him, however I can't leave the tour program of course. I tell him I will some other time.

XANTHI

One of my weekend tours takes place especially for the Xanthi Carnival. The carnival takes place every year in February. It is called the "Small Rio Carnival". Carnivals are apparently religious celebrations; The rumor that, "Jesus will be killed because he will be a prophet in the future" reached the ears of St. Mary. Due to her fear, St. Mary colored the faces of Jesus and his 12 friends so that they would not be recognized and hid them by doing so. After days had passed, on a Monday once she was told that this was just a rumor, St. Mary was relieved and washed Jesus' face and started to fast out of gratitude on the very same day.  This story that our guide told us was the reason for this carnival. The celebrations apparently take place for a week until morning.

The city center is decorated like a bride and every single person has a costume. I immediately buy myself a red witch's hat and my friend Yeşim buys a bright purple wig for herself. We put them on and get into the crowd and take our places to watch the official parade organized by the Municipality on the last day of the carnival. People from all ages have flocked to the carnival. Everyone has different costumes on; some groups have panda costumes while others have turtle costumes on. There are also several cartoon characters and funny blow up dolls, which are meant to be jokes directed at the government, around the place. Everyone is really enjoying themselves. We also join them and watch the parade with great joy. The music is very loud. I have never seen such a place. We also get to see many young people of Turkish origin in the parade. I felt like I had lived a very unique and nice experience by coming to this carnival. Even though it was February I never felt cold.  There apparently is an Old Town Festival at the start of September. The market that takes place on Saturdays in this city is apparently very famous. Due to the fact that we spent all of our time during the day at the carnival I couldn't really take in the city, but since it is a small city there wasn't too much to see anyway.

KOMOTINI

The city we visit after leaving Xanthi is Komotini. It is said that the town’s Ottoman name (Gümülcine) came from one of the first people that moved here called, Kömürcü Nine.  When we reach this city, where more than half of its population are Turkish, it is around 4 pm; we find a town which makes us feel like we are in a derelict and abandoned place. Once everyone has gone back to their homes to rest, there are only two restaurants open at the market. We look in the closed shop windows of the famous Ottoman Bazaar (don't think that it's a closed bazaar from its name, it's just a street) in Komotini. We sit down at a restaurant and have some amazing meatballs, where the portions were triple size. We get the chance to enjoy some brewed tea at Çukurkahve in Komotini. The first thing that catches our attention in the square is the newly built gigantic Ziraat Bank. It is closed of course, which didn't surprise me at all.

Agriculture is the main source of income in this city. There are no malls or any well-known "global" brand stores on the avenues. We see three mosques in the center. You hear the prayer sounds rise from the mosques during the prayer time. An old man approaches us after he overhears us talking in Turkish saying, "I have three kids and they are all in Yalova but I stayed here as I am old". He tells us many things as his eyes were filled with tears. Who knows what this nice old man who couldn't leave his land felt in his heart while he was talking to us. As we are leaving he says, "Give my kind regards to Istanpol" with the immigrant accent that I am used to from my own older relatives.

ALEXANDROUPOLI

Alexandroupoli is a port city in Western Thrace and also the center of its region. Evros is the largest city in the region. There are also many Western Thrace Turks here (according to the population data of 2001 there are 40,439 Turks in the city).

This city, located 40 km away from the İpsala customs gate, has a small airport and a health sciences faculty in it. As it is a port city it is said that its population rises during the summer months. It is similar to Edirne as a university city, due to the fact that most of the population is made up of students during the academic year. The most crowded avenue of the city is "Dimokratias". There are many cafés, banks, and stores on the avenue, but their working hours were quite interesting as they are in many other places. I learn that they are open for only a few hours during the day and that they are closed at other times including the weekends. When I hear it is the same for gas stations I think that this is the biggest reason for the Greek economy's non-developing state.

Seafood restaurants with their delicious menus are lined up on the seafront at Alexandroupoli; I notice that in general their prices were much better compared to Greece. Also keep in mind: whichever city you go to in Greece, you can get discounts by haggling. We are people of the same geography after all.

We see a group of Greeks having a nice chat over some nicely fried fish and salad as we were passing a shabby venue. When they notice that we are foreigners they immediately invite us to join them. Once we tell them that we are Turkish we get a great discount on the fresh Trachurus fish and Greek salad with lots of white cheese. I had some cake on another occasion when we passed by the same place. Greeks are very successful in this respect; they have very delicious cakes, pastries, and cookies.

Our entrance into Turkey is accompanied by the song "Memleketim" which in turn has the whole bus wildly singing along to our country's song. We pass over the Maritza River on the half red-white and half blue-white bridge, waving to the Turkish and Greek soldiers who are on duty.

We always hear how much the Greeks are like us besides the language and religion difference, my friends; but seeing them in their homes, and getting amongst them is an entirely different matter. You should definitely visit Western Thrace whether on a tour like I did or by plane if you wish. You could also go on a Greece-Western Thrace tour by car, like you do Aegean-Mediterranean tours. I had a different experience with every trip and came back with many memories, I hope that I can go back there again in the future.

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