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  • Writer's pictureGreen Traveller

Culture and Heritage of East Macedonia

Sarah Baxter gets under the skin of the local culture of East Macedonia

Musicians playing traditional rebetika songs at the restaurant-cafe To Oneipo in the silk-making village of Soufli. Photo: Richard Hammond

It was nearing midnight, and a long, warm day was drawing to a close in the Eastern Macedonian village of Soufli. The plates had been scraped of their last delicious morsels – babo sausage, pilau-like pligouri, spicy baked feta. The tsipouro was flowing. And two men at the next table had pulled out their instruments. “The one with the bouzouki is the owner,” local archaeologist Athanassios Gouridis told me as we turned to watch. “I think he only opened the restaurant so he’d have somewhere to play.”

And play he did, sending traditional rebetika songs into the night air, across the rooftops and out over the mulberry trees. “This music is like the blues,” explained Athanassios. “It’s the music of poverty, brought from the east.”

Photo: Richard Hammond

When the men broke into ‘Tis Dikaiosinis Ilie Noite’ – ‘Sun of Justice’, a hymn to Greek freedom – everyone on the terrace (all locals bar me) grew misty-eyed and sang along. Soufli sits on the easternmost reaches of the Rhodope Mountains, right by the Turkish border, close to Bulgaria too; the culture at this crossroads of Europe is complicated, with music, food and heritage all intermixed. But little Soufli has a distinct identity. While it’s off the beaten track – “It’s not only foreign tourists,” admitted Athanassios, “many Greeks don’t know where Soufli is” – it’s starting to be noticed.

In 2021 Soufli was named one of the planet’s Best Tourism Villages by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

This global initiative was launched to shine a spotlight on villages where tourism preserves traditions, celebrates diversity, provides opportunities and safeguards biodiversity. Soufli ticks all those boxes.

This was clear as soon as I arrived at the handsome Hotel Koukouli (meaning ‘cocoon’), a stout stone-and-brick building, formerly one of Soufli’s old silk cocoon houses. Sericulture flourished here from the 19th century; though demand dropped after the Second World War, when cheaper synthetic fabrics boomed, the silk industry continues to shape the town.

Hotel Koukouli was once one of Soufli’s old silk cocoon houses. Photo: Richard Hammond

The best place to begin an exploration of this heritage is at the smart Silk Museum, also occupying an old silk cocoon house.

Here I learned about the lifecycle of the Bombyx mori and the process of harvesting their precious thread – each of these 25g larvae spins an astonishing 2,000 metres of silk.

At Soufli’s Art of Silk Museum, I met the critters themselves – a tray of chalk-white silk worms were munching greedily on mulberry leaves, the only thing they eat.

More eclectic was the Gnafala Folklore Museum, where the Bourouliti family have turned part of their silk shop over to a treasure-trove of items donated by locals, from farming paraphernalia to traditional maternity bracelets. Dimitra Bourouliti also creates jewellery from silk cocoons, and offers earring-making workshops. “It’s important to maintain the folk art – it’s our roots,” she told me, “but also to make something new.”

The Tzivre Factory complex, built in 1909, is in various states of renovation – when finished, hopefully in 2023, it will be a museum, cultural centre and bar. Photo: Richard Hammond

Soufli’s ‘silk route’ is wide-ranging, but also a work in progress. For instance, Athanassios showed me around the Tzivre Factory complex, first built in 1909 and now in various states of renovation – when finished, hopefully in 2023, it will be a museum, cultural centre and bar. The 28m-high chimney still stands, and the vast spinning hall, with its phalanx of original dusty machines, has been restored. In the three-storey cocoon house, we stepped gingerly over dilapidated wooden floors, between the ranks of broken multi-level beds where silk worms were reared – restoring this is the next project.

Kavala's arched Ottoman aqueduct once brought water all the way from the mountains to the city's hilltop citadel. Photo: Richard Hammond

While Soufli still has its silk, the city of Kavala, 200km further west and the main seaport of Eastern Macedonia, has all but lost the industry that made its fortune. Tobacco was the cash-crop here, which saw the port thrive in the 19th century, and wealthy merchants build beautiful, show-off warehouses – it was good for business. Fortunately, the lively city still has plenty to attract the curious traveller, as I discovered with guide Marianna Christoforou. She met me at the stylish Anthemion Hotel, one-time mansion of a Jewish tobacco merchant. The building is lodged in the shadow of the arched Ottoman aqueduct that once brought water from the mountains to Kavala’s hilltop citadel and still cuts a dramatic 25m-high dash through the town.

The view at sunset from the Kavala's Citadel over the rooftops and across the Aegean to the island of Thassos. Photo: Richard Hammond
Marianna led me up to the citadel, around the mazy, ramshackle streets, right to the upper fortress, for views over the rooftops and across the Aegean to the island of Thassos. Then we snacked on local kourabiedes biscuits and ate at a harbourside taverna, where the sardines virtually leapt from sea to plate.

We also explored out of town. On Kavala’s outskirts lies the walled city of Philippi, founded in 356 BC by Macedonian King Philip II on the Via Egnatia, the ancient route linking Europe and Asia. I twirled in its well-preserved theatre, wishing I’d timed my visit for one of the performances still held here. We also visited the nearby Baptistry of Lydia, built on the site where the Apostle Paul baptised the first Christian woman in Europe. The building here now dates from the 1970s, a temple of exquisite mosaics by the river, amid a serenity of plane, poplar and walnut trees. “My grandchildren were baptised here,” Marianna told me as she lit a taper and placed it by Lydia’s effigy. “Many come here on pilgrimage.”

The Baptistry of Lydia, built on the site where the Apostle Paul baptised the first Christian woman in Europe. Photo: Richard Hammond

In antiquity, this whole area was surrounded by swamp land. Now, all that remains of that mire are the Krinides mud baths, were €6 will get you a wellness dose to treat everything from skin diseases to rheumatism. “Doctors give it on prescription – it’s a panacea,”

Marianna told me as we stripped down to disposable knickers and descended, with some effort, into the thick, grey-brown gloop. It was like stirring yourself, naked, in a raw chocolate brownie mix. A mix with little frogs hopping about on the surface…

Groups of women (there are separate baths for the sexes) chattered around us. “It’s a good place to come for gossip,” Marianna said. We gossiped ourselves, talking about the acropolis of Philippi, visible beyond the fence, as well as about her family and life in general. When I hauled myself out, I felt refreshed, taut, even silky. I had gotten a little under the skin of this little-visited side of Greece – and it had certainly gotten under mine.


With thanks to Joysters for facilitating our visit in the summer of 2022.

Read more about what to do, where to stay and eat, in our Green Traveller's Guide to East Macedonia and Thrace


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