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The Mysteries of Greece’s Forgotten Mountain Villages

Life is complicated in Southeast Europe and the remote region of Thrace is certainly no exception

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The Mysteries of Greece’s Forgotten Mountain Villages
The city of Xanthi in northeastern Greece, at the feet of the Rhodope Mountains, on 19 Oct. 2017. (Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

At Greece’s northeastern tip — far removed from the stereotypes of islands, beaches and Zorba — lies the region of Thrace. This remote borderland is home to the country’s Muslim minority, who include the Pomaks, an obscure community living in the isolated villages of the Rhodope Mountains and speaking Pomak, a Slavic language closely related to Bulgarian.

Having emerged as a distinct community during Ottoman times, the Pomaks escaped the Greek-Turkish population exchange of the 1920s but later found themselves victims of Cold War paranoia. During World War II, as the Bulgarian army retreated over the Rhodopes in 1944, the Greek government set up barriers cutting off the Pomak villages from the rest of the country. No one could enter or exit the region without a special passport. It was not until 1995 that the last internal border was dismantled. This half-century of enforced isolation arguably makes the Thrace mountains the least-known and least-traveled region in Europe.

Heading east across the Nestos River — which marks the border between the Greek regions of Macedonia and Thrace — the first large settlement you come to is Xanthi, a vibrant, multicultural city of churches, mosques, neoclassical mansions and top-heavy Ottoman houses. Unlike the mountain villages, the lowlands of Thrace were never cut off from the rest of the country, and life here continued as normal throughout the Cold War. Since the early 2000s, an influx of tourists from the Balkans and Turkey has brought a modest increase in prosperity to Thrace, though it remains one of Greece’s poorest regions.

In Xanthi, I meet for lunch with Betoul, who hails from the mountain village of Echinos and grew up between there and Istanbul. I was interested in hearing about life in the villages, which remain a mystery to many Greeks.

“I was born in 1995, when the last barriers were taken down,” says Betoul. “My parents don’t talk much about it, but I know it was a very difficult time. It kept our villages in a permanent state of underdevelopment. It’s a trauma we’re still recovering from.”

Dissatisfied with the quality of the schools in the region, Betoul’s dad sent her to live with a relative in Istanbul when she was 12. She completed her education there and went on to study modern Greek language and literature at Istanbul University. These days, she lives between Istanbul and Echinos.

“In 1948, when my grandfather was a child, some Greek officials came to the village and said, ‘Why are you speaking Pomak? You’re Turks. You should be speaking Turkish,’” she tells me. “In the 1960s, during the troubles with Cyprus, the Greek officials came back to the village and said, ‘Why are you speaking Turkish? You’re Pomaks. You should be speaking Pomak.’ These kinds of things create a confusion about who we are and what people want from us.”

I soon realized that identity was a sensitive topic in the region, one loaded with the weight of past and current discrimination, poverty, sordid politics, tests of loyalty and accusations of betrayal. Many locals prefer to elide ethnic markers altogether, including Betoul, who doesn’t identify as Pomak. At the end of the day, people just want to live their lives without being used as a political football by different nations.

“It’s a very poor place with not much to do. Usually, the girls are married off from a young age. It used to be 17, but it’s improved now, although it’s rare for a girl in my village to still be unmarried at 30. After that, the men go abroad for work, so the women just hang out at each other’s homes, drink coffee and do embroidery. Each village has different traditional dress for women, and you can tell which village they come from by what they’re wearing.”

The life cycle for men is also fairly routine. After their mandatory military service in the Greek army, most travel to northern Europe to work as ship painters. It’s difficult and dangerous work — six months on, six months off — but the wages go a long way in Thrace. The network is well established and some of the largest businesses in the region are agencies facilitating this work.

Betoul’s adolescence in Istanbul gave her an open-minded outlook on life, and her feelings about her home village are bittersweet. “I love visiting Echinos but it would be difficult to live there again. Not after Istanbul. These days, I’m looking for a job there or in Ankara or Athens. I love both Greece and Turkey and would love to find some work which would involve bridging the two countries.”

I ask Betoul for some tips for my trip the next day into mountainous Xanthi. “Oh, you must go for lunch at Kottani!” she says. “It’s one of the highlights of our region!”

From Xanthi, the mountains rise in strange, crooked formations that look like tidal waves petrified at the point of breaking. I follow the lone road north, through the tight valley of the Kosynthos River. Behind me, the dusty plains of Xanthi gradually fade away as we enter the beguiling world of the Rhodopes.

The Rhodope Mountains are among the most beautiful landscapes in Greece, though few people — Greeks included — ever visit. The area is littered with ruins; not of the ancient variety, but rather those dating from the Cold War: bunkers, walls, crumbling monuments and signs that seem to point to nowhere, giving the area a vaguely Ozymandian feel. If you’re observant, you can even spot remnants of the infamous barriers as you pass them.

Though it’s the height of summer, the area is incredibly green, full of springs, waterfalls and lush valleys. Scattered villages, often obscured by forests, begin to appear, their silvery minarets peeking out like periscopes over the trees.

After 30 minutes, we reach Kentavros, one of the largest villages in the region. It’s a higgledy-piggledy sort of place, with tall, tightly packed houses, dusty squares and streets so narrow you can only pass through them by walking in single file.

At the village cafe — which bears the unexpectedly hipster name of “The Espressonist” — I meet up with Kemal and Achmet, organizers of the Kentavros Youth Festival. A mix of cultural events, including live music from Greece and Turkey, dance, theater, traditional food, embroidery and handicraft, it attracts thousands of visitors every August. The festival was founded in 1996 as a way to provide opportunities for young people in the area and promote the cultural heritage of a region that had been sealed off from the rest of the world for so long.

“During the Cold War, there was no development here — we were left to stagnate,” says Kemal. “Since the barriers came down, things have improved a lot. But we are still 50 years behind the rest of Greece. The lack of contact with the outside world really hindered us.”

The festival’s board is elected annually and — according to its charter — must comprise at least 30% high schoolers and 30% women. Money raised during the festival is invested back into Kentavros. Recently, a beautiful old mansion was restored into a folklore museum, while another has been turned into a library, stocked full of Turkish and Greek books.

“Education was very poor up here. … My mother still has a lot of difficulty reading,” says Achmet. “So, every summer we run free classes at the library to help adults with literacy problems.”

The pair lead me to the village mosque, a grandiose building covered in blue mosaics and curlicues, with a needle-thin minaret projecting into the sky. Founded in 1562, it’s the oldest mosque in the Xanthi mountains.

“This mosque was bombed by the Bulgarians during World War II,” says Kemal. “Luckily, there was enough left that we could restore it afterwards.”

The Bulgarian occupation, which lasted from 1941 to 1944, was notorious for its level of brutality, including the massacre and expulsion of thousands of Greeks and the deportation of the region’s Jews to the Treblinka extermination camp.

What was the occupation like in Kentavros? I ask.

“Very bad,” says Kemal. “My grandma lived through it. The Bulgarians insisted we were Bulgarian, but they didn’t want us practicing our faith. I think that’s why they bombed the mosque. They also wanted to marry all the girls to Bulgarian soldiers. Over several nights, the imam secretly took all the girls to the mountain and married them to local boys. Before the Bulgarians realized what was happening, the girls had now become off-limits. I think this act saved our village.”

The mosque is currently undergoing its second restoration since the war, but progress is slow and they have had to raise the money themselves. “I wish the state would help,” says Achmet. “We’re citizens too.”

I was curious to learn more about Pomak, one of Europe’s most obscure languages. It has no standard form, no alphabet and is not taught in schools. Some speakers consider it a dialect rather than a language, though this again touches on the sensitive issue of identity.

How close is Pomak to Bulgarian? I ask.

“Well, with the villages in southern Bulgaria, it’s easy to communicate. It’s the same language,” says Achmet. “In Plovdiv, it was more difficult, but we could just about manage. In Sofia, however, it was a disaster. We couldn’t understand anyone. Luckily, we found a guy from southern Bulgaria who was able to translate for us. Recently, I went to Croatia and was surprised by how much I could understand. It was really interesting.”

“I had the same experience in Sarajevo,” Kemal chimes in. “Bosnian is much closer to Pomak than what they speak in Sofia.”

So, what languages do you use in the village?

“Mostly Turkish and Greek, sometimes Pomak. Depends on the situation. My grandma, for instance, can only speak Pomak,” says Kemal.

Not even Greek or Turkish?

He shrugs. “She never went to school and has basically never left the village.”

I was struck by Achmet and Kemal’s desire to do something positive for the region, particularly through the medium of cultural exchange. “Erasmus was a life-changing experience for me,” says Kemal. (Erasmus is a European student exchange program that promotes cultural interaction.) “My dream is to start an Erasmus program here, inviting people from different countries to Xanthi and then getting locals to participate in different programs in Europe. To show folks here that abroad is not just for work, that there are benefits to be gained from cultural exchanges too.”

They ask me where I’m heading next.

To Kottani, I reply.

“Oh wow, you’re in for a treat,” they say. “Say hi to Tzemil for us.”

Beyond Kentavros, the landscape becomes more severe, though no less beautiful. The endless green mountains, ravines and rivers, the occasional lush meadow and the curious sights of minarets — something largely absent from other parts of Greece — keep drawing me further into the region.

We enter Thermes, which is actually three villages named Ano (Upper), Meses (Middle) and Kato (Lower) Thermes, despite the fact they all seem to be at the same elevation. Their bathhouse and old Sufi tekke, or order hall, have recently been restored and a new border crossing with Bulgaria, inaugurated in 2010, has helped considerably in opening up the region. In Kato Thermes, there’s a surprise: Carved into a rock is a relief of Mithras killing a bull, dating from the second century. The remarkable relic bears witness that the Romans really did get everywhere.

We pass Medousa — a fragile bird’s nest of a village that looks as if it could blow away at any moment — and continue onto our destination of Kottani. At a certain point, the tarmac cuts out, and we’re left with a bumpy dirt road — 4 miles of it — with a sheer drop down one side. Our faith in the existence of this village begins to wane on this long trail that feels as if it only exists to trick you, but then suddenly it emerges — mirage-like — out of the steep terrain.

There is a case to be made that Kottani has the most beautifully sited taverna in Greece. It sits on a precipice at the end of a blind valley, surrounded by mountains, above a lush river canyon stalked by wild horses. Across from the taverna, on another precipice, lies the village of Kottani, a baker’s dozen of houses clustered around a tall, white mosque.

Tzemil Chaliloglou, the taverna’s cheery, indefatigable owner, greets us at the entrance. Born and raised in Kottani, he opened it in 2008 with his wife Mouzgen, having spent five years renovating it using local materials. “People thought I was crazy,” he says. “To open a taverna here, at the edge of the world.”

It runs in the family. His daughter has her own restaurant in England: not in London or another large city, but in the provincial market town of Bury St Edmunds. “Cafe Kottani!” he screams. “Best Greek food in Bury St Edmunds! You must go next time you’re there.”

I assure him I will.

Seated at the edge of the cliff, I find myself captivated by Kottani and its perfectly preserved 300-year-old houses. Tzemil catches my eye and points at the tallest of the peaks overlooking the village. “That mountain is in Bulgaria,” he says.

Soon the food arrives. A platter of coal-cooked meats and some peculiarly Rhodopian dishes, such as Patetnik (a kind of potato omelet), Greek salad and Turkish Hunkar Begendi, an originally Ottoman dish of lamb and smoked eggplant, all washed down with some delicious rose wine. It’s the kind of rustic food that puts a smile on your face; within moments of tasting the platter, we knew the journey had been worth it.

Life was tough growing up, Tzemil tells me. There was no road connecting Kottani to the rest of Greece, only a mule path. Winters could get as cold as minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit. And, of course, there were the barriers. “The barriers were unpleasant. We couldn’t enter or leave after the 10 p.m. curfew, even for medical emergencies,” he says sorrowfully. “But that’s all in the past now.”

In the 1980s, the villagers abandoned Kottani, but returned in 1998 when a road was finally built. Today, Tzemil and his wife are one of three families remaining in the village.

I stare at the minaret in the distance.

Do you go to the mosque? I ask.

“Yeah sometimes,” he replies.

Is there an imam in the village?

“The imam won’t come unless we pay him,” says Tzemil, in a tone that suggests I should be as outraged as he is. “Instead, he gave me this CD which plays the call to prayer five times a day.”

Inside, the taverna doubles as a museum of local life and folklore. “I was born and raised in this house,” says Tzemil. “Although we eventually moved down to Xanthi, my grandparents lived here until the end. I’ve preserved the upper floors exactly as they were.” He also shows me a prize he recently won from the Greek Cuisine Awards, which ranked Kottani as the best restaurant in the province of Xanthi. “I feel optimistic,” he says with a laugh. “This taverna could help revive the village. But we need the state to tarmac the road. We ask our mayor every year. But they won’t tarmac it for only three families.”

Before I leave, Tzemil has a favor to ask me. “By the way, a few days ago my two dogs ran away to Bulgaria. They’ve been found, but the guards won’t let them back into Greece without their vaccination certificates. I have their passports with the certificates here. On your way back to Xanthi, could you give them to my friend Mechmet in Kato Thermes so he can take them to the border and show the guards?”

I ponder this information for a few moments.

“Yes OK,” I say. “So will Mechmet be waiting for me? How will I find him?”

“Yes, he’s waiting for you in the main square. I just spoke to him on the phone.”

Back down the bumpy road we go, past Medousa and into Kato Thermes. I get out and look around the square. There’s no one here.

Confused, I wander around for a while, expecting him to be waiting for me in some shadowy corner. But after a full circuit of the square, I fail to unearth any signs of life. It’s time for Plan B.

“MECHMET!” I scream at the top of my lungs. “MECHMET, I HAVE THE DOGS’ PASSPORTS.”

Just then, an elderly gentleman appears from a balcony. “No need to shout, I’m coming down,” he says. I hand him the two passports. He thanks me, then wanders back inside.

My good deed done for the day, I climb into the car and head back to Xanthi.

Life is complicated in Greece and Thrace is certainly no exception. The region is closer in distance to Istanbul and Sofia (and even Bucharest) than to Athens. The Muslim minority sends three MPs to the Greek Parliament, but Thrace remains isolated from the political mainstream, maligned as a “problem region” whose minority and fractious border are the source of incessant wrangling between Greece and Turkey.

Yet, up here, in the once-forbidden mountains, among the formerly forgotten villages, home to some of the nicest people you’re likely to meet, those disputes seemed very far away indeed.

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