After 9 years of working for Sunvil in the UK and Greece I thought that I had a reasonable knowledge of both the Greek islands and the mainland. However, when Noel asked me recently to go and do some research in Drama I said “yes please” and “thank you” and then had to do a quiet internet search to find out where I was being sent…
I now know that it is a town located 150km from Thessaloniki , towards the border with Bulgaria, in a largely unknown area of the mountainous north east of Greece.
A brief internet search prior to departure gave some information about the town and surrounding area but none of it did justice to the beauty and charm of what I discovered during my 4 day journey through the region.
There are now very few areas of Greece that can be genuinely described as “off the beaten track” but the Drama area is an interesting and intriguing exception.
Our flight was met by the affable local agents who drove us the 90 minutes from Thessaloniki airport (daily flights from the UK) to the town. We passed inland lakes, saw the remnants of autumn colour on the hill-sides and admired the clear bright blue winter sky.
Our first stop was a local taverna in the town of Drama which was full of vibrant lunch-time diners. The first surprise was the menu which was full of unusual regional specialities. This area of Greece was colonised by the Turks until the 1913 liberation, and also accepted a huge number of Turkish Greeks during the population exchange of 1923. This means that there is a strong “Asia Minor” influence in the cooking. The menu included a good range of fish dishes as the port of Kavala is not far away and some wonderful local wines from nearby prize-winning vineyards.
It was the sort of lunch that you dream of – a never-ending flow of dishes, served as they were ready, a fabulous mixture of flavours and aromas… a true example of Greek hospitality and generosity. The restauranteurs were keen that we knew exactly what had been served, explaining the dishes as they arrived, and very sweetly writing a list in English of what we had eaten to take away with us.
After a lunch of this proportion, I was grateful for a nice Greek siesta …
Later that day our hosts revealed why they wanted us to see Drama at this time of year – the town centre is transformed into a Christmas village during December, complete with millions of fairy lights, stalls selling local products (from hot honey nuts to a gloopy kind of gluwein) and the obligatory Santa’s House. It is many years since I have been photo-ed with Father Christmas ….. This festive event is organised and run by 1000 volunteers and has real community focus during December. There were many huge, happy parties of local people strolling around and getting into the mood.
Of course, all this cold weather and exercise meant that we had worked up an appetite and were soon enjoying another extraordinary meal, again cooked in the “Oriental Greek” style and accompanied by a bouzouki band playing music that sounded more Indian than Greek , and an undulating belly dancer …
The next day we headed off to find out a bit more about this undiscovered region. What I saw left me feeling ‘all fired up’ about what the area has to offer, and excited to spread the word about all the options. The most surprising thing is that the area has some unexpected wildlife – including bears, wolves and wild boar. I never imagined that Greece had a native bear population! Apparently they are never seen outside of the ‘virgin forest’, which is the pristine area near the border with Bulgaria. Other flora and fauna include over 180 species of butterfly and rare mountain orchids. We stopped at the Natural History Museum at the village of Paranesti , where there were informative displays about the wildlife of the area.
The area is also excellent for those who enjoy outdoor activities – some quite extreme. These include ski-ing, mountaineering, mountain biking, rafting and hang gliding… there are many small local companies who want to share their knowledge and enthusiasm with tourists. For those who prefer their activities to be slightly ‘tamer’ there are miles of walking routes and trails through the region, including a section of the E6 European Hiking Path.
The area is also a famous wine region and the local wineries are in the process of finalising a Wine Route that will be similar to the one in South Africa and which will connect 7 of the main vineyards. We spent a happy couple of hours in the company of the urbane Nico Lazaridi who not only explained the wine production process but who also showed us his collection of original art in the “wine label gallery” and then lead a wine tasting. To be honest, no-one was keen to spit the wine out – it seemed such a waste …
Our last night was spent at a small boutique hotel called (in translation) The Field of Uncle Thanasis, and known locally as The Aloni. This hotel was build 7 years ago on land owned by the eponymous uncle. The sense of family is evident everywhere in the hotel, with its homely feel and quirky personal heirlooms in every room. I admired the textiles on the floors and walls, and said I was sorry not to have had time to go shopping for things like this. Angelos, the hotel owner, laughed and said that I would not find such items for sale, as these were made by his grandmother. Likewise the liqueurs, jams and preserves and bread were all home made by his wife’s mother and the cooking was regional and excellent. The hotelier subscribes to the Slow Food movement, which believes that food should be local and seasonal, and should not be rushed but enjoyed slowly and in good company. Our Sunday afternoon was spent enjoying such a meal – followed by a nice cosy period of relaxation by the open fire … bliss.
Other delights included a WW2 bunker with underground tunnels spreading off in many directions, 500m of caves with spectacular stalagtites and a stroll round the old town of Drama, looking at the crystal clear waters of the springs which bubble up in the central lake. Some of the old houses in the town are being developed and turned into elegant bars and nightclubs. One of my best memories of the trip was the genuine “old school” hospitality of the locals, some coming out of their small shops to greet us and offer a taste of local honey, nuts or a tangerine from a fruit display. It was reminiscent of the ‘filoxenia’ that used to characterise a holiday In Greece… very traditional, genuine and a welcome surprise .
If I had to highlight anything other than the regions’s friendliness I would have to say that it was the opportunity to try different styles of cooking, and all the culinary specialities. My favourite memory is the “signature dessert” that was served in one village restaurant. It was presented in a long narrow wooden dish – 2.20m long – and filled with homemade yogurt and topped with local honey, homemade preserves, nuts and fresh fruit. When it appeared I was at the point of saying that I couldn’t eat another thing … however, I succumbed to temptation and even moved down the table to eat more of this most lovely and delicious offering… wonderful.
I highly recommend a visit to this undiscovered region, and think it will appeal to discerning Grecophiles who want to have a genuinely different experience. Sunvil is planning to offer holidays in this area in combination with the Olymbiada region, and also in combination with Thessaloniki.
Please call Janine in Reservations for further information. 020 8758 4758