Cover Photo: Xanthi Old Town, Photographer: Ioannis Houvardas
Xanthi (also translit. as Ksanthi) was a city I first visited back in High School and I thought I would never get to see again. Destiny had other plans, however… Many years later I got on a bus destined to Xanthi in my military uniform; this quaint, provincial and multi-cultural town in Thrace was meant to be my hometown for six months.
I always had a soft spot for Thrace. Its strong Muslim element, deep-rooted traditions, rich nature and a convenient proximity to both Bulgaria and Turkey always made it seem like a melting pot highly reminiscent of the real Balkans. Xanthi, a major cultural and economic center of the area was nothing but the perfect stage for all the above.
The six months I spent in town were marked by many frustrating, lonely but also funny moments. Many of them would make for great stories that might be shared in the future through this blog. In summary I would say my time memorable in one way or the other. Although the tight military schedule did not allow for much roaming in the wider area, I did manage to explore the city and gather different impressions of what it has to offer to the visitor.
Contrary to other Greek cities, not much has been documented about Xanthi’s ancient past. The city became more prominent around Byzantine times as a stage of influence shifts between Greeks and Ottomans.
It wasn’t before the 18th century that Xanthi got under the spotlight: its top quality tobacco brought a lot of wealth to the city, giving rise to strong commercial families and bridging Thrace with distant economic hubs in Central Europe. After an earthquake that flattened the city, its reconstruction began immediately. The new city grew even faster than before, thanks to the introduction of the railway.
The Balkan and World Wars brought Xanthi under Bulgarian administration. The city was captured by the Greeks shortly after WWI, only to be returned to the Bulgarians by the Axis forces. The Paris Peace Treaty settled the status of the city, securing it as a part of the modern Greek state.
A panorama of the city from the local mahala (Muslim quarter)
Xanthi, alongside the rest of Greek Thrace, is special for the fact that it was excluded from the 1922-1923 population exchange treaty between Greece and Turkey. As a result, about one third of the city’s contemporary population is Muslim. The local Muslim minority is very diverse, comprising of families of Turkish, Roma and Pomak background.
Xanthi is accessible by bus or train from Athens, Thessaloniki and other major Greek cities. The trip by bus lasts about 9 hours from Athens and 2.5 from Thessaloniki. The railway connection is cheaper but more time consuming, around 13 hours from Athens and 5 from Thessaloniki.
Train tickets are available online and start from as low as 19€ one way from Athens and 7.2€ from Thessaloniki (these prices are for prebookings online and for a limited number of seats). You might qualify for discounts and special prices for groups, students and seniors. Train tickets are also available at the train station, however at a slightly higher price.
Bus tickets can also be purchased online from/to Athens and Thessaloniki. For other routes you need to inquire at a bus station. Ticket prices vary depending on the company and if the ticket is one way or return. For the sake of comparison a one-way ticket from Athens can cost up to 65€, whereas one from Thessaloniki 20€.
Xanthi does not have an airport. The closest airport is Kavala (KVA) with daily routes from and to Athens International Airport. From there there are few buses per day and many taxis that can take you to Xanthi.
Things to do
Kosynthos River as seen from the Limnio Park
Xanthi is renowned for its carnival festivities, which attract 100,000 annual visitors from across the Balkans. Celebrations start with big parades and continue with hours of partying, drinking and dancing. The whole city transforms for the carnival, which is a huge part of its identity. It is celebrated in February but the dates are not fixed, as they are tied with the moving Easter holidays.
Visitors can also attend reenactments of local traditions, concerts, games and sports events. All these are evenly spread throughout a longer two-week period.
If you plan to visit the city for the carnival, please be proactive and book in advance. The city’s accommodation reaches full capacity during that period and hotel prices tend to skyrocket. Also, if you are visiting from a bigger city make sure to pre-book your bus/train tickets or rent a car for the occasion.
For those of you who have a good grasp of Greek (or trust Google Translate) you can access the official website of the event here.
Old Town Festival
Another major event, the Old Town Festival is held annually in early September. Organised by local cultural and other groups, it lasts for about a week and features tents and stands with local food and drinks, as well as multiple cultural events, concerts and folk dance demonstrations.
Similarly to the Carnival, be smart and book your hotel and transport well in advance.
More information and pictures from the event can be found here (unfortunately only in Greek)
One of the oldest traditions, hailing back to the 15th century, the local Bazaar is held every Saturday. It has traditionally been so popular with the locals, that buses run from nearby towns on Saturdays with the sole purpose to make it accessible to everyone.
The visitor can find literally everything; from fresh fruit and vegetables to clothes, shoes and toys, the bazaar is a unique collection of colors, flavors and faces.
Folk History Museum of Xanthi
Founded in 1975 and housed in a 19th century mansion, this museum feels like a journey back in time. Learn more about the tobacco business that once made the city prosperous and how it affected local education and culture.
The entrance fee is a couple of euros. The museum staff speak English and are very knowledgeable. Feel free to approach them for a mini tour or any specific questions you have.
Read more about the museum and its exhibitions here.
The city is a good hub to explore the wider area of Thrace. The picturesque Porto Lagos with its beautiful lake and chapel is the ideal scenery to enjoy a walk, coffee or plan a photoshoot and lies just 45 minutes away. For the lovers of bird-watching, the area is known to attract a wide variety of endemic species.
If you love nature, the Delta of the Nestos river is only a 45-minute drive away towards Kavala. Local clubs can help you enjoy sports and activities like biking, cayaking, rafting and horseriding. Ask your hotel reception for more information.
For those who prefer urban environments, Kavala and Komotini are two major cities reachable within the hour. Kavala is a coastal city with a beautiful promenade and an impressive Ottoman fort, whereas Komotini is landlocked with a strong Oriental character and a vibrant student scene, as it is home to some of the country’s biggest university departments.
Food & Drink
Below: Xanthi Clock Tower on the main square / Photographer: Y. Papachatzakis
Xanthi is known for its eating culture, combining Greek and Oriental elements. I was always surprised by the quality of street food, popular with people of all ages. Thraka and Ta Filarakia are two of the most popular joints in this category, offering different versions of pita, as well as other dishes.
Tavernas are very popular in Xanthi, as they are the perfect place to hang out with friends. Palea Polis is one of my favourite places, also recommended by most of the locals. They offer amazing grilled dishes with locally-produced meats, as well as delicious appetizers.
As if all the above was not enough, Xanthi’s biggest asset is its cafes. Being the seat of the local Polytechnic school, cafes are very popular with students throughout the day. During their time off privates and other military personnel also frequent them. Most are centrally located in the picturesque old town. If I could pick out three, that would have to be: Aeriko for its tasty drinks, decoration and overall vibe. La Mariposa for its cakes, collection of books and music choices. Favela Chic for people watching, a great selection of snacks and free cookies with your tea/coffee.
Last visited: May 2016
Local name: Ξάνθη
Calling Code: +30
Timezone: EET (+2)
Emergency Numbers: 100 – Police, 166 – Medical Emergency, 199 – Fire Brigade, 171 – Tourist Police, 191 – Forest Service