Thrace – the paradise that only Turks know

By | Category: Travel destinations
Inside the Dupnisa Cave

Inside the Dupnisa Cave

Some of the most fought after areas in the old Roman world are to be found in what used to be called Thrace.

Over centuries, it was a region disputed by kings and emperors over centuries, witnessing changing civilizations of people from Thracian tribes, Romans, Germanic tribes to Ottoman Turks.

Today, Thrace is positioned in the south-east of Europe with its boundaries extending into modern day Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece. Thrace comprises the Balkan Mountains in the north and extends through the Rhodope Mountains and the Aegean Sea in the south and goes as far as the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara in the east.

at the side of the road you can by local produce including vegetables, fruit and honey.

at the side of the road you can by local produce including vegetables, fruit and honey.

Eastern Thrace is located in the European part of Turkey as part of the Marmara Region. This region incorporates the provinces of Sakarya and Istanbul in the east into the city of Edirne in the west, which is neighbored by Bulgaria.

The Trakya Development Agency, Trakya being the Turkish word for Thrace, was my host as I explored this little-known (at least to British visitors today) holiday destination.

Beginning my day with a traditional Turkish breakfast in the nearby Barbare Vineyards – yes, this is a wine-producing area of Turkey –my meal was sourced from the farmlands beneath the Ganos Mountains. The table was set nicely with crispy bread, organic honey, home-made jams, green and black olives and different types of local cheese.

the countryside around Kirkarli

the countryside around Kirklarli

My journey in Thrace started through the green countryside from where I could see vineyards, rolling hills and, oddly enough, dense forests in this area of Turkey known as Tekirdag. It was so rural that it was hard to believe that I was only a two hour drive from Istanbul. This part of Turkey has not been overrun by tourists, yet some of the sights would draw many more here if they knew about it. It has beautiful coastlines, a vast array of historical monuments that date from prehistoric times through Greek, Roman and Byzantine times all the way through to the modern era.

Thrace’s secrets do not just lie behind millennia of history, it is also lush in agricultural products harvested from the hectares of farmlands, grows sunflowers and produces wines from the many vineyards that shelter in the lee of the green hills.

Kirklarli from the surrounding mountains

Kirklarli from the surrounding mountains

As we drove through winding roads up into the mountains, we snaked along the coastline of the Marmara Sea and, in the distance, could make out Marmara Island, an historical treasure of Turkey, which is renowned for the marble quarried here that has been used to adorn mosques and palaces. Then, around a corner, came a spectacular view of blue sea, sandy beaches, birds, fishing boats and small wooden fly-fishing huts all nested within a natural backdrop of high green hills. These hotspots near the village of Yenikoy are also very popular for hiking and paragliding enthusiasts.

We headed towards Ucmakdere village and, just before entering the main square, stopped in front of a fountain opposite a massive plane tree. I was told that the tree is over 400 years old and, here, a 95 years old man talked to us about the history of the tree and the village. A mosque with a single minaret stood next to a tea house. There is still a decaying house with flabby roofs and broken windows in the village which used to belong to a Greek priest as, once in history, this area was predominantly Greek speaking.

Ucmakdere village

Ucmakdere village

In a typical Mediterranean scene, wrinkle-faced old men sat around the tea house and village shops. Some of them drank tea and played cards, chess or other games to pass the time. Village life, with only 200 residents, is slowly fading away through the exodus of the youth to big cities. But those that remained were very friendly and welcoming, many greeting visitors with open arms and offering us tea and coffee to enjoy as we sat in a small garden under vine trees outside the tea house.

time for tea?

time for tea?

I walked through the village, looking with amusement at the wooden and stone houses. Small gardens were full of overladen pomegranate shrubs. Nearby, hanging vine trees in a preserved natural setting were found within the forest. The village was purposefully concealed from the sea to protect it from pirates in the past. The seclusion and peacefulness of the village, a desirable resting place for hikers who are heading to the summit of Ganoz Mountains, is just a hidden paradise which needs to be rediscovered.

We continued our voyage through the forest alongside the high mountains to reach the small town of Sarkoy to have our lunch. This small town also sits on the Sea of Mamara and has a striking lighthouse there to protect fishing boats and other vessels from the submerged rocks. Today it is also a very popular holiday destination for Turks in the summer. Today, there are no signs of holidaymakers, but fishermen were hard at work on net repairs or gutting and preparing the morning’s catch. In between work, they kept the local tea houses active.

preparing dinner

preparing dinner

We stopped too but not just for tea. The chef of Balickname restaurant served us with a variety of tasty starters combined with olives and healthy salads before we ordered our main course. One of the most popular traditional Turkish dishes is Kofteh (little meat balls made of beef or lamb), but as we were so close to the sea, I chose to have fish fresh from those men who had ventured out before dawn. I ordered a grilled seabass.

We left the beauty of the glorious Marmara Sea behind and moved back towards the mountains. It was a long drive going through the countryside to the Istranca mountains carpeted, once again, with vast vineyards before reaching our resting place for the night in the Bakucha Hotel and Spa, 45 minutes from Kırklareli, the capital of Kırklareli Province in Eastern Thrace. As with most Turkish hotels, it has its traditional Turkish hamam, but Bakucha is different for it sits in its own 200 hectares of the Arcadia Vineyards estate. The hotel entrance is within a stone tower, which resembles an ancient castle of Edirne which no longer exists. From the top of the tower, there is a scenic view of the vast lands which extends to the very far horizon of the Istranca Mountains.

at the archaeological site

at the archaeological site

From here there are many attractions for the visitor such as the Dupnisa Cave, Longoz forest of the Istranca Mountains and the historical city of Edirne with its old wooden houses and bridges. It also has an old hospital from the Ottoman era but its crowning glory are the many mosques including Selimiye Mosque, a masterpiece by the architect Sinan, who is mostly known for his many monumental designs in Ottoman era.

Near Kirklareli, you can also visit the Asagipinar archeological site where ancient settlements from 6000 BC and beyond have been found. On site, replicas have been made of ancient life, their houses and tools.

a wooden building

one of the old wooden buildings

It was an interesting educational exhibition of life in the Stone Age. I had a short stop there to visit the museum. This yellowish building, built during the Ottoman era in 1894, houses natural history specimens, tools, handmade sculptures, coins and many other ancient archaeological artifacts that were found nearby.

One of my best experiences in Thrace was a visit to the Dupnisa Cave near the villages of Sarpdere and Demirkoy close by the Bulgarian border. To get there requires time and patience as the road is narrow and winding but, in Autumn, the turning leaves provide a picturesque forest. I felt we were floating into the fantasy world of an intriguing painting as there was an explosion of green, red, orange, purple and yellow. Who says you should go to New England for Autumn leave fall? Come to Thrace instead.

the entrance to the Dupnisa caves

the entrance to the Dupnisa caves

Deep in the forest by the steep mountain we reached the site of three interconnected caves known as the Dupnisa Cave. Inside there are three kilometres of winding trails running through very low and high ceilings set in two floors.

Erosion over million years has created natural galleries of small and giant columns, pillars and spikes with a variety of weird and eerie figures built up from hydrologic properties. There is a freshness in the caves due to a running stream from underground spring water. Despite all this, the caves were easily accessible, fitted with wooden walkways and secure stairways under very clearly marked lighting.

Why do so few people go to Thrace? Because it is largely unknown to our major tour operators. It deserves more visitors and I, for one, cannot wait to come back again to explore its beauty and history.

For more information about Thrace and Turkey, visit http://www.gototurkey.co.uk/?s=Thrace or click here.

Images and story © Mohammed Reza Amirinia

For more images of the Thrace region visit www.amirinia.com/turkey or click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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