Impressions of West & Central Makedonia, Greece
Only well into the 20th century the Northern regions of Makedonia and Thrace (Thraki) were added to Greece's territory after a long period of complex and chaotic wars, first the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913, then the Great War which destroyed all Europe from 1914 and 1918, and finally the Greek-Turkish war which lasted from 1919 to 1922. Each time, borders were moved up and down, involving Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey. The scars of the human dramas behind it all are still visible, in the villages, some abandoned and some newly established after people had to move out or in because they belonged to this or that ethnicity, in the ruins of castles and fortresses which were defended or conquered. Hardly anywhere else one comes to grip with the complexity of the Balkans more directly than in these Northern Greek regions. Does the 'K' in Thessaloniki's soccer team PAOK not stand for 'Konstantinoupolites', founded in 1926 by the community of Greek refugees, expelled from Istanbul, as part of a population exchange between Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria, which uprooted nearly 2,5 million people from their family's homeland?
But there is also a less tragic side, the glory of the Makedonian Kingdom of Philippos II and his son Alexander the Great, who brought Greek culture to the outer borders of the then known world. Archaeological sites like Vergina and Pella speak for themselves of splendour and grandeur. A grandeur which went on in Byzantine times in Thessaloniki, the Empire's second most important city after Constantinople, just as it is now Greece's second most important city after Athens. And not only Thessaloniki! Byzantium also thrived in cities like Kastoria and Veroia, so intensely that it actually lives on until today in the architecture and atmosphere of their historical centres.
Nature in this part of Greece speaks less of the Mediterranean than of the continental Balkans; there are more loaf woods than pine forests, more mountain lakes than seaside marinas, from the Prespes to Kastoria, adding to the particularity and the 'different feel' which is yours to absorb while visiting. So, welcome to the North of Greece, where we concentrate for now on West and Central Makedonia.
Before visiting the place of your choice:
Grevena is a small provincial town in the valley of the Aliakmon River, the geographical backbone of Western Makedonia. The city is well known for its centuries old tradition of 'mushroom hunting', the collection of wild mushrooms which can be found here in hundreds of edible varieties. Restaurants with menu cards of several pages of mushroom preparations, shops selling sweets on the basis of mushrooms, squares with mushroom statues, you name it. On the outskirts of the city, several 18th century Ottoman bridges over the Aliakmon's Venetikos tributary remind us that this area remained under Turkish rule until the First Balkan War of 1912. Also on the outskirts of Grevena is the interesting Natural History Museum, displaying paleontological finds made in the 1990s and more recently, of tusks and skeletons of mammoths which roamed the area 3 to 4 million years ago.