Alexandroupoli - Avantas castle. (Photo by Stamatina Mylonas)
Right along the edge of the Greece’s eastern border is the city of Alexandroupoli. The border loosely follows the path of the Maritsa river that separates Greece and Turkey. Alexandroupoli is about forty-five kilometers from the Kipi Border Crossing on the main highway. Its proximity to Turkey has influenced the city’s founding and evolution, especially from the 19th century onward until today. This region of Greece is known as Thrace. Part of Thrace is controlled by Turkey and the region borders Bulgaria to the north. After Greece won its independence in 1821, a string of wars and battles ensued among these border neighbors. Claims to Alexandroupoli went back and forth between Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey until the invasions and occupations stopped and the city was officially proclaimed as a part of Greece in 1944.
The modern city was founded in the 19th century under the Ottomans, who used it as a settlement for the productive fishing industry as well as a trading port. A railroad was later constructed to connect Alexandroupoli to Constantinople, which helped to make the city a major destination and industrial area. Since the city was under Ottoman control during the 19th century, it was targeted by enemies of the Ottomans such as the Russians. A Russian occupation and battle influenced how the infrastructure of the city was laid out. The Russian invaders constructed the streets in parallel straight lines that made it easier for troops to maneuver. This roadway patterns dominate the historic center of Alexandroupoli, and they stick out on a map amongst the newer, more winding streets in town.
In terms of age, Alexandroupoli is a brand new Greek city – an infant compared to cities like ancient Athens. It was established in the 19th century, but despite its young age as a city, it lives in a neighborhood that holds an immense amount of history. Throughout Greece’s eastern region, the evidence of ancient civilizations and movements through Thrace and the smaller region of Evros is significant because this was a main point of entry into the Black Sea. Alexandroupoli and the Evros region where it is located are along what was and still is a strategic trade route for goods.
Surrounding Alexandroupoli are ancient ruins like the Mesimvria Zoni settlement and its Temple of Apollo. There are also the ruins of Ancient Doriscus along the Greek border on the Maritsa river.
Thrace was home to an ancient civilization known as the Thracians. These people were regarded as skilled fighters but they also produced great music and poetry.
Eventually Thrace was absorbed into the Hellenic world, but its culture and identity was constantly under threat, however, as invaders like the Persians and the Romans attacked in order to bring the region under their control. The Romans constructed the ancient highway known as the Via Egnatia. This road traveled across the landmass that separated the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, crossing all of Thrace’s southern coast until reaching to the Greece’s west coast that faces Italy. This road allowed people to easily travel through Thrace and its settlements, which caused many people to move there.
The invasions and wars that continued on until WW II had an effect on the population of Alexandroupoli, shaping it to be a more diverse place. In the modern city there are primarily communities of Greek, Turkish, and Bulgarian people. Alexandroupoli is the capital city of the eastern border region Evros and has a population of just over 50,000 people who have a permanent residence there. The main industries in the city and its greater region are its marine port and tobacco production fields. It is a seaside city located in a valley between mountain ranges to the east and west. The nearby border with Turkey lies in the low valley of the ancient Evros River, which Turkey calls the Maritsa. The border with Bulgaria is hidden along the mountains and forests of northern Greece.
There is a great amount of natural beauty around Alexandroupoli, like the National Park of Dadia forest, which is about an hour’s drive north of the city. Like most of the other forests in Greece, the trees are primarily pine, with patches of oak trees, small shrubs, and wild flowers scattered about the national park. This dense forest separates two continents and shields a portion of the eastern border of Greece. It is also home to a variety of protected wildlife species, particularly birds native to Europe like vultures and eagles. Within the forest and among its rivers and streams there are also reptile, mammal, and insect species.
There are places to get connected with nature that are close to the city as well. Alexandroupoli is at the foot of the Evros mountain range, so there is a selection of hiking trails along the hillsides that surround the city. Hidden along these forested mountain paths you may find sights like a collection of churches built within meters of each other. Near one of the major roads leading into the city, there are the ruins of two castles, the castles of Potamos and of Avantas. Built during medieval times, they have a characteristic look – like the tall well-preserved towers of Potamos and the archways of Avantas.
The islands near Alexandroupoli’s shores are just as secluded and full of natural beauty. From the main commercial port of Alexandroupoli there are ferry boat routes for the northern Aegean islands of Samothraki and Thasos. These islands are generally less crowded and are known for their diverse natural environments. Samothraki is a prized location for hiking and mountain climbing on the untouched and wild Mount Saos. Through the ages, islands like Samothraki were used for religious worship and celebrations, usually in a temple built atop the mountains.
The natural beauty of Alexandroupoli and its surrounding areas are enhanced by their remote location. The city is surrounded primarily by mountains on its north and west sides, the sea to the south, and a national border along the river to the east. In order to reach Alexandroupoli from other major Greek cities you may fly, take a ferry, or ride the train. There are all the necessary amenities for travelers as well as modern luxuries. Industrial Alexandroupoli is still an important trading route and sea port connecting Europe to Asia and the Middle East. It has been a gateway and a gathering place since antiquity. The way it is situated between seas and continents has helped the city to become a melting pot of cultures.
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