Drama in the Wild Rhodope Mountains: Natterings From Northern Greece on the Looney Front, Part 3

06/21/2015 12:32 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

No, not psycho-drama, nor social drama, but a town in Macedonia at the foot of the Rhodope Mountains about an hour by bus from Kavala -- thus called not for any Thespian reason but apparently shortened from its classical name Hydrama meaning rich in water, which it indeed is.

Drama, a millennia-old town at the foot of 7,323-foot Mt. Falacro, is pleasant if slightly ragged at the edges, and rightly deserves its etymological descent, with streams channelled into waterfalls, rivulets and canals pouring through acres of tree-lined parkland, often overflowing and churning into muddy mini-swamps.



And no, contrary to my usual royaI command performances I do NOT fall flat on my face or arse in the mud - how dare you think that I might!

All this part of Greek Macedonia and neighbouring Thrace was fought over by Greeks, Turks, Bulgars and Serbs since the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, and in World War II Drama and the surrounding region was occupied by pro-German Bulgarian troops.


Another Drama view

On March 4, 1943, the Bulgarians rounded up 4,000 Jews, including 589 from Drama, and sent them by train to Bulgaria and on to Treblinka extermination camp. Not one of Drama's Jews came back.

But it's not for the town or the nearby Macedonian wine country with the 'Wine Roads of Macedonia' signs and the wineries with free samples that Yours Truly has minced his way up here on a late-April off-season trip. Drama is gateway to Rhodope National Park, to visit which I'm now splurging $96.17 on a taxi.


Drama's watery parkland


Another view


And another

At the lower levels the trees are cloaked in white blossoms. Higher up vast swathes of skeletal deciduous trees are just getting dressed in the slightest hint of the fresh-born green of early spring. The individual buds are almost imperceptible; collectively they give a disembodied but unmistakable greenish aura to the bare branches.


Rhodope view at lower level

Hundreds of feet below, the Nestos River threads its winding way through the forested ravine that it has gouged out of the rock over the aeons. At Sideronero it has been dammed to form two large reservoirs against a backdrop of snowy peaks.


Nestos River


Reservoir near Sideronero

We push on higher. The relative bareness of the trees is replaced by the multifold evergreens of pines, including Norwegian spruce, here at the southernmost reach of its range.


Spring awakes in the Rhodope Mountains

This is brown bear and wolf country but we don't see any. We move beyond the hamlet of Skalati towards Elatia, barely a stone's throw from Bulgaria, but a treacherous layer of iced snow covers the road. The driver tries to pass six times going forward and twice in reverse. But it's no go.

Of course, one of the disadvantages of off-season travel, beyond advance-blocking ice sheets, is that the few eateries and drinkeries up here are still closed. And one of the advantages of not driving myself is that I keep on nodding off, coming to with a seismic jerk - which would certainly turn the ride back to Drama dramatic were I in the driver's seat.


Another early spring view

The train from Drama to Xanthi in Thrace is almost an hour late, but the two-hour rail journey is said to be much more scenic than the shorter bus trip. And a magnificent journey it is indeed through the forested valley of the Nestos River.

Picturesque villages of whitewashed houses with red-tiled roofs nestle by their cultivated green fields. The rugged mountainsides rise placidly here rather than dramatically, yellow-streaked grey crags showing through patches in the rich green carpet that cloaks them.


And another Rhodope view

There's greater arboreal variety, too - snobbish poplar-like trees and spruce, their leaves and branches wrapped anally tight round their spindle-shafts, look down snootily on less lofty neighbours that exhibit a more abundant girth and more generous breadth of green as early spring works its wonders at this lower altitude.

Patches of snow still remain corralled in the upper folds, and the peaks on the horizon reach greater heights.


Early spring

The valley narrows into a winding ravine between steep wooded precipices and the train passes through many tunnels. Triangular crags soar to pointed apexes, jagged saw teeth mount the rocky ramparts in tiers, and everywhere the multiple shades of the fresh new-born green of early spring glisten.


Graffiti-daubed train in Drama station

We emerge onto the plains of Thrace, in antiquity home to the non-Greek Thracian civilisation, and ever since a battlefield for Greeks, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Germanic tribes, Bulgars, Slavs, Mongols, Ottomans, and more recently, along with Greek Macedonia, scene of territorial argy-barging between Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey and Serbia-cum-Yugoslavia.


Village church

But in today's brilliant spring sunshine nothing could seem more remote from warfare than the fields of these plains glimmering bright with cultivated emerald and carpets of iridescent yellow flowers.


Early spring in northern Greece


Sunset over Drama


By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.