Where Orpheus Played -- And Lost His Lyre, Love and Life: Natterings From Northern Greece on the Looney Front, Part 4

06/28/2015 09:44 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2016

OK, there's absolutely no evidence that Orpheus, the mythical musician who set the trees and rocks a-dancing with his melodies but lost his wife Eurydice forever with that fateful, most verboten backward glance on the way up from Hades where a nasty snake bite had dispatched her, was born here in Xanthi in Thrace.

In fact the birth of the man called the 'Father of Song' by the ancient Greek poet Pindar is generally held to have occurred in Pimpleia near Mt. Olympus. But his father was Thracian King Oeagros, who had it off with the muse Calliope to produce this little bundle of musical joy, although some say Dad was the god Apollo himself.


View over Xanthi from above old town

Don't tell that to the good citizens of Xanthi, however, one of whose hotels proudly bears the name of the man - or demi-god - whom ancient Greece regarded as the greatest of all poets and musicians.

And Xanthi is itself a high place of the Zeibekikos, one of Greece's vaunted dances. As a plaque on the side of one of the old town's most famous mansions proclaims: 'The dance called Zeibekikos from the land of Orpheus has spread all over the region, it is a dance expressing solitary male ecstasy and lament.'


Zeibekikos mansion


The plaque

Now, I ask you, seeing that we're into parenthood with the father of song, doesn't that sound just like the mother of all hand jobs?

Orpheus himself came to a sticky end too, by the way, if not in Xanthi itself, then indeed here in Thrace. According to the Roman poet Ovid, the women of the Thracian Ciconic tribe were so irate that he was only taking male lovers that they threw branches and rocks at him.


Cathedral in new town

The trees and rocks were so enchanted by Orpheus' celestial music, however, that they purposely missed him.

Now, as we all know from William Congreve, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and the doughty Ciconian wenches decided to prove the point by tearing poor Orpheus limb from limb in a frenzied outburst of Bacchic orgy.


Old town lane

His head, still singing dirge-like laments, and his lyre, still playing, landed in Thrace's Hebrus River, only a little to the east of here, and thence floated into the Aegean Sea and on to the isle of Lesbos - somewhat ironic, methinks, given Orpheus' predilection for boys.

OK, enough of Orpheus. The handsome mansion that bears the Zeibekikos plaque was built in 1877 for Vasilios Kougioumtzoglou, one of the affluent tobacco barons who drew their wealth from the fertile Thracian plain and endowed Xanthi with an aura of prosperity from the 18th century on until the final days of the Ottoman Empire.


Tobacco baron mansions

Others like it, with enclosed Macedonian-style balconies or the open wooden-buttressed type of Turkish tradition, dot the narrow, twisting, cobbled lanes and steep steps that climb up the hillsides of the old town.

The whole complex is an absolute gem. A sea of red ribbed tiles sparkles in tiers against a background of deep green forests and the more distant grey crags of the Rhodope Mountains. The slender spindle minarets of Turkish mosques tapering into grey dunce's-cap spires poke sharply above the houses.


Old town view


'Dunce's cap' minaret


Another view


And another

This is the home of the town's Turkish-speaking Muslims, and many women walk about in head scarves and black full-length abayas, while many men sport round woolen hats.


Old town street




And another


Yet another

Bulgaria occupied Xanthi for a while after the Balkan Wars of 1912-1914, and the Turks of the area were later exempted from the population exchanges following Greece's failed attempt after WWI to wrest Anatolia from Turkey.


Old town church

There's a folklore museum in one of the baronial mansions being mobbed, even as we speak, by a horde of Romanian tourists posing with pitchforks for selfies at one of the exhibits. Now they're stalking me up the twisting alleys and steps tumbling up the hill. Aaaagh! Thank Gawd I'm not paranoid.


Folklore museum


Romanian pitchfork contest

At the very top where a steep alley leads onto the main road into town from Drama, there are a couple of cafes with a superb panorama over the old town and down to the new sector.


Old town from above


Looking further afield

The town's modern quarter is pleasant, too, with a complex of main squares. A closed market occupies the first, a Byzantine cathedral presides over the second, and an ugly clock tower with a cardboard icon on top lords it over the third section, which adjoins the old town.


Clock tower

The whole area here, both old and new, is wall-to-wall cafes, bars and ouzeris, and it's all very lively with a large population of university students.


Plenty of cafes


And more

On a more sombre note, Xanthi municipality dedicated a plaque on the wall of the tobacco warehouse where pro-German Bulgarian troops massed the Jewish community of some 550 souls on March 4, 1943, prior to shipping them with 3,500 correligionaries from Drama and nearby towns to Bulgaria, and then on to the Treblinka death camp.

The plaque kept on being taken down by anti-Semites, needing to be replaced. At the time of this visit neither plaque nor warehouse could be located.


Sunset panorama


Old town streets at dusk




And another


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.