Taste Traditional Pomak Food at Taverna Kottani 

Situated roughly 20km off the Greek-Bulgarian border, in the municipality of Xanthi, lies a traditional Pomak taverna similar to which you will not find anywhere in the whole of Greece, it’s named Taverna Kottani. 

The two owners of the taverna, Cemil and Muzeyyen Haliloglu, are Greek Pomaks who live in the nearby village of Kottani, an isolated village inhabited by Pomaks with Cemil and Muzeyyen being the only two permanent registered inhabitants! The taverna is so well-known in the stretch of the country that even politicians and celebrities from Athens travel up here to enjoy the delicacies and the spectacular mountain views. Looking at the lush green hills expanding in front of me as I type this, I cannot fault them. 

Travelling to Taverna Kottani is tricky but worth it. You can get here by car from Xanthi but if you fly to Alexandroupoli from Athens it is best if you cross the Greek-Bulgarian border at Makaza (just off Komotini), drive up to Zlatograd and then enter Greece from the local border which is only 4km away from the city. The road through Bulgaria is much better and you get to see a bit of the neighbouring country, too. 

The road is long but the journey is calm. The landscape changes constantly as you pass through the Pomak villages of Ehinos and Thermes (with the famous hot springs and traditional baths), up to Medousa. Here, time stays still! As we entered the beautiful village of Medousa, we did not encounter a person who did not wave back at us. We saw women with colourful headscarves hand-weeding their vegetable patches, men playing their ‘koboloi’ while sipping Greek coffee, and teenagers driving their bicycles up and down the streets. The arched medieval bridge at the end of the village right next to the mosaic-covered mosque is undoubtedly the landmark of the place. We chatted with the locals who told us that the blue mosaic of the mosque denotes fruitfulness and effectiveness to the faithful. At sunset, it glitters as the walls covered in blue, radiant, tile mosaics shimmer in the sunlight. Pure magic!

The last 6 km, from the village of Medousa to Kottani are on a dirt road in a deplorable state, apparently quite popular among the motorcycle riding buddies who come up here just for the views.

Taverna Kottani is located on the top of a green hill, at the foot of which passes River Kompsatos, making the place even more calm and idyllic. The building is a two-story stone inn that is more than 200 years old. Cemil told us that he was born in this very house and he lived in the building up until the ’70s. As it belonged to his great-grandfather, he wanted to preserve everything as it was by keeping the rooms with their original furniture and everyday items. Indeed, on the top floor, the walls are covered with family pictures, there are folklore Pomak uniforms on display, the tables are covered with hand-embroidered cloths, and in the kitchen, there is a beautiful tea set nicely arranged on the counter. 

The actual taverna with the open kitchen is on the ground floor where you will see Muzeyyen cooking, layering pastry phyllo, and baking in the traditional oven. Cemil is the master of the grilling, she tells me proudly as I go down the stairs, “I do the cooking using old recipes that have been passed down to us from our grandmothers.” 

Insights Greece - Taste Traditional Pomak Food at Taverna Kottani 

The menu varies seasonally but a few of their famous dishes are the cheese pie and patatnik (potato pie), the grilled aubergines with cheese on top, tas kebabs, wild boar stew, and the famous sweetbreads glukadia.

As we were enjoying our meal, Cemil joined us and confessed with much sadness that despite the taverna’s success the government only provided electricity to Kottani in 1998. Add to that the fact that the road connecting Kottani to Medousa still has not been built and that there is no internet coverage in the area, makes it quite difficult. “Winters are quite harsh, he said, limiting us to operate the taverna only during the weekends. And we only accept cash payments as there is no wifi connection for a POS.” 

We tried to finish our meal on a happy note and talked about his family and grandchildren under the sound of birds chirping and falling waters from the nearby canyon.

Cemil and Muzeyyen are two proud lovers of tradition and their roots who will welcome you in their taverna all year round. Even though the taverna is off the beaten path, the food, the views, and the fantastic hospitality will leave a sweet taste in your mouth. It will also give you an insight into the friendly, picturesque Pomak villages with their close-knit communities and people whose faces shine like children when they talk to you. If there is a magic potion of happiness, perhaps the Pomaks have already found it!

Images by Anastasia Fountouli ©

Exploring the Old Town of Xanthi

When you think of the city of Xanthi, two aspects vividly come to mind, the excessive carnival celebrations and the Old Town. The best way I can describe the latter is encapsulated in one word: nostalgia!

The Old Town of Xanthi is an enchanting settlement in the heart of the city that has remained unaffected by time. It is a magnet for visitors, especially on a warm day, filled with colours and aromas. A concoction of picturesque cobbled streets, buildings with evident features of the Ottoman empire once ruling the city, rows of 19th-century houses with dilapidated balconies and throngs of tourists photographing every corner of it. A mixture of Edinburgh’s Circus Lane and Malta’s Mdina, if you like.

We embarked on a tour of the Old Town of Xanthi early on Sunday morning in an attempt to avoid the crowds. Our tour started on El. Venizelou 17 at Grand Maison, the beautiful house where the famous music composer, Manos Hadjidakis, was born and raised.

Built in 1895 by an Austrian architect, this neoclassical mansion with baroque elements belonged to Isaac Daniel, a rich Jew living in Xanthi, and not the Hadjidakis family as most people think.

The building was recently restored under the guidance of Hadjidaki’s relatives to honour his life and work in the best possible way. Nowadays, it serves as a museum and cultural centre open to the public.

It is said that the Holy Church of St. Vlassios facing Grand Maison has been the inspiration behind the artist’s composition of music mixing Byzantine and ancient Greek elements. The basilica was built in 1838 and in the courtyard lies a school and the priest’s residence. The inward-looking style of the three buildings is a common feature in Ottoman structures found in Turkey and Greece. The church courtyard is elevated three meters from the road level so that people can catch sight of it as houses on El. Venizelou were hiding the building.

The tour continued uphill on Agiou Vlassiou street with the mansion of Dr. Constantine Karabetsis on the corner. Built in 1896 by European architects in neoclassical style with a typically enclosed balcony (sachnisi) in the centre the mansion stands out for its aesthetic and character. The painting on the ceiling of the entrance hall was done by the Maltzi brothers, some famous artists from Aivali in Asia Minor (today Ayvalik, Turkey). Unfortunately, like many other buildings in Xanthi’s Old Town, the building is in deer need of restoration but visitors can still see signs of its former glorious life.

We kept walking on Agiou Vlassiou street and went past many neoclassical mansions until we met the magnificent Residences of the Michaloglou family, a complex of four dwellings built in 1890, built by the Northern Epirus tobacco merchant, Ioannis Michaloglou, for his children.

A bit further away on Botsari street lies Muzaffer Bey’s mansion (konah). The building features both Thracian and Ottoman elements making it one of the most remarkable examples of local architecture. It was built during the 1860s with three floors and two wings in the form of the Greek letter Π. Today the building belongs to the Municipality of Xanthi and it is under construction. Back to El. Venizelou street, we found a beautiful house and store built in 1880 by a group of craftsmen from Epirus. The presence of the blue arched windows is something often seen in commercial buildings of the early 20th-century in Xanthi.

Suddenly, we felt famished so we headed towards Antika square for some coffee and nibbles. This scenic square is a meeting point for many locals as it is surrounded by many well-known bars, traditional tavernas and bars. We sat at Favela Chic Art Bar and enjoyed the views of the little square and the crowds of people passing in search of a place to sit and enjoy the day. On the other side of the square is a round symmetrical building that now hosts one of the most famous cafe bars ‘Bread and Chocolate‘. This impressive building was once the harem of the Ottoman ruler Mehmet Pasha!

It was getting dark when we left so with no more time to explore under the daylight, we went for a quick wander around the square shops.

There is so much to do and see in the Old Town of Xanthi, we promised to be back very soon. Hopefully, this will be the time that we will get the full tour of the Old Town as there are still so many more mansions and historic buildings to discover.

Until next time!

Images by Anastasia Fountouli ©

A Guided Trek Tour Through Nestos Gorge

It’s a sunny Sunday and the early morning drive to Nestos riverside is filled with Abba songs, caffeine and excitement. A three-hour hike through Nestos Gorge is definitely something to be excited about! 

River Nestos separates Macedonia from Thrace and flows into the Thracian Sea, in its famous Delta, which is a National Park. According to Greek mythology, Nestos (or Nessos), a name associated with the verb Nasso, was born at the beginning of time -before humans even existed- along with 12,456 rivers and 3,000 Nymphs. His father was Oceanus and his mother was Tethys.

Nestos is divided into two parts- the Nestos Gorge at Toxotes, Xanthi and the Nestos Delta at Chrysoupoli, Kavala. The views of both are quite frankly breathtaking. 

We arrived at the meeting point, Nestos Adventure Park minutes before our guided trek group departed. The route is not a difficult one to follow but seeing as this was our first time, we figured it would be best to book tickets and go with a guided group- “jaywalking” is my middle name after all. 

The sandy beach at the start of the tour, Galani Beach of Nestos, smelled like fresh river water and pine trees, a beautiful scent that set the mood for the rest of the day. We stopped to stare at the children playing on the shores and the adults about to embark on a kayak adventure. ‘This must be fun,” I exclaimed and my husband agreed that this would be next on our list of baby-free weekend activities. 

The path across the river basin of Nestos on which we were currently loping certainly seemed rather narrower than I had been anticipating. But the golden alluvial land and the blue lagoon unfolding views ahead compensated for the lack of it. 

We were only 10 minutes into our walk when we stopped to admire the views of the continual train tunnels- there are around thirty tunnels along the total stretch of the railway built by French engineers during the Ottoman Empire to create a route that connects Thessaloniki to Constantinople for the famous Orient Express train to pass through. The railway line does not operate anymore but these are a reminder of a once-famous train journey connecting not only the West and the East but also Thessaloniki to Alexandroupoli with multiple picturesque villages in between. 

Further down, the path was getting steeper but the views of the river meanders, the rocky gorge and the stunning mountain backdrop made it impossible not to feel humble and realise that this was perhaps one of the best hiking experiences I’ve ever had in my life! Bridges and 19th-century stone-built tunnels formed a setting that few can forget.

A few benevolent stray dogs accompanied us, wagging tails each time lunch-packed sandwiches made their appearance. After an hour we reached the Viewpoint Nestos Gorge and it was then that our guide shouted that we are halfway through the tour. The views from up here are spectacular – from one side you have the best valley and mountain views and from the other side you can see the stretch of the river. Unintentionally, we found ourselves gazing at the deep end of the mountain and experiencing a feeling of inner peace and solitude. 

Even though there are many trek routes to follow, we chose the hiking route Toxotes – Kromniko, which took four hours to complete and get back to the starting point. The path was walkable and ideal for people of all fitness levels and ages. Among the many things we loved was crossing the riparian forest, watching free horses running in the mountain, having lunch outside the abandoned Kromniko train stop and admiring the three main meanders of the river, which, according to Greek mythology, were created while Nestos was looking for his way between the wild slopes of the mountains.

Once we made it back to the car park, we had a much-needed coffee break to gather some energy and loosen the muscle knots in our legs at Canteen Galani by the beach. The rest of the group went on to have a late lunch at the nearby taverna ‘Ta Tempi tou Nestou’ but we left as we had an hour’s drive to make it home. 

This is the kind of weekend activities I want to see myself doing more of in 2022! 

Tip: Dromeas Thrakis organises guided tours take place every two weeks. You can find more information or book your tickets here

Images by Anastasia Fountouli © (Copyright)