Saturday, September 14, 2013

Cultural connection

Perfect Isolation
The Pomakohoria area of Xanthi region, (Thrace / Greece) lies close to the Bulgarian border. This area is best described as:
'Among the mountain villages stand out [in Xanthi region] the “Pomakohoria”, a cluster of approximately 40 villages north of Xanthi, renowned for their cultural and architectural uniqueness'.
Odd is that the most authoritative source of info in English on this area is no other than Lonely Planet Greece [1]:
'These 25-or-so villages host a unique population of Bulgarian-speaking muslims, the Pomaks [or Pomach], who spill across the borders and whose ethnic identity is a subject of some uncertainty (even to themselves)'.
Besides the physical isolation, typical of most mountainous areas, Pomokohoria was off limits in the post-second world war set-up. However with the thawing of relations between what was once West and East, this area opened up to the outside world.

This relative isolation has resulted in the villages and their inhabitants themselves (Pomaks) becoming a prime attraction: a way to see the muslim world without leaving Greece proper.

Luckily for the avid soaking enthusiasts there are also hot springs to visit in Pomokohoria. Located at what might be the end of the winding and hilly road originating from Xanthi town are the villages of three villages of Thermes: Ano (High), Meso (Middle) and (Lower) Thermes. All apparently host a hot spring or two, so I learnt. Also note that the wikipedia link mentioned to Thermes has a couple of photo's of the springs taken during winter ...

Nosing around
When trying to reach the Thermes, one needs to leave Xanthi city northwards, go up the valley to Smythine, cross the mountains to Echinos and cross the mountains once more to pass all three Thermes villages to arrive at Thermes itself! Or so I believe.
Thermes though is not a village but rather a number of buildings which have sprung up around a number of hot spring sources. The buildings are a school, a government office, a church, a mosque, two restaurants and something that may pass as a hotel and the bathing facilities themselves.

The modern soak pool

Opposite the hotel on a bluff above the river stand two buildings each containing a large enclosed pool. An entrance fee is required but nosing around today is also possible; it’s a slow day.

If one then walks down to the river (back north) midway down is another pool building with an outside pool. The inner pool is in a slowly crumbling once modern building, while next to this is a large (6 x 6m) outdoor pool, open to heaven and with a small opening in the otherwise very closed aluminium fence. 
A gentleman can be observed soaking here. 
We don’t know what the custom is here, are we allowed to join? Can genders mingle?

The outer open air pool with a couple of inner pools behind. The latter not so nice

So to overthink this quandrum, we wander even further down the road.

I remember that my eye caught a dome like structure on the drive in, but fail to re-see this close to the river. We wander down a side path to observe the fast flowing river and there, not more than a meter from the fast flowing river is the entrance to the elusive dome. 

The path leading to the dome soak. 
Note on the left the build up of minerals and the river to the right.

An elderly couple just pop out, presumably just having bathed. 

Next to the dome is a wall of mineral build-up which is slowly expanding from the off–flow of many of Thermes springs.

We regather our things and enter the dome. Inside is a pool with some hooks and a crooked wooden bench. 

The once modern door can be locked but a large brick remains to somehow assist the locking process. We undress and despite Lonely Planets call 
('don't forget that since Pomakohoria is a conservative area the baths are no place for debauchery, shouting or gleeful nudity'),
undress every stitch and slip in the quite hot pool, choosing the gleeful option!

Maybe the brick was meant as a possible way to keep the door blocked but not locked so as to enable the air flow to continue because soon we are hot, very hot. Steam everywhere.

I read somewhere that temperatures of these hots springs are from 40 to 53. The soak lasts 20 minutes, during which we admire the old structure (originally constructed in 1928) and listen to the gushing sounds of the river. 
It’s a pity that one can not immerse one self in the crippling cold stream; it’s not our state of dress which is holding us back, rather the swiftness of the river which would probably take us with itself.

We redress, return to the modern world and walk up the hill for a cold drink.

What does this learn us? One would believe nature is bliss, but so is bathing in a historic building. And simple. 

Bulgarian connection
When originally built it was clear that the emphasis was on heat and body, while having a large enough pool to enable a couple of friends / family to enjoy. The river might have had another stream bed so jumping in might well have been possible then. 
It’s only since the arrival of modernity that somehow this frowned on. 

Further info is also scarce.

A website dedicated to Thermes by Nikolaos Kokkas has a nice write up. What do we learn? 
'The Healing Baths are in a small settlement where hot waters are everywhere springing.
Personal showers were added to the private baths in 1998. There are toilets also.
At the taverns of the area you can eat delicious cooked hot lamp or soutzoukakia (meatballs) along with other roasted meat, while you will find warm hospitality at the hostels.
Near the old hamam (bath) of the Thermes community, there is an older hamam that was reconstructed by the Bulgarians in 1941 but was open only till 1928 [!?]'.
Maro Kouri has a nice photo of the dome, completely white-washed (on the outside).

Interestingly, the local use of the baths / hamam stands in stark contrast to the fate of traditional hamams in general. In the blog mediterraneanespalimpst it argues the following:
'Today hammams are supported largely, and in some cases entirely, by external and internal tourism. In fact, Cichocki [2] argues convincingly that the advent of tourism saved Istanbul’s few remaining hammams in the 20th century. She interviewed the management and staff of the Cemeberlitas hammam, who claimed that without tourists their entire operation would fold and all baths in Istanbul would be closed today. Of course, to the western tourist the hammam has become the quintessential “eastern” or “oriental” experience, something viewed as authentic and necessary when visiting Istanbul and Turkey, despite the fact that very few Turks have ever set foot in one (as Cichocki notes). She also mentions the “internal” tourism of some Istanbullers today—those who use the hammam as a means to connect with their own cultural legacy, heritage and history'.
Traditional minarets adorn the countryside

Sounding similar, the hot spring of Thermies (or Thermia) is in fact quite a distance away. Located actually in Drama region it can be accessed from the town of Paranesti by heading up along the Nestos river and then heading for the Forest of Fraktos. With little local population living nearby this soak has been able to maintain a low profile and seems (hopefully for ever) to be void of many the modern day wellness hoopla. 

This website has a picture which adds not too much more knowledge and after translation we learn this:
'The sources come from the depths of the mountains are concentrated in smaller sources and there with tires arrive in specially built "pools" two to three people with restricted plates. Water is the basis of samples that have been drinking and has a temperature of 50-60 degrees Celsius.Some of the sources are so hot of course that does not withstand your body. With proper search of course but also asking residents there you will find one that suits you'.
Greece's official tourism website adds:
'The thermal spas of Thermia are located 73 km away from Drama on the road lnking Drama to Paranesti and Fraktos Forest. The thermal spring is located 25 km to the north of the town of Paranesti, at an altitude of 620 m, where an old stone-built spa provides evidence of human presence throughout many centuries. Nowadays, natural baths are used and the development of the region is under consideration'.
This website has more bad news for natural soaking enthusiasts and conservationists:
'The Municipality Paranestiou is currently drafting studies on the re-certification of sources according to the new legislation, in order to exploit the natural resources in the creation of a center thermalism'
On the other side of Xanthi city, near the airport and coast is the hot spring of  Nea Kassani.

Furtheraway, close to the Turkish border are the hot springs of Traianoupoli. Here is just one of the few links to the not yet modernized soaking facilities.
'Trianoupoli [baths] flourished during the Byzantine ages, but at the end of this period, the region became completly depopulated'. (source)
With this blog published, it draws close a four-chaptered feature of Greek Macedonia and Thrace hot springs (of which there are reputed to be in excess of 140 soaks [3]!); hopefully an area which despite current-day economic harshness will continue to maintain it's historic and natural hot springs without caving-in to short term cash gains. 

The future I believe of any hot spring is to seek a niche rather than cater to the masses.

[1]: Miller, K., A. Averbuck, A. Schulte-Peevers, R. Waters, M. Stamatios Clark, V. Kyriakopoulos, D. Hannigan, K. Armstrong, C. Deliso (2012) Lonely Planet Greece. Lonely Planet, Melbourne, Australia
[2]: Cichocki, N. (2005) “Continuity and Change in Turkish Bathing Culture in Istanbul: The Life Story of the Çemberlitas Hamam.” Turkish Studies 6.1: 93-112. 
[3]: Anon. (2012) Thermal springs and Thermalism from Ancient times until Today in Greece. Comenius Project Italy-Spain-Austria-Portugal-Greece 2010-2012 <!--[if gte mso 9]>

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