Kavala: A Northern Greek Gem of a City
One of the loveliest cities of the Greek north lets us in on its landmarks and secrets.
Depending on the season, fishing vessels, ferries, sailboats and cruise ships all drop anchor at Kavala
’s two ports – the old and the new. This coastal city, which rises up from the sea like an amphitheater, counts approximately 50,000 inhabitants, split among the Palia Poli (old town) and the Nea Poli (new town).
The latter may enjoy a larger share of Kavala’s residents; however, it is the former, constructed atop the Panagia peninsula, that holds the edge in terms of charm. Elements harking back to a variety of eras and architectural styles coexist throughout the narrow lanes of the old quarter, under the commanding Kastro (castle).
Times gone by have left behind important monuments in the broader area, such as the now UNESCO-protected Archaeological Site of Philippi, and the Baptistry of St Lydia, where the Apostle Paul founded the first Christian church on Greek soil, in AD 49-50.
There is also the unique Imaret, an exceptional sample of Islamic architecture, which also enjoys a “double identity” – that of hotel and monument, as well as the early 16th-century Kamares, which manage to stand apart amidst the buildings in the new town of Kavala. According to the prevailing view, the Kamares were constructed between 1520 and 1539 on top of an even older Roman aqueduct, so to as cover water supply needs, linking Panagia with the springs at Palia Kavala.
We have come to love Kavala not only on account of all the beautiful heritage monuments and buildings it has managed to preserve, but also because, being a veritable Greek urban jungle, the city moves us. Moreover, the moment the warm weather arrives, the city promises refreshing dips at Batis, Tosca and Palio. Just a tad further afield lie wonderful beaches, including Ammoglossa Keramotis and Ammolofi, offering turquoise waters and fine sand.
The Imaret: a Landmark
Velvety pomegranate juice served in a wine glass, soft jazz music and a group of French guests seated next to us, all come together to lend a contemporary cosmopolitan note to the bar at the Imaret. It would be no exaggeration to state that this historic hotel / monument, with its characteristic lead roof spanning stylish vaults, elevates Kavala as a travel destination.
Spread out over an area of 4,200 square meters, the Imaret initially served as a seminary during the period of Ottoman rule. It was later closed, and remained so for many years, until it was used as a place to accommodate immigrants. It was in 2001 that the Missirian family leased it for 50 years from the Eqyptian Waqf Organization, and breathed new life into it. Its 61 vaulted cells, which had once welcomed students, have since been transformed into 30 atmospheric rooms.
Everything on and around the Panagia peninsula becomes a starting point for discussions that never end, like the one we had with Anna Missirian on theocratic regimes and education systems, the coexistence of cultures and civilizations, the influential Greek writer Alexandros Papadiamantis (1851-1911), who had once referred to the Imaret as a tebelohanio (that is, an inn for the lazy) and also about the hotel’s uncertain future after its 50-year lease reaches its end.
Even though the Imaret as a hotel may maintain a somewhat elitist air, anyone wishing to get to know it as a monument may do so daily, for just 5 euros, on a tour of its mosque and its other areas. Of course, a drink in its bar or a meal at its restaurant is also always an ideal option, open to all. Similarly, the House of Mohammed Ali, as it is known, has also been leased from the Eqyptian Waqf Organization. Situated opposite the church of Panagia, the House of Mohammed Ali operates as a museum, and is also the headquarters of the MOHA Research Center. The latter was founded in 2006, with the aim of bridging the cultural differences between the East and West.
For Anna Missirian, MOHA and the Imaret constitute “meeting points for cultures. One empire is succeeded by another, and a theocratic regime succeeds some other system, but what remains alive is culture, as a continuation.” Everything here speaks of coexistence and multiculturalism. Mohammed Ali (1769-1849) – or Mehmet Ali, as he is referred to in Turkish – was born in Kavala, which he came to love from a very early age.
Complementing the wealth of Ottoman buildings is the Palia Mousiki – as the Halil Bey Mosque has come to be known. It was constructed on top of the Paleochristian church of Aghia Paraskevi, as can be attested by taking a look through its glass floor.
The Cape of Panagia
The few tavernas and cafe / bars of the old town are located across from the Imaret, on Theodorou Poulidou St. The prevalent feature found in the buildings in the narrow lanes of the Panagia district is Macedonian architecture coupled with the Eastern influences brought back by master builders from trips abroad. These overseas influences include the sachnisi (a traditional type of bay window supported by wooden beams on building facades) and the bagdati (a wattle-and-daub technique, which has come from Baghdad and involves the use of wood and other natural materials in the construction of building walls).
Amidst these jut out single, detached homes dating to more recent construction phases; fortunately strict building codes have ensured that strolls up the hills leading to the castle remain lovely. These strolls are even lovelier if you go on them with local people who love their area, like civil engineer Thodoros Mouriadis, who, through his descriptions and stories made us feel like a part of the neighborhood. We stop along the way to gaze at the view of the sea, to listen to the sound of waves pounding against the crags of the cape, and to look at flocks of pigeons lending motion to the landscape.
After ascending the circular interior staircase of the fortress – provided that you do not get stuck; that is just how narrow it is – you are rewarded with an extremely enjoyable 360-degree vista and view of the entire city and the Thracian Sea. This fortified settlement constituted the entire city of Kavala, up to the year 1864. It was confined to the area of the triangular cape. In fact, its earliest traces are lost in antiquity, when it was named Neapolis, the walls of which are still to be found along the perimeter of the rock.
In Byzantine times the city was called Christoupolis. In terms of offering a travel experience, Panagia clearly is of great interest, and the more you walk around the area, the more it wins you over. The good news is that the tourism-related development of yet another landmark building has been set into motion. The historic Spiti tou Stratigou (House of the General), in which – to this day – the military chief of the city resides, is to be converted into a hotel, thus enriching the city’s supply of accommodation spaces.
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