Vast fields of sunflowers, the Hidrellez Festival which lasts for days, wrestlers fighting to the finish on verdant green grass… The fun in Thrace starts in spring and never slows down all summer. Besides village weddings to the lively strains of clarinet melodies, the local picnic areas and long beaches are immensely popular. And those who come to join the fun also enjoy Thrace’s rich cuisine.

Selimiye Mosque in Thrace, Turkey’s gateway to Europe, is an Ottoman tour de force and a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage. But Thrace appeals for its natural beauty as well as its cultural treasures. Famous for its magnificent stalactites and stalagmites, Dupnisa Cave in Kırklareli boasts an illuminated walking platform in its recesses. And İğneada at the western end of the Black Sea is home to one of Turkey’s longest beaches.

When the purple rhododendrons burst into bloom in the Istranca Mountains that stretch from Çatalca to the Bulgarian border, it means spring has come to Thrace. This season, when nature is adorned with myriad shades of green, is also the harbinger of Thrace’s spring fest, Hidrellez. The Kakava Festival at Edirne, center of Hidrellez festivities in the region, starts on May 5 and lasts through the evening of the following day. Everybody dons his finest clothes to jump over the fire amidst folk dancing and the singing of songs. Wishes are written on scraps of colored paper or cloth, and the strains of fife and drum resound through the neighborhoods. And the Thracians, with their warmth, their inimitable accents and their music that fires the human heart, make us feel we belong to the region. To understand Thrace we must speak first of the Thracians for whom the region is named. The Greek historian Herodotus says of the Thracians, who were known for their warlike nature, “If they had one head, or were agreed among themselves, it is my belief that their match could not be found anywhere, and that they would very far surpass all other nations.” The name Thrace is derived from the word trachea, which means throat in ancient Greek. Ottoman rule, which commenced in the 14th century, brought innumerable riches to the region. A UNESCO World Cultural Heritage, Selimiye Mosque at Edirne, the Ottoman capital for close to a century, is a masterpiece for its architecture and extraordinary workmanship. When you head from the mosque for ‘Erler Meydanı’ (Heroes Square) at Sarayiçi, you pass the Palace of Justice and arrive at the area where the Kırkpınar Oiled Wrestling Tournament is held. One of the world’s oldest sporting contests after the Olympics, Kırkpınar is followed by tens of thousands of people every summer. And Edirne takes ownership of the tradition as a city where the arts of calligraphy and illumination have been developed and taught since Ottoman times. Edirne still conforms to the city plan whose foundations were laid by the Ottomans. Decked with spectacular Iznik tiles, Muradiye Mosque, the Old Mosque and the Three-Balconied Mosque are some of the city’s must-see sights. Those who go to Edirne also enjoy sitting on the banks of the Tunca and Meriç Rivers with their historic bridges and watching the sunset.  But one of the most surprising parts of Thrace is the Gallipoli Peninsula, which is like a virtual open-air museum. Dotted with monuments to the Battle of Gallipoli, one of the greatest land battles in history, the peninsula is also where the 16th century Ottoman geographer and admiral Piri Reis drew his famous world map. But you need to branch out to Tekirdağ to follow Thracian history in depth. Perinthos at Marmara Ereğlisi (Herakleia) was a city that rivaled Istanbul in antiquity and was capital of the province in the Roman era. The tumuli frequently seen on the way to Tekirdağ are actually monumental graves built for the Thracian kings in the 4th and 5th centuries B.C. The houses of the Hungarian Prince Ferenc Rakoczy and of Turkish poet Namık Kemal can also be seen in the city. Home to an archaeology museum with exhibitions that chronicle the region’s history, the city is covered on the south with vineyards and beaches. The historic Hoşköy Lighthouse, which rises atop a green hill smothered in daisies, complements the spectacular Sea of Marmara panorama. Meanwhile Kırklareli on the road that enabled civilizations to circulate between the continents is a virtual bridge city. With natural beaches totaling 50 kilometers in length, the city boasts a number of postcard-pretty coastal communities. The road from Kıyıköy to Limanköy is ideal for renewing yourself physically with its oxygen-laden air. A natural wonder awaits you at İğneada just 12 kilometers from the Bulgarian border: Longoz Forest. A number of plant species unique to the location live here in a rare natural area replete with flooded forests, river dunes and lakes connected to the Black Sea. Kırklareli is also a spelunkers’ paradise. Dupnisa Cave off the Demirköy-İğneada road is estimated to be 3-4 million years old. The cave, which harbors an underground river, is impressive with a depth of up to 3.5 kilometers and stunning stalactite and stalagmite formations. This cave, in whose recesses eight different species of bat have been identified, has no counterpart in Eastern Europe. In short, Thrace is one of Turkey’s most amazing and beautiful places. 

Turkish marzipan is the best complement to fried liver in Edirne. Be sure to sample Çanakkale seafood and fresh cheese dessert, Tekirdağ kofta, and sheep’s milk yoghurt at Kırklareli. For a more unusual dining experience, try the frog’s legs in the restaurants along the banks of the Meriç (Maritsa) in Edirne.

Some of the Ottoman houses in Edirne have been restored as boutique hotels. The caravanserai built for Suleiman the Magnificent’s Grand Vizier Rüstem Pasha is also used as a hotel. There are attractive places to stay at Kıyıköy and the Bay of Saros as well.

You can buy mirror-studded brooms, fruit-shaped soaps and decorative items of Edirnekâri woodwork at Ali Paşa Bazaar in Edirne. Kırklareli meanwhile is famous for its white cheese, and Gelibolu for its canned fish.  

Or, tour the Gallipoli Peninsula War Memorials in four steps: 1. Akbaş on the coast road to Eceabat, 2. The area between Conkbayırı (Chunuk Bair) and Arıburnu, 3.  Kabatepe and Açıtepe above Anzak Cove, 4. The Victory Monument on Hisarlık Hill.

One of Turkish Airlines’ main flight terminals, Istanbul Ataturk Airport is only a few hours from the cities of Thrace by car. For information on flights to Istanbul: www.turkishairlines.com

There is a Council of Europe award-winning venue in Edirne’s Beyazid II Mosque Complex: the Health Museum. The music therapy section of this museum, which brings a centuries-old Ottoman hospital to life through animations, is a sight to behold. 

The countdown has begun to the 22nd Karagöz (Shadow Puppet) Culture, Art and Kakava Festival to be held at Kırklareli May 18 to 26. The festival, a focus of intense interest with the participation of famous musicians, sets the stage for such colorful events as horse cart decorating and most beautiful garden.

From Wrester’s Tights To Warmup
Unique rituals characterize the 651st Kırkpınar Oiled Wrestling Tournament. The donning and storing of the wrestler’s tights known as ‘kıspet’ and made of water buffalo skin is a time-honored tradition. The tights, which are stored in special reed baskets called ‘zembil’, weigh 12-13 kilos after being oiled. To watch the wrestlers’ rhythmic warmup movements, you’ll have to go to Kırkpınar.

You can rent a rowboat on the banks of the Pabuçdere at Kıyıköy, famous for its beautiful beaches, and row as far as Saint Nicholas Monastery.

Nestled in the foothills of the 945-meter Mt. Ganos at Tekirdağ, the village of Uçmakdere is ideal for paragliding with its panoramic view of the Sea of Marmara.

The İnceğiz Caves 9 km northwest of Çatalca are well worth seeing. These caves, which form a group of three ancient monasteries carved in the rocks, exhibit signs of Byzantine civilization.

Besides its proximity to Istanbul, the blue-flag Şarköy Municipal Beach attracts swimmers for its clean sand as well. Plus it welcomes wind surfers.

Burhan Öçal 
“I fell under the spell of music at Kırklareli weddings in my childhood. The Thracian rhythms are so lively and joyful that a person can’t sit still. They impart energy to even the most downhearted and lead them to love. The melodies of Thrace come from the frogs, the rivers, in other words from nature and the depths of the human heart. The music of this place makes you laugh and cry at the same time. And the subtle Thracian sense of humor is evident in every aspect of life.” 

Did You Know? Thrace boasts two Hagia Sophia’s, one at Enez, the other at Vize. An old Byzantine church, the Vize Hagia Sophia was converted into Gazi Süleyman Paşa Mosque in the Ottoman period. The Enez Hagia Sophia at Edirne meanwhile is known as the Mosque of Mehmed the Conqueror.

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