The traffic lights in the center of Serres, a midsized Greek city (population 55,000) 80 kilometers northeast of Thessaloniki, are permanently on amber. They might as well be switched off, for -- contrary to any Greek stereotype that might suggest chaos and all kinds of insulting gestures among drivers and pedestrians -- authorities have found the regular succession of green and red unnecessary. Drivers give priority to pedestrians even if they’re not at a zebra crossing -- the purpose of which seems incomprehensible, or a nuisance at best, elsewhere in Greece. But simple courtesies are not confined to driving manners. Strangers who appear lost are offered help without even asking.
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The broader Serres district is not known as a tourist destination proper, except for the artificial Lake Kerkini, which is the country’s foremost wetland.
Tourism in the area is in fact a relatively recent affair. The Serres plain, which is traversed by the Strymonas River and accounts for more than half of the district’s total area, sets its predominantly rustic character and a generally unhurried pace of life -- unaffected by the presence of a racing circuit near the city (www.serrescircuit.gr).
The roots of the city of Serres are ancient: It is first mentioned by the ancient historian Herodotus in the 5th century BC as Siris -- a name derived from Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. The district’s most important city was Amphipolis, built in a strategic position near the sea, which was the location of the royal mint of ancient Macedonia and flourished during Roman times. The Apostle Paul preached there. Today it is a small village, with the district’s main archaeological site and a museum well worth visiting (tel 23220.32474).
But Serres can cater to a broad range of tastes and interests, with plenty waiting to be discovered: a lively city with a large student population, plenty of monuments and sights, wonderful countryside with dense forests and plenty of trekking routes, traditional villages -- each with its own unique character, even though some are abandoned -- a skiing center and one of the most impressive caves in the country.
You will also find surviving ancient customs, such as the annual “Gynaikokratia” (rule by women) in Monokklisia on January 8, fire walking in Aghia Eleni on May 20-21 and Bacchic dances in Gazoro.
But the highlight is definitely Lake Kerkini, in the northwest corner of the district, one of the best ecotourism destinations in the country.
Mount Kerkini, a Natura 2000 area, is considered a botanical haven, covered with thick forests of beech, oak and Macedonian pine. The fauna includes wildcats, boars and roe deer. The village of Ano Poroia, the nearest to and with the best views of the lake, is the oldest in the area, retaining its authentic color, and is the starting point for several treks on the beautiful mountain. The summit range of Mt Kerkini delineates the Greek-Bulgarian border and visitors can see the famous Rupel fortifications -- essentially the Greek version of the Maginot Line that withstood the German onslaught in 1941.
Sidirokastro, east of the lake, has ruins of a Byzantine fort built on an impressive granite rock 155 meters high as well as therapeutic springs. On the outskirts, at Mavros Vrachos, is a valley with oak trees.
Alistrati is a picturesque village in the southeastern part of the district, on the slopes of Mount Menikio. It has a small zoo and south of the village is the cave of the same name (tel 23240.82045, www.alistraticave.gr), one of the country’s most impressive. Further down is the Aggitis Gorge and bridge, and impressive ancient Macedonian drainage works.
How to get there
Serres is 587 kilometers from Athens and 80 km from Thessaloniki. Three intercity buses leave from Athens daily (tel 210.512.0212/513.3280) at 8.30 a.m., 2 p.m. and 9 p.m. (also at 4 p.m. Fridays). Departures are more frequent from Thessaloniki (tel 2310.595.428). For more info, call 14505 or visit www.ktel.org. Trains via Thessaloniki call first at Rodopolis (for Lake Kerkini) and then at Serres (tel 1110). The fourth alternative is to fly to Thessaloniki and then rent a car (Olympic Air, tel 210.355.0500, 801.801.0101; Aegean Airlines, tel 801.112.0000).
What to see & do
In Serres, see the Byzantine acropolis, the Archaeological Museum (tel 23210.22257) in the 16th-17th-century Bezesteni Market, the Sarakatsani Folk History Museum (tel 23210.62528), the 1492 Ahmet-Pasha Mosque, the pretty suburb of Aghios Ioannis -- a wonderfully lush area with small waterfalls; in Sidiro-kastro, the excellent Michalis Tsartsidis Folklore and History Museum (tel 23230.22307/218); skiing at Lailias (tel 23210.58784/53790), 26 km from Serres city; Turkish baths at Agistro (tel 23230.41420/30), open 24 hours.
Few other Greek districts boast as many famous delicacies, these include akanes, a kind of Turkish delight made of fresh butter -- easily found in shops in Serres city center -- and bougatsa, a pie that contains custard-like cream, cheese or minced meat. The district also specializes in dairy and meat products and is known for kavourmas, a meat cured according to a recipe brought by refugees from Turkey (80 percent buffalo meat, 15 percent pork and 5 percent lamb; outlets: Zelios Boras, in Livadia, tel 23270.31109, and Mesogaia, 52 Nikis Street, Athens).
info: By Haris Argyropoulos kathimerini.gr