Nestled between the mountains of Kilkis to the west, the Rhodope mountain range to the northeast and bordering on Bulgaria, due north, the well-watered fertile plain of the Serres region is dominated by the manmade Lake Kerkini. But the abundant Lake and adjacent wetland represent just one of Serres’ many attractions. Visitors come to hike its valleys or climb its summits, explore the timelessness of its ancient Ottoman and Byzantine ruins and forts, or bathe in the therapeutic waters of its natural mineral springs.
While few Europeans are aware of the treasures waiting to be discovered in the country’s north, there are increasing well-heeled visitors from the nations of the former Soviet Union and Balkans. However, the Serres region has somehow remained off the beaten track for most visitors to Greece. It is this lack of overdevelopment as compared to the rest of the country that caused the entire prefecture to be chosen as a European Destination of Excellence (EDEN) in 2010. The EDEN awards are intended to promote year-round sustainable tourism models across the EU and the 2010 theme was aquatourism, something in which Serres excels!
Fed by the Strymon or Strymonas river that originates in Bulgaria’s Mount Vitosas, flows across the prefecture and empties
into the Orfanos Gulf in the south, the Serres plain has ample water for a rich agricultural landscape that has drawn inhabitants since the beginning of time. The artificial Lake Kerkini was created by a dam on former marshland in 1928 in order to halt outbreaks of malaria among newly resettled refugees from Asia Minor. Its channels and canals as well as the Kerkinitis river, descending from nearby Mount Mavrovouni to the west, today make this some of Greece’s most arable land. Archaeological exploration of the area of Mount Vrontos, covered by the Lailias Forest, indicates that Neolithic tribes mined the region’s minerals and felled its timber as far back as 1200 BC. Thankfully, the modern inhabitants take better care to preserve the region’s natural wealth.
The flatlands, mostly planted with grain and cotton in the 19th century, host agricultural production today that is as diverse as it is eco-friendly. Area entrepreneurs are proud of their organically grown produce, from fruits, vegetables and grains to honey, tahini, pulses, olive oil and dairy. Recent startups include the cultivation of the ancient antioxidant biofood spirulina and ostrich farming. Serres is also famous for its own indigenous ‘Turkish’ delight – ‘loukoumia’ in Greek – locally called ‘akanes’ and made of fresh goat butter and the pure water of the nearby mountains.The region was also reputedly a favored haunt of wine god Dionysius, a claim its viticulturists heartily endorse. The majority of the wineries offer tours to visitors and host autumn festivals, and so do some distilleries, keeping in mind that ouzo is also produced here from natural aromatic ingredients.
The tavernas in the small villages that dot both the plain and higher elevations serve local game and traditional ethnic recipes created by the multicultural influences of its turbulent history. This was a region much fought over in both modern and ancient times; even today a visit to the Roupel Fortress, near the border with Bulgaria, must be chaperoned by the military. Serres only became part of Greece in 1913. It was an important seat of Byzantium and played a significant role in the uprising against Ottoman rule and in holding back Axis powers Germany and Bulgaria in the Second World War, as can be seen from the area’s many fortresses and monasteries.
The county capital, also called Serres, is the only major urban center, a sprawling verdant city with large squares and impressive mansions that attest to the region’s long prosperity. It’s center is Plateia Eleftherias, meaning Freedom Square, and a festival is held from June 23 to 29 to celebrate the region’s liberation from the Bulgars in 1213. The music dance and arts festival ‘Gefiroudiana’ takes place from August 20-30. The park in the valley of Agii Anargyroi, off Exochon Street, is one of the most shady and beautiful, providing respite and relaxation. It is the municipality’s cool hotspot in the summer months.
Just 86 kilometers from Greece’s second-largest city of Thessaloniki, the city is served by 33 buses daily from that city and 3 daily from Athens as well as by railroad, making it easily accessible for the ski and snowboard devotees who flock to the winter sports center 24 kilometers from the city. But when winter passes, the massive Vrontos mountain massif – 33,000 stremma (or 33 square kilometres) – on which the alpine center sits, settles back into pristine beech and pine forest that is the perfect escape from the stresses of modern living. The Lailias Forest provides a canopy of flora in which to explore. It would be a shame to miss its kaleidoscope of foliage during the ‘off’ seasons.
One of the few success stories of man’s intervention in nature, this rich biotope, 17 kilometers in length and 5 wide at its maximum in early spring, is home to more than 620 species of plants, 31 species of fish as well as amphibians and reptiles, rodents and immeasurable insects. An entomologist’s dream, 120 species of butterfly alone flit among its wildflowers. This generous ecosystem also supports hedgehogs, hares, ferrets, foxes, wolves, boar and roe deer that roam Kerkini’s shores, not to mention the herds of water buffalo wallowing among the water lilies in its shallows. However, it is the birdwatching that draws the greatest number of visitors to this protected national nature reserve, one of 10 in Greece of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. At almost any time of the year, the lake hosts more than 20,000 birds, from ducks, geese and swans to pelicans, egrets, herons, storks and cormorants. Listed as an Important Bird Area under the Bonn Convention, many migratory birds come here to reproduce, including eagles, owls and numerous passerines and songbirds in addition to the more prevalent waterfowl.
For those more inclined to doing than observing, a range of activities, including fishing, boating, canoe and kayaking, cycling, trail walking and climbing and horseback riding are also on offer.