Kavala is a Hidden Greek Classic
With its multifaceted history contributing to a vibrant atmosphere today, there’s definitely something unique about Kavala, called “the blue city” on account of the crystal clear waters of its coasts and dreamy sea views. This atmospheric northern port city on the Thracian Sea is 27 centuries old, having been founded in the seventh century BC by settlers from the nearby Aegean island of Thassos. Back then the new town was called Neapolis, which was allied with Athens through the Peloponnesian War and later belonged to the Second Athenian League. Eventually, it would be conquered by the ancient Kingdom of Macedonia and its present name of Kavala is said to be based on the name of Alexander the Great’s favorite horse. Equally legendary is the city’s setting itself, rising amphitheatrically from the Bay of Kavala with the old town unfolding atop the triangular Panagia peninsula, a mosaic of winding lanes and old red-tile roofed houses under the benevolent watch of the Byzantine fortress known as the Kastro. Apostle Paul alighted at Kavala (then still Neapolis) on his first voyage to Europe and in and around the city today early Christian pilgrimage sites mix with evocative remnants of Ottoman architecture like the Imaret. And Philippi, a major archaeological site and the ancient city for which modern Kavala was the port, beckons just nine miles from the center of town.
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The oldest part of Kavala takes its name from the Panagia church and you can enjoy a stroll around its winding streets lined by pastel-colored houses, under the protective guard of the 15th the century Kastro with its sturdy crenelated fortress walls—you can even walk up the narrow staircase of the inner round tower for a spectacular 360-degree city and sea view. The neighborhood around it is a melting pot of Mediterranean cultural heritage, with a mix of Macedonian architecture and Eastern influences. The beautiful Halil Bey Mosque has a distinctive ruby-colored facade and nearby is the Mohamed Ali House, former home of the Pasha Mehmet Ali and one of the best surviving examples of 18th-century Ottoman architecture in Greece. As for Mehmet Ali, he founded Egypt’s last royal dynasty and more infamously sent his fleet to slaughter Christian Greeks on the islands of Kasos and Psara during Greece’s war of independence. Inside the two-story house, museum are displays of Ottoman wood carvings, rugs and swords (also, note the elegant second-story corbelled wooden beams, known as sachnisi, and the equestrian statue of the Pasha at the entrance). With its 18 graceful domes, the Imaret was built as the Pasha’s seminary for students of Islamic theology back in 1817. Its sea of chimneys and domes is a visual throwback to a simpler time and today it is really a living monument because its lavish rooms and sumptuous gardens form the basis of a modern luxury hotel that is truly unique in Greece.
The Kamares arches
The all-important ancient Roman military road known as the Via Egnatia ran right through Kavala which was a boost to commerce in the town in the period of late antiquity. In the Middle Ages, the aqueduct that the Romans had built first was expanded under the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent.
The steadfast Ottoman engineering helped ensure the aqueduct’s place as a city landmark today; with its sixty arches of four different sizes and a height of 52 meters (nearly 175 feet), the aqueduct is one of the most impressive sites in northern Greece. Rising majestically over the tangle of cobblestone streets, it was truly built to last! If you care to linger in the vicinity, you could check out Oinoi wine bar, Derelicte for cocktails, or a perennial favorite bar called simply 1901 (at 33 Theodorou Poulidou Street).
Seafront and Tobacco Warehouses
Kavala’s seaward gaze is naturally one of its greatest charms, and of course, that also means fresh seafood which can be enjoyed at any number of tavernas like Psaraki (3 Ethnikis Antistaseos), the tsipouro taverna Nafpigion by the boatyard area, and contemporary Apiko. Turning just slightly away from the sea, the city has a very interesting architectural legacy that has more to do with tobacco. By the 19th century and up until 1950 the tobacco trade was flourishing in Kavala and that led to a renaissance of architectural styles. Wealthy merchants built fanciful residences many of which you can still see today in the town center. Kavala’s Town Hall actually has a tobacco connection: This fanciful Gothic revival style building, on Kyprou Street, was built in the late 1890s for a Hungarian tobacco merchant. With its arches, Venetian Gothic apses and oriel windows, it’s an unexpected sight guaranteed to light up your Instagram. It has housed the office of the Mayor since 1937. There are very cool tobacco warehouses too: The Municipal Tobacco Warehouse, for example, was built in 1910 in the Ottoman neoclassical style; its rooftop parapet features four crowns and representations of flowers and suns adorn the broad pink facade. If you have time, visit the Tobacco Museum, with its modern industrial and experiential exhibits about the industry that defined much of Kavala’s urban aesthetic.
The Archaeological Museum of Kavala displays finds from the broader area of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace. Start with artifacts from the Neolithic site of Dikili Tash before immersing yourself in the main “Neapolis-Christoupolis-Kavala” exhibit, with its numerous references to Parthenos, the patron goddess of Neapolis. The goddess’s sanctuary was a grand Ionic temple from the early 5th century BC made of white Thassian marble and here you can see two of the original columns. Also, on display are sculptures, ancient coins and a large collection of vases and figurines, many of which were dedicated by the faithful to Parthenos.
The ancient city of Philippi was founded in 360 BC by colonists from Thassos and called Krenides (meaning “springs”) but in 356 BC it was conquered by King Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, and renamed Philippi. The presence of gold mines nearby only added to the town’s strategic importance, as it commanded a principal trade route between Europe and Asia and flourished even more in the Hellenistic period that followed Alexander’s death. Later, in the 2nd century BC, the Via Egnatia Roman military road passed through and in 42 BC the stage was set for the Battle of Philippi that pitted Mark Antony and Octavian against generals Brutus and Cassius, the leaders of Julius Caesar’s assassination two years earlier. The epic battle involved some 200,000 men and left the Second Triumvirate in charge of Rome. The site’s prominence persisted through subsequent Byzantine and post-Byzantine Christian periods, accounting for the palimpsest of stone remnants (even including relief decorations from the time of Philip II) that visitors walk amongst today. Highlights include the Hellenistic theater, set dramatically against the hill, the forum, and evocative ruins of the basilicas that rose here once Philippi became an important center of early Christianity. It was in Philippi that the first European Christian, Lydia of Thyatira, was baptized by Apostle Paul in 49A, in the River Zygaktis. There’s a very worthwhile museum too, where more delicate finds are displayed, and the story of Philippi can be better understood in the context of this fascinating corner of Greece.