An aerial view of Kilkis at the foot of Saint Georgios Hill
An aerial view of Kilkis at the foot of Saint Georgios Hill (Photo courtesy via Creative Commons License)

At 26-miles (43 km) south of the present-day Greek-Bulgarian border and 29 miles (48 km) north of Thessaloniki, Kilkis occupies a perilous perch as a guardian of the gates of freedom in northern Greece. Indeed, this quiet, happy little city of 23,000 hasn’t always been happy.

The Bulgarians occupied Kilkis and the surrounding area of present-day Greek Macedonia until 1914. It took two Balkan Wars (1911-1913) and the outcome of World War I for the Greeks to repel multiple invaders. But the end of the Great War, as many refer to World War I, was the 20th-Century squabble stemming from a series of military conflicts in the region over the Millennia.

Over the last 2,500 years, the Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Slavs, Ottoman’s and 20th century Axis powers overran, occupied and controlled the Kilkis region only to face rejection by guardians old and new. The struggle to preserve a distinct Greek cultural identity and control over these embattled historic territories continues to this day. Through it all, the area began and remains Greek and in the historic territories of ancient Greece.

Yet, it is the survival of Kilkis and the towns and villages nearby from unrelenting multi-cultural influences that make this area a less than obvious but robust choice for the inquisitive traveler looking for a cultural potpourri of experiences.

It is here in this region one may survey the land to ponder the influence of warfighters from forgotten battlefronts who stood for freedom and the values of western civilizations against forces of tyranny. It is here, you’ll discover a multi-cultural history, unique twists on gastronomic delights, a great outdoors for hikers, climbers, equestrians and sailplane pilots, and the contemplative solace of historic sites, museums and Orthodox sanctuaries that dot the surrounding landscape.

Macedonia: The Front Line Of A War-Torn History

When King Phillip II of Macedon conquered a loosely knit group of tribes called the Paionians circa 355–354 B.C., he could not foresee his actions would contribute to countless conflicts to control Macedonian territory that continue right up to this day. In Phillips time, the major threat to freedom in the ancient Greek world was from the East: the Persian Empire. Phillip stood as an early guardian at the gates of Macedonia during the Hellenistic Age (323 – 31 B.C.).

Ancient Macedon. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia via a Creative Commons License
Ancient Macedon. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia via a Creative Commons License

One thousand years after Phillip’s rule, Slav’s seized control of what were Hellenistic-era Macedonian lands from the Eastern Holy Roman or Byzantine Empire. Claims over all things Macedonian between the Greeks and the Slavs has been going on since  — with some interplay by the Ottomans and other empires at different points in time.

Recent heritage claims over King Phillip, his son Alexander the Great, and Macedonian symbology from the Hellenistic Era by the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) led to an uneasy 2018 agreement between Greece and FYROM. FYROM agreed to rename its country North Macedonia and to refer to all statues and symbols from the ancient Greek Macedonian era as symbols “honoring Greek-Macedonian friendship.” In return, Greece dropped opposition to the entry of North Macedonia into the NATO alliance.

The Orient: A Forgotten Front

Strife in the Balkans stretches well beyond the heritage claims between North Macedonia and Greece. In the trail dust of the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire, the Greeks found themselves caught up in the vortex a much larger event at the end of two Balkan Wars (1911-1913): World War I — the most consequential event of the 20th century.

The Great War destroyed old colonial Europe. The Central Powers of the German, Austro–Hungarian, Ottoman and Bulgarian empires fell transforming the territorial and political landscape in Europe and the Middle East.

Belligerents in the Balkan Wars and World War I
Belligerents in the Balkan Wars and World War I

Today, many among us recall the war as a conflict on the western front. The majestic battlements that dot Belgium, France, and Germany, are stark, attention-getting reminders of the 9,000,000 deaths that stem from this war.

But the front in the Orient, as the French would refer to Greece and the Balkans, is a different story. These territories cradle fragments of military history about faceless soldiers who fought in a largely unknown and nearly forgotten theatre of war.

Kilkis: A Phoenix Out Of The Vortex

The Kilkis region today in Greek Macedonia is a land of quiet, peaceful, fields and meadows that obscure much of what is knowable about the 600,000 allied soldiers who fought here during the Great War. Greek, British, Italian, and Russian fighters fought here.

No warfighters from this era survive today. It’s difficult to find a living relative of a Greek who can regale you with first-hand anecdotes about what happened here. For descendant relatives today, battles on the Greek Macedonian Front and World War I were the realm of their grandfathers in a distant, largely unknowable series of conflicts.

Today we may enjoy the delights of travel through the Kilkis region thanks to these freedom fighters. Here are a few ideas about places to go and things to see and do.

What’s Here For You?

War Memorials, Finding Soldiers

Doirani, Karasouli, Kilkis, Polykastro, Saragol, and Skra are popular area battle sites for visitors. The Fall of 2018 marked the Centenary of the Armistice of Thessalonica. The Duke of Kent with his Royal Highness visited the area to lay wreaths for fallen soldiers on these sites.

Some freedom fighters were Americans who enlisted in the Canadian Army masquerading as Canadians. Americans looking for lost relatives and friends from this theater of action should search the ranks of Canadian forces members in the online database by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Four thousand Commonwealth servicemen and servicewomen died in this theater of war during World War I. Another 3,700 died of diseases.

Greeks Leaving New York To Fight In The Balkan War, October 1912
Greeks Leaving New York To Fight In The Balkan War, October 1912

The Duke of Kent is the President of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. This organization preserves the memory of almost 1,700,000 servicemen and servicewomen from 150 countries who gave their lives in World Wars I and II.

Battleground: Skra

There’s no doubt Axis soldiers fought against the Allies at little Skra, a mountaintop village of 60 people just east of Mount Paino that stands at 1,706 feet (520 meters) only 2 miles (4 km) from the border of North Macedonia. Skra is about a 1-hour drive away from Kilkis. Here you’ll find a monument and museum that present remembrances of the famous battle of Skra Ravine on May 17, 1918, a struggle vital to Greek independence at the time.

The War Museum in the town square at Skra
The War Museum in the town square at Skra

But Skra isn’t just about war history. It’s also home to inviting nature trails and the notable Skra Waterfalls and lagoon just outside town. If you visit during the high season (mid-April — mid-October), you’ll get a chance to taste to local cooking at the several local eateries near the town square.

Lagoon at Skra Falls
Lagoon at Skra Falls

Note: If you carry a cell phone with you, take a look at it while you are in Skra. You may not be able to use it. But your phone will pick up cell towers in North Macedonia (formerly FYROM) and broadcast “Welcome To Macedonia.”  Of course, the Greeks would differ with this message. But that’s how close you are to the border.

Battleground: Doirani

Lake Doirani spans the border of North Macedonia and Greece. Given this location, you’ll not be surprised to learn Doirani is also the site of a famous WWI battle between the Allied and Axis Powers.

A partial view of the war memorial at Doirani
A partial view of the war memorial at Doirani

A visit to Doirani ensures you can stand on the hill that cradles an allied World War I Memorial that salutes the service of Commonwealth fighters from across the globe. From here, you can peer into North Macedonia easily.

A salute to the Britisk Salonika Force members at the WWI memorial at Doirani
A salute to the British Salonika Force members at the WWI memorial at Doirani

Battleground: Fort Roupel (Serres Region)

A partial view of the war memorial at Fort Roupel.
A partial view of the war memorial at Fort Roupel. Bulgaria is in the background.

It wasn't enough for the Greeks to ward off the Axis Powers during World War I. They had to do it all over again during World War II.

Fort Roupel is a World War II-era site in the neighboring Serres region not far from Kilkis. It is emblematic of historic Greek efforts to ward off invaders in Macedonia.

Many remains of the original Fort are intact. It stands among many in a line of fortifications across Northern Greece known as the Metaxas Line. Built A few years before the outbreak of World War II, 21 independent complexes span 133 miles (215 km), roughly the area from the city of Serres to to the east of Kilkis over to Komotini.

The Fort is an active Army base. If you visit, a Greek Army soldier will serve as your guide. He’ll take you through an underground tunnel complex, across a hilltop memorial and through the museum onsite.

Partial view of the museum entrance to the underground tunnels at Fort Roupel
Partial view of the museum entrance to the underground tunnels at Fort Roupel

Cave Exploration

The last Ice Age cast the fate of Kilkis and the surrounding region in stone. The city stands today at the base of Saint Georgios Hill.

At first glance, there’s little notable about Saint Georgios. There’s an 1830-era post-Byzantine church at the summit with the café Lofos. Nearby, an open-air theater hosts musical and theatrical events during the summer. Artists from across the world flock to this place and parade the streets of the city during the annual Puppet Festival.

The church on Saint Georgios Hill, Kilkis, Macedonia, Greece
The church on Saint Georgios Hill overlooking Kilkis, Macedonia, Greece
The Lofos Cafe on St. Georgios Hill, Kilkis, Macedonia, Greece
The Lofos Cafe on St. Georgios Hill, Kilkis, Macedonia, Greece

It turns out Saint Georgios is home to a 29,000-year-old cave, the ancient watchtower of the area. It’s the most popular tourist attraction in the city and perhaps, the most notable of its kind in all of Greece.

The Spotted Hyena stood as the first guardian of the gate over this area from Saint Georgios in Paleolithic times. The cave was home for this predator, and the remains of ancient cows called Aurochs, giant Deer, Elk, Fox, Horse and the remains of Pleistocene Age flora and fauna. It is one of the most important paleontological sites in Europe.

The 29,000 year old cave of the spotted hyena in Kilkis, Greece
The 29,000-year-old cave of the spotted hyena in Kilkis, Greece

Discovered in 1925, the Saint Georgios Cave presents an unusual upright or “T” like shape with two entrances.  The counterposing vertical and horizontal shafts in the cave project high ceilings and expansive spaces that present stalactites in dramatic contrasts of shadow and light. The corridors run 984 feet (300 meters), and the entire cave spans more than 10,763 square feet (1,000 square meters).

The Saint Georgios Cave Structure
The Saint Georgios Cave Structure

Meet A Modern-Day Guardian

Vasileos Makridis is a caveman. He’s always been a caveman. His soul is ancient. His essence is elemental. His spirit asserts his dominion over the 29,000-year-old Saint Georgios Cave where he connects with the guardians of old, like the spotted hyena that ruled here 13,000 years ago, and other kindred spirits of the periodic table. He’s the Caveman of Kilkis.

The author with Vasileos Makridis, the Caveman of Kilkis
The author with Vasileos Makridis, the Caveman of Kilkis

The Caveman’s passion for this place runs as deep as his knowledge of all that remains ancient here. He has spent a lifetime in this cave with explorations spanning back to his youth. He is a subject matter expert when it comes to debates about this place. He’s the guy the university professors and scientists call when they want answers about this cave.

The Caveman of Kilkis with a mockup explorer in climbing gear
The Caveman of Kilkis with a mockup explorer in climbing gear

There’s much to learn about the Saint Georgios Cave. But for you, the traveler, here’s what you need to know.

This is one of the few caves in Greece where you can snap photos and shoot videos to your hearts' delight without coming under the regulatory thumb of a national government ministry. Plus, if you tour this cave, the Caveman will be your guide. He’ll probably have an interpreter with him if you visit with a group.

Visit A Monastery

If religious history is an area of interest for you, you’ll find the Kilkis region will accommodate your interests.

Dozens of picturesque Greek Orthodox churches and religious retreats dot the landscape of the Kilkis region with glorious references to the Apostle Paul and Saint John. Collectively, they stand as the earliest evidence of Christianity in Europe outside the Levant.

If you drive around the region, you’ll see signs for ιερον ησυχαστηριον τιμιου προδρομου ακριτοχωριου (the sanctuary of the honorary precursor), a common name for any one of several religious retreats by the same name.

Between Kilkis and Serres you’ll find the monastery Kritoxori in Sidirocastro, near Lake Kerkini. About 40 nuns run this place. All hold advanced degrees in different disciplinary fields.

Monastery near Lake Kerkini, Greece
Monastery near Lake Kerkini, Greece

If you get a chance, stop by for a visit. You’ll find you are quite welcome. And if you speak Greek, you gain an appreciation of how these nuns help preserve Greek culture, history, education, and the 1,800-year-old link between the Greeks and Christianity. The nuns also teach ancient Greek to parishioners.

RoverTreks CEO Karla with Sister Jacovi At The Monastery
RoverTreks CEO Karla with Sister Jacovi At The Monastery

Kilkis: Your Base To Explore The Region

A trip to the Kilkis region in Northern Greece offers something for everyone. Go to experience some of the rural best getaways, retreats to the mountains, farm-to-table fresh food, and a distinct trademark calm very different from the hustle and bustle of the Greek islands during the high season.

Where To Stay

Visitors from across the world will find the ultramodern Evridiki Hotel a delightful distraction from the labors of sightseeing and tours in Kilkis region. This mid-size family-run boutique hotel is one of the best small hotels in Greece in our experience.

A partial view of a suite at the ultra-modern Evridiki Hotel
A partial view of a suite at the ultra-modern Evridiki Hotel

The quality of the furnishings, the thoughtful design and layout, and service at the Evridiki all stem from the genius of owner Fivos Hatzivassiliou. He’s a Ph.D. engineer and retired Hellenic Air Force officer with extensive experience living and working outside Greece. He brings his extensive insight and refined taste from a lifetime of travel to the Evridiki. His experience is plain for all to see. Fivos has thought of every detail an international traveler would want.

Bed At The Ultra-Modern Eridiki Hotel, Kilkis, Macedonia, Greece
Bed At The Ultra-Modern Eridiki Hotel, Kilkis, Macedonia, Greece
The Author With The Owner Fivos Hatzivassiliou At The Evridiki Hotel, Kilkis, Macedonia, Greece
The Author With The Owner Fivos Hatzivassiliou At The Evridiki Hotel, Kilkis, Macedonia, Greece

The Evridiki is close to Saint Georgios Hill and within walking distance of the best restaurants in the city. Best of all, it’s the perfect place to stay for small groups out to see the sights in the area. All the war memorials and outdoor attractions at the nearby villages of Skra, Doirani, Goumenitsa, Karasouli, Polykastro, Axioupoli, and elsewhere are a quick and easy drive from Kilkis.

Where To Eat

Barrel At The Entrance Of Varelofrones
Barrel At The Entrance Of Varelofrones

When in doubt, ask a local where the locals go to eat great food in Kilkis. The Varelofrones Steakhouse was at the top of the list of all to whom we spoke — and for a good reason.

If you like steaks, you can count on tasty, farm-to-table, country fed fresh beef seared just the way you want it at Varelofrones. Our taste buds and these pictures say it all — simple, straight from the local countryside food and down-home cooking.

Lamb chops and Fries at Varlofrones, Kilkis, Macedonia, Greece
Lamb chops and Fries at Varlofrones, Kilkis, Macedonia, Greece
A house salad at Varelofrones
A house salad at Varelofrones
Szanziki at Varelophrones, Kilkis, Macedonia, Greece
Szanziki at Varelophrones, Kilkis, Macedonia, Greece

How to Get There

Fly into Thessaloniki International “Macedonia” Airport (SKG). You’ll need a rental car to see the Kilkis region. Economy Car Rentals offers competitive rates and will allow rentals for longer than 30-days for those with long-term travel plans.

Kilkis stands about a 1-hour drive north of SKG. The E75 Highway that spans Skopje in North Macedonia to Polykastro, Thessaloniki, and Athens in Greece runs through the Kilkis region from south to north.

You can also fly into Athens International Airport (ATH) and get a connecting flight to either SKG or, you can drive to Kilkis from Athens (about 6 hours). The new national road system in Greece makes getting around the country a snap. If you decide to drive from Athens, make sure you have about 100 Euros and a credit card. The new national road system is a toll road.

When To Go

You can visit the Kilkis region area all year long. Outdoor activities are, not surprisingly, seasonal. But you can access the war memorials and museums all year. The best months to visit span April-October.

LINKS

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Acknowledgements

The author is the source of all photos in this article unless otherwise specified. All Rights Reserved or as specified on publication.

The author thanks Pass Partout-Tourism Marketing, the Kilkis Regional Unit, and the Eviridiki Hotel for sponsoring his visit to the Kilkis. The assessments in this article are those of the author and do not represent the official views of the parties cited above.

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