Tourism in the tunnels of war on Greece’s northern border

The fortifications along the Metaxas Line built to protect Greece from a Bulgarian invasion have become an attraction for visitors


“In a straight line, Bulgaria is less than 500 meters from here,” says Panagiotis Savvidis, moving his finger to make me see an imaginary line that reaches the neighboring country. The border region where we find ourselves, a few kilometers outside the village of Petritsi, in Central Macedonia, hides under the raging vegetation the signs of its long and rich military history. Outposts, anti-tank lines and machine gun bunkers are scattered around us. One can hardly imagine what was going on in these narrow backroads, where the only noise we hear is the roar of traffic from the nearby Egnatia Highway and the sound of the Strymonas River flowing through the forested area.

This is exactly what Savvidis, journalist and founder of the social cooperative enterprise Angistro Drasi wants to reverse. In recent years, Savvidis has been highlighting parts of the military past of the Greek-Bulgarian border through thematic tours of the forts of the pre-WWII Metaxas Line – a chain of fortifications designed to protect Greece in case of a Bulgarian invasion, named after then prime minister Ioannis Metaxas – but also in more recent defense projects dating from the Cold War. Kathimerini followed him on one such tour in the mountains of Serres.

Modeled after Verdun

The meeting point was in a clearing. We drove ahead in a dusty jeep and a small group of visitors, mostly families with children, followed in their cars. “.In 2016 I went to Verdun in France, which was one of the largest battlefields of the First World War. There I saw that an entire local community lives off history. A town of about 30,000 people lives off military tourism,” he told me on the way.

Battlefield tourism is one of the most popular categories of “dark tourism” (a unique form of tourism that involves travel to sites associated with death, suffering and tragedy) and in recent decades has been systematically developed in many European countries. Some of those sites allow visitors to spend the night in forts to experience, however modestly, the circumstances of another era.

Born and raised in Serres, Savvidis quickly realized that such a trend fits perfectly with the profile of his region and could help it significantly financially, providing a boost to local hotels and restaurants. He started his business in 2017 with friends, fellow villagers and associates to trace the most interesting paths in the mountains that lead to forts and clean some tunnels.

‘In 2016 I went to Verdun in France, which was one of the largest battlefields of the First World War. There I saw that an entire local community lives off history. A town of about 30,000 people lives off military tourism’

“In the northern part of the Serres regional unit alone there are five of the 21 forts of the Metaxas Line, which was the largest Greek construction project of the 20th century,” he says. The guided tours organized by his group cover a longer historic period, starting from the interwar years up to the mid-90s.

First stop is an abandoned outpost. “When my father brought me and my brothers fishing, we would be inspected at this checkpoint and we would leave our identity cards. It had a lot of army staff then because Bulgaria [then under communism] was considered a danger from the north. I’m talking about 1975,” he explains. It turns into a dirt track and we start to climb the mountain. He makes stops right and left to show us hatches where the army stored ammunition and was ready to detonate it from a distance in case enemy troops tried to approach. The visitors seem excited about this information.

The Metaxas Line on the Greek-Bulgarian border was strengthened during the Cold War. [Alexandros Avramidis]

A few meters further on, the hike begins. The final destination is an arcade of Fort Paliouriones, which Savvidis’ team has cleaned and prepared for a guided tour. The trek leads through a lush green forest. We are walking on a hill opposite Fort Roupel. At the time of the Second World War all these mountains were cut bare to increase the army’s visibility. Savvidis describes the difficult days before the invasion of the German army. “There were not many soldiers because most of them were fighting the Italians on the Albanian front. Here, most were reservists, 40- and 50-year-old men from our region. That’s why the areas here had a lot of losses in the war.”

Visitors take photos in front of a cannon poking out of a bunker. [Αlexandros Avramidis]

By exploring and cleaning the galleries, Savvidis had the opportunity to get closer to the soldiers who were serving at the time, discovering real treasures. “We found soldiers’ letters, letterheads, helmets and local newspapers,” he tells us. A moment he still remembers is when he found an edition of the newspaper Fos, dated April 4, 1941. “Only the officers read the newspaper, just enough to know what was going on. This newspaper would have arrived here the next day, April 5. In a few hours, the attack of the German army would begin.”

“Paliouriones and Roupel kept the straits impregnable and the Germans didn’t come down,” he says, trying to orientate the visitors as to the location and the historical importance of where we are. In the middle of the mountain the visitors observe an anti-tank line, made of Peloponnese Railway tracks. Savvidis points to the bullet holes in some of them, as well as the year of their construction: 1898. The line was built to obstruct enemy tanks, so as to give Roupel time to target them. “Many battles took place here,” he says.

At the end of our trek, an impressive cannon can be seen, poking out from underneath an overgrown bunker. It’s “very Instagramable,” he jokes. Indeed, members of the group stand in front of it and take selfies before starting the descent into one of the arcades of Fort Paliouriones.

Walking through the narrow corridors of the fort, several meters underground, where the light dwindles sharply, is an experience in itself, and the Agistro Drasi team strives to enhance this feeling. At the first crossroad, a man dressed as a WWII soldier holds a lantern and shows us the way, while the echo of gunfire is heard from loudspeakers. Inside the gallery, Giorgos Polychrous, a historian specializing in the war preparations during Ioannis Metaxas’ premiership and now a tourist agent, takes over the tour. “The forts were built in such a way that they had a constant temperature of 14 degrees Celsius all year round,” he explains. Polychrous decided to enter the field of “dark tourism” after he got to know the forts up close. “I never imagined either the size or the grandeur of the forts. It is one thing to read about them and quite another to do field research: to see them, to walk through them, to understand the conditions under which they were built and how they are preserved to this day.”

Giorgos Polychrous, a historian specializing in the war preparations of Greek Premier Ioannis Metaxas, reveals the secrets of the forts. ‘The forts were built in such a way that they had a constant temperature of 14 degrees Celsius all year round,’ he explains. [Alexandros Avramidis]

Realizing the power of that feeling, he joined forces with Savvidis to realize their vision to transform the historical wealth of the area into an attractive tourist product, and at the same time to keep the historical memory alive. They started the first thematic routes just before the coronavirus pandemic hit and tell us that interest in the tours is high.

The biggest challenge facing their project is that the forts and the area surrounding them belong to the Ministry of Defense. The question of their use by the local communities has been raised by local government representatives. Savvidis and Polychrous felt more optimistic about the future when they heard Defense Minister Nikos Dendias state recently that the ministry and the government absolutely agree on handing over the forts to the local community, and society as a whole.

They say that such a move will help to preserve and highlight these important military outposts, and boost the economic growth of the region, which already attracts tourists who visit Lake Kerkini and the Agistros thermal springs.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.