A week­end in Ioan­nina, cap­i­tal of Epirus, with am­ple charm (and some re­gret­table eye­sores)

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY ELEFT­HE­RIA ALAVANOU

Ioan­nina has as­pects of the West and East en­tan­gled to­gether in its long and ad­ven­tur­ous his­tory. Lo­cated in a beau­ti­ful nat­u­ral set­ting and with a vi­brant cul­tural life, the cap­i­tal of the Epirus re­gion is an ideal au­tumn des­ti­na­tion.

We had lunch at Prasini Akti and as we tucked into mush­room pie and smoked trout washed down with po­tent lo­cal tsipouro (the more ad­ven­tur­ous might like to try the lo­cal spe­cial­ity, fried frog’s legs), the restau­rant’s own­ers told us sto­ries about Pamvotida, the lake on which Ioan­nina sits. Once it was the liveli­hood of most of the town’s res­i­dents. To­day, it is the main land­mark in what is a truly unique city, which com­bines mag­nif­i­cent moun­tain views with charm­ing old neigh­bor­hoods packed with tile-roofed houses, lush green­ery and ev­i­dence of a time when Chris­tians, Mus­lims and Jews co­ex­isted in this part of Greece. To get to know some­thing of this his­tory, visit the Mu­nic­i­pal Mu­seum, which is housed in the for­mer As­lan Pasha Mosque.

Of all the ex­hibits on dis­play at the mu­seum, I was most im­pressed with the Jewish wed­ding con­tracts, known as ke­tubahs, yet the most re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ence comes after mak­ing the long climb to the top of the mosque to take in the breathtaking view of the en­tire city. You should also visit the cas­tle and its acrop­o­lis, lo­cated in the old quar­ter, home to the Fethiye Mosque, built in 1430, and the or­na­mented tomb of Ali Pasha.

Ioan­nina is much like an English tri­fle: The more you dig in, the more you dis­cover in its lay­ers upon lay­ers of his­tory and tra­di­tion.

Yet de­spite its many attractions, Ioan­nina is not per­fect. As in so many other towns and ci­ties in Greece, its tran­si­tion from a tra­di­tional to a mod­ern way of life has left it with more than a few eye­sores, and worse. New build­ings with­out character, style or beauty were al­lowed to flour­ish, while the lake has been treated more as a garbage dump than a thing of life and beauty. The state of the lake is in­deed sur­pris­ing given how the peo­ple of Ioan­nina are so proud of their tra­di­tions and their city.

But there is prom­ise in Ioan­nina yet. One sign of this was at the restau­rant of the Grand Serai Ho­tel, where we had the plea­sure of sam­pling tra­di­tional fla­vors from around the re­gion. As we nib­bled our way through a dozen dishes, we chat­ted to the chef, Alexan­dros Makis, who told us about the in­tri­ca­cies of a per­fect chicken or wild greens pie. Makis, who trained in France and went on to work at top Athe­nian restau­rants be­fore tak­ing up his post at the Grand Serai, is es­pe­cially fond of bak­ing and, of course, Ioan­nina’s tra­di­tional syrupy sweets.

We ded­i­cated the morn­ing of the next day to Ioan­nina’s cul­tural scene, old and new. A visit to the Mu­nic­i­pal Gallery of­fers a good over­view of the trends in mod­ern Greek art as its col­lec­tion in­cludes land­scapes and por­traits, works by cham­pi­ons of the ab­stract, as well as pieces by artists fo­cused on il­lus­trat­ing their “Greek­ness” or on em­brac­ing Euro­pean trends. Tech­no­horos (www.tech­no­horos.eu) is another art hub in the city which hosts tem­po­rary exhibitions.

The Archaeological Mu­seum also has a good col­lec­tion of finds, rang­ing from traces of the first hu­mans in Epirus to the late Ro­man pe­riod, with an em­pha­sis on the ex­ca­va­tions at An­cient Dodoni.

The images we saw in our day­time wan­der­ings ac­com­pa­nied us as we left Ioan­nina, a city that is down to earth yet joy­ful, with a long his­tory and a love of cul­ture. It does have a few an­noy­ing traits, but if it man­ages to over­come th­ese weak­nesses, pro­mote its as­sets and take bet­ter care of its nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, then Ioan­nina could achieve won­der­ful things and make a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to the de­vel­op­ment of Epirus as a whole.

Ex­plor­ing fur­ther afield

If you have more time at your dis­posal, there is much to see around Ioan­nina, such as the is­land on the lake where Ali Pasha died, which is also home to sev­eral im­pres­sive monas­ter­ies, such as Aghios Niko­laos. It is in­hab­ited and has a few shops and restau­rants. Take a walk around the is­land and pay a visit to the in­for­ma­tion booth that of­fers an over­view of the lake’s his­tory and its mod­ern chal­lenges (www.lakepamvo­tis.gr/mu­se­um_la ke).

Perama is another lo­ca­tion worth vis­it­ing. Lo­cated just 4 kilo­me­ters out­side Ioan­nina, it is best known for its caves, which spread out over 14,800 square me­ters and have 19 dis­tinct cham­bers. The tem­per­a­ture inside re­mains at a steady 17 de­grees Cel­sius, the hu­mid­ity is 100 per­cent and the tours tak­ing in its im­pres­sive sta­lag­mites and sta­lac­tites last 45 min­utes (spi­laio-perama.gr/web/). Af­ter­ward, take a walk into the vil­lage of Perama for lunch at Filemata, which serves au­then­tic lo­cal cui­sine.

The Pav­los Vrel­lis Greek His­tory Mu­seum is lo­cated in the vil­lage of Bizani, off the Ioan­nina-Athens na­tional high­way. It con­tains wax ef­fi­gies of Greek his­tor­i­cal fig­ures such as Ri­gas Ve­lestin­lis, An­to­nis Kat­san­to­nis, Theodoros Kolokotro­nis and oth­ers.

Ioan­nina, the cap­i­tal of Epirus, spreads out around Lake Pamvotida. Un­for­tu­nately, the lake is not in the state one would ex­pect given the lo­cals’ pride in their tra­di­tions and their city.

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