The city of Ioannina, western Greece’s main commercial and administrative hub for centuries, evokes strong historical and cultural associations in the country’s psyche.
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The mountainous region of Epirus, of which Ioannina lies at the center, is associated with heroic acts of resistance against Ottoman rule, the thwarting of the Italian invasion of 1940 (celebrated on October 28), as well as a distinct cultural and folk tradition. It has also produced an ample number of national benefactors who founded notable schools and libraries and made major contributions to the liberation of the country.
Built on the shore of Lake Pamvotis, with imposing mountains all around and with one of the highest levels of precipitation in Greece -- bringing occasional blankets of fog over the lake -- Ioannina exudes mystique and melancholy that is amply balanced by the liveliness of its large student community.
Much of the city’s history is shrouded in legend, largely linked with the lake. As a multiethnic city of Muslims, Christians and Jews under Ottoman rule, Ioannina flourished, especially around 1800, through its well-developed industries of silversmithing and tanning, as well as its textile, fur and silk trade with the Balkans and big cities in Western Europe. When Lord Byron visited the famous and fearsome regional ruler Ali Pasha in 1809, he described the town as “superior in wealth, refinement and learning” to all others in Greece.
The castle, the lake and traditional architecture provide one of Greece’s most attractive urban settings, in a city of around 100,000 people that is also modern and bustling.
The castle enclosure, one of the country’s oldest, occupies a large area on a promontory in the lake and hosts a number of very interesting museums, although the quarter is a virtual museum in itself. Take a stroll around the cobblestone streets with romantic cafes and restored mansions, or along the lakeside promenade under the old plane trees.
The Aslan Pasha Mosque, at the northwestern end of the castle complex, with superb views of the lake, now houses the municipal museum, with exhibits on the history of the three religious communities that coexisted for several centuries in the city. The mosque, built in 1618, is one of the most impressive examples of Ottoman architecture and art still extant in Greece. The castle complex also hosts the Byzantine Museum and its silver and goldsmith collection. Other disused Ottoman buildings include the impressive Fetihe Mosque, a prison, a library, barracks and Turkish baths.
In the center of the city, note the prefecture building, the square with the landmark 1900 clock tower, Litharitsia Park with a unique view of the lake and City Hall.
The island in the lake has a traditional, stone-built settlement with picturesque alleyways, souvenir shops and tavernas -- often offering questionable value for money. It also hosts a number of monastery complexes from the Byzantine and post-Byzantine era with impressive frescoes.
Ioannina has a vibrant nightlife, with plenty of clubs, bars, theaters and cinemas. Cultural activities abound throughout the year.
There are many things to see outside the city but two are musts: the Paul Vrellis Greek History Wax Museum in Bizani, 12 kilometers from Ioannina, and the Perama Cave -- in the village of the same name 4 kilometers from the city -- estimated to be 1.4 million years old. It is 1,500 meters in length and has 18 different types of stalactites.
Time permitting, it is also worth visiting the village of Zitsa, 24 kilometers northwest of the city, for its well-kept mansions and its famous wines of appellation of controlled origin. On a hill above Zitsa lies the Monastery of Profitis Ilias, with impressive frescoes. In nearby Lithino, there is a natural bridge over the Kalamas River.
Further afield in Ioannina prefecture, it is also worth the trip to the town of Metsovo (59 km), well-known for its cheeses; the Vikos-Aoos National Park, with the world’s deepest canyon, Konitsa (64 km); the archaeological site of the Dodona oracle (22 km); the Zagoria village district, which is among the best in the country for mountaineering and related sports; and Pirsoyianni, the village of the famous stone artisans.
Getting there & about
Olympic (80111.44444) and Aegean (80111.20000) offer several flights a day. An intercity bus from Athens (100 Kifissou, tel 210.512.9363/65) takes about seven hours and driving by car under six hours. The usual route is via the national road to Patras and over the Rio-Antirio bridge. For a more scenic route, go via Trikala, Kalambaka and Metsovo. Thessaloniki bus terminal: tel 2310.512444. Ioannina bus terminal: 26510.26344/26286. Parking in the city tends to be problematic but opportunities are rather better by the clock tower and the lake.
What to see & buy
Paul Vrellis Greek History Wax Museum (92128), Perama Cave (81521/650), Archaeological Museum (25 Martiou, 33357), Byzantine Museum (Kastro, 25989), Municipal Gallery (1 Korai, 75131), 1940-41 War Museum (Kalpaki, 26530.42140), Molyvdoskepasti Monastery (7th century, 26550.24175). In Metsovo: Averof Gallery (26560.41210), Tositsa Museum (2650-41084), Karakoli ski center (41211). Buy decorative plates and other silver and bronze souvenirs from shops near Molos, baklava sweets and hilopites (homemade pasta).
info: By Haris Argyropoulos kathimerini.gr