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Ioannina, Greece

Ioannina, Lake Pamvotidha

Now a booming University town, Ioannina (Yiánnena in the vernacular) has a superb setting on the shores of Lake Pamvótidha, at the base of Mount Mitsikéli which closes off the landscape on the north. Sadly the city itself, like so many in Greece, doesn’t do justice to its location – too many 1960s apartment blocks have seen to that. But the old fortified quarter, redolent of the life and times of local tyrant Ali Pasha, still covers a promontory jutting out into the lake, which uniquely in Greece has an inhabited island. And if you drive straight down Leoforos Dodonis towards the lake you won't even notice the apartment buildings or that you are in a city.

Ioannina, Lake

Ali Pasha (1741–1822), about whom reams of sensational rubbish (and Lord Byron’s more sober portrait in Childe Harold) have been written, is the major personality of Ioanninot history. The good news is that he encouraged enterprise amongst his largely Greek Orthodox subjects across his territories, making Ioannina the wealthiest, largest town in the region, and ruled semi-autonomously from the Ottoman sultan after the 1790s. The bad news is that he was essentially a very capable psychopath: multi-lingual, a minor military genius, charming, sexually omniverous (he rather fancied Byron), and baroquely cruel (eg, a page-boy who had rejected his advances was coated in oil and shot from a cannon as a live firework). The sultan, finally tiring of his vagaries, sent a huge army to besiege the walled town in 1821; lured from safety by a ruse, the old ogre was ambushed on the lake-islet, shot and decapitated. Curiously, the locals still hold him in some esteem – perhaps rating him, as Franklin Roosevelt supposedly did Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, “a son-of-a-bitch, but our son-of-a-bitch”. There’s a street named for Ali Pasha in the old castle, and you can buy kitsch postcards of his deeds, including one of him swooning like a pussy-cat in the lap of his Greek wife, Kyra Vassiliki.

Ioannina Mosque

Ali Pasha’s head was supposedly sent to the sultan as proof of his demise; the rest of him is buried next to the inner citadel’s Fethiye Tzami, one of two surviving mosques inside the Kástro or castle precinct. The other, the Aslan Pasha Tzami, was used by local Muslims until they departed in 1923, and today houses the Municipal Ethnographic Museum (daily summer 8am–8pm, closes 4pm winter). This includes a small collection of rugs and tapestries donated by the almost-vanished local Jewish community; their fine synagogue, at the edge of the Kástro on Ioustinianoú street, is open primarily by application to the ground-floor community office at Ioséf Eliyiá 18/B.

Ioannina Castle

Also within the castle walls is the Byzantine Museum and the Silversmithing Museum. Nearby but outside the walls is the Archaeological Museum near the Litharitsia Fortress which includes archaeological exhibits from prehistoric times through the late Roman Period including finds from the Dodona sanctuary. The Municipal Art Gallery of Ioannina (Dimotiki Pinakothiki)  housed in the Pyrsinella neoclassical building dating from around 1890 displays about 500 major works including paintings, drawings, prints, photos and sculptures.

Ioannina Shops

What remains of the Jewish and old-bazaar quarters extends west from the Kástro’s land walls towards Anexartissías Street. About 150m west of the main Kástro gate with its clocktower, a memorial obelisk commemorates the 1850 local Jews deported to Aushwitz in March 1944. If you look carefully, some of the old houses still have Hebrew inscriptions and dates over the doors. Retail outlets for silver jewellery – a long-standing city speciality – cluster near the memorial; the last remaining traditional tin- and coppersmiths work along the middle reaches of Anexartissías.

Ioannina Island, Nissi

From the Platía Mavíli quay just west of the Kástro, little bus-boats ply across the murky lake to Nissí, the inhabited islet near the far shore. It makes a lovely, if touristy outing, with non-resident cars banned and a stone-built village settled by 16th-century refugees. Several monsteries flank the village, including Filanthropinón and Dilíou, with vivid, recently cleaned frescoes, and Pandelímonos, where Ali met his end – though this is in fact a total reconstruction, as a falling tree smashed the original building some years back.

Ioannina lake

Places to Visit Near Ioannina

Lake Pamvótidha is beautiful and in the right light visually spectacular. But a closed lake with a city of over 100k around it means that it is probably not the best place to swim though people do eat the eel, trout and frogs legs in the touristy restaurants of Nissos. Whether or not the locals do is the big question. There are walkways and paths and the land is flat and perfect for bicycle riding. There are automated bicycle rental stations at Zosimea Library, Mavili Square, Alsos, and Pyrrou Square.  If you want to swim just drive west on the Egnatia Odos to Syvota or one of the many beaches near there on the Ionian Sea. It will take you an hour and a half. Or drive to Zagoria and swim in a clean mountain stream. (Not recommended if you have a weak heart. It is VERY cold).

For those who would enjoy a visit to the underworld, the Perama Caves are a short drive from Ioannina in the nearby town of Perama. The cave has a remarkable arrangement of stalagmites and stalactites and is five kilometres long though only one kilometre has been explored.

Vikos Gorge

Ioannina is also a good starting point for a visit to Zagoria and the Vikos Gorge, one of the most beautiful areas of Greece, with tall pine covered mountains, ice cold rivers and streams, hiking trails and beautiful villages. For more information see Marc Dubin's Ipiros Guide and Matt's Zagoria Hotel Search.

Theater at Dodona

Another important destination in the area is the ancient site of Dodona near the village of Dodoni whose name should be familiar to anyone who visits Greece regularly and loves ice-cream. This was the oldest oracle in Greece and the second only to the Oracle at Delphi. The most impressive remnant of the ancient town is its theater which could hold 17,000 people and was one of the largest in Greece. Most of the artifacts from the archaeological site are in the Archaeological Museum in Ioannina.

Dulac Hotel, Ioannina

Hotels

Best of two hotels within the Kástro is the imaginatively named Kastro, at the base of the ramp up to the inner citadel. Quietest choice in the new town, though still handy for the bazaar, is Hotel Politeia at Anexartissías 109. If you have a car, it’s far better to stay in Lyngiádhes village on the lower slopes of Mitsikéli, at the superb Hotel Horizon, with views as suggested by the name and just seven, 2007-renovated rooms. Matt stayed at the beautifully renovated Boutique Hotel Metropolis which is right in the thick of things at 33 Averoff which he really liked though he said he was intrigued by the Hotel Du Lac Congress Center & Spa which is in the city but right on the lake and has a swimming pool and extensive landscaped gardens (abobe photo). For more hotels visit Matt's Ioannina Hotel Search.

Ioannina street

Food

Ioannina claims to be the original home of bougátsa (custard pie, either sweet or savoury) – a great breakfast. Selekt at central Platía Dhimokratías 2 is the classic outlet. The favourite dining venue for a warm evening is the line of lakeside restaurants west of the castle along Pamvotídhas and Papágou streets; most bank heavily on their position, though I’ve had repeated good-value meals at Stin Ithaki at Papágou 20/A and Diethnes is known for its baklava and all sorts of exotic sweets. The best mayireftá, in stylish surroundings, is at Fysa Roufa, just up from the main Kástro gate at Avéroff 55 and supposedly open around the clock. For a grilled-meat feed at affordable prices in atmospheric surrounds, there’s To Metsovo, closer to the gate at Ethnikís Andístasis 6. Continue south a few paces into the warren of a now-abandoned bazaar and you’re in the middle of Ioannina’s trendy, and ever-changing, main bar district. There are a couple notable tsipuradiko that are worth going to, Anografo and Mystagogia both practically next door to each other on Kountouriotou at #44 and #50 just up from the lake. At Meraki, artist Kostas Vletsas decorated the space with his own work and serves home-style mezes . On Nissos island on the lake the tourist restaurants serve frogs legs, trout and eel from the lake.

Ioannina

Getting to Ioannina

Those coming from Athens will find it an easy drive going south to Corinth and then west towards Patras and crossing the impressive Rio-Antirion Bridge and heading north. It is highways all the way and should take under 5 hours. A stop at Nafpaktos to see the fortified town and harbor and have lunch and a swim is recommended as a way to break up the trip. You can also come by way of Delphi though the roads are smaller and it will take a but longer. Those coming from Meteora will find it very scenic on the road to Metsovo and once you get there it is modern highway to Ioannina less than an hour away. From Thessaloniki it will take under 3 hours to Ioannina on the modern Egnatia Odos. You can fly to Ioannina from Athens but since you will probably want to have a car to explore the area you may be better off renting one in Athens and driving. There is a lot to see so visit Marc Dubin's Ipiros Guide. You can also use the KTEL Buses to get here from Athens and Thessaloniki and by making connections from just about any major town in Greece.

Text by Mark Dubin and Matt Barrett

More Ioannina Photos

Ioannina Castle

The Castle of Ioannina was built in 528 AD by the Emperor Justinian, and  is the oldest Byzantine fortress in Greece

Ioannina Lake
Ioannina lake

Ioannina lake

There are miles of pathways for bike riding, walking and jogging.

Ioannina Mosque

Aslan Pasha Mosque houses the Municipal Ethnographic Museum of Ioannina

Ioannina Castle
Ioannina Castle
Ioannina lake
Ioannina Mosque
Ioannina Lake
Ioannina lake
Ioannina town

Ioannina Platia

Platia Mavili

Ioannina lake

The lake from Platia Mavili

Ioannina town
Ioannina town

Ioannina restaurants

Diethnes Zacharoplasteion on Platia Mavili

Ioannina houses

Bougatsa

Ioannina desserts are known throughout Greece including Sker Bourek or sugar pie, baklava and the other syrup pastries and of course Bougatsa

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