Ioannina, in the verdant heart of central Greece, is a wonderful destination for fall. A cultured and elegant town situated on a lake, it is also near some of Greece’s best loved traditional villages.
The Lake and the Island
Lake Pamvotida is very often called simply the lake of Ioannina. This lovely small city curves around the lake, taking full advantage of its placement, with a broad lakeside promenade, shaded by great plane trees. Boats dock by the promenade, departing regularly for the small island offshore. The promenade and surroundings are ideal for exploring by bike. There are E-bikes available and a cruise around the lake makes an invigorating and beautiful morning outing, especially among the crisp foliage of fall.
The Island of Ioannina is tiny – just 800 m long and 500 m across. And yet, it has seven monasteries, built from the 13th century through the 17th century. This makes the little island the third largest monastic state in Greece, following Mount Athos and Meteora. The island also has a settlement of traditional architecture of Epirus, and of course a museum, dedicated to the notorious despot – Ali Pasha – who made this the most prosperous of provinces through his ruthlessness and shrewdness, and who finally met his end right here, at the hands of the forces of the Sultan.
Other points of interest on the island are the traditional crafts and sweets. Ioannina is famous for silver – as we’ll see – and there are many stores to browse in on the island. There are also traditional sweets – “pasteli” in particular. And, for something more substantial, how about frogs’ legs? They’re a specialty of the island.
The Fortress and its Stories
The “Its Kale” – a Greek rendering of the Turkish Iç Kale – meaning “Inner Fortress” – is a vast fortification of 30,000 square meters – a city within a city. This was originally a Byzantine fortress, but was rebuilt during the Ottoman era.
Ali Pasha- considered the very personification of the “Oriental Despot” – ruled his vast territory comprising Epirus, Roumeli, Thessaly, and part of Macedonia, from his vast Saray (palace) in the fortress. The Palace is no more, but the Aslan Pasha mosque of 1618 – now the Ethnographic Museum of Ioannina – still stands, as does the Fethiye mosque.
Outside the mosque is a great ornamental metal cage, covering his resting place. Nearby are the ruins of an Ottoman bath house, and there is an Ottoman library.
The Museums and the Traditional Crafts
This is such a manageable and small city, and yet there is so much to enjoy here. Among the many museums, three are directly in the Its Kale. The Ethnographic Museum, in its fabulous setting in the former mosque – will bring you into touch with the fine craftsmanship that this region is justifiably proud of, while giving you an overview of the culture of Epirus. The Byzantine Museum features Early Christian and Byzantine sculptures, along with manuscripts and printed books.
The Silversmithing Museum of Ioannina is a highlight – not just of the Its Kale but of Ioannina and the whole region. Ioannina has a long tradition of excellence in silver. Here, one learns about the entire history of silversmithing in Ioannina, the art and craft of it. But also, a detailed explanation of both the development of silversmithing, as well as a true education in the process of working in silver. Naturally, dazzling objects are on display – and many of them. The setting, in two of the bastions of the fortress, takes full advantage of the atmospheric architecture.
Another popular attraction in the Ioannina region is the magnificent Perama Cave. Greece has many excellent caves, and this ranks as one of the finest. The route of approximately a kilometer and a half passes through many rooms, richly decorated with stalactites and stalagmites and cave pearls.
There are also fossils of interest. The Perama Cave has been part of the Ioannina region for about one and a half million years, but secretly – it was only discovered in 1940, and finally explored in 1956. The speleologists – a couple, Anna and Ioannis Petrohos – gave names to the rooms inspired by their unique formations – your guide will explain the stories on your tour, but the wondrous forms will surely inspire your own imaginings.
Ioannina makes an ideal home base for exploring one of Greece’s most enchanting regions. Zagori is rich with water, gorges, mountains, lakes, and above all enchanting villages. The “Zagorohoria” – the villages of Zagori, are a popular tourist destination for Greeks, who seek out the authentic vernacular architecture in pristine settings.
While one could say they offer a taste of a life of the past, in fact these villages are full of youthful energy. Many young city dwellers have returned to their roots to celebrate the pleasures of village life, and share them with visitors – opening charming cafes, restaurants, and cozy boutique hotels in historic pieces of architecture.
Gastronomy – Baklava, Pies, Grilled Meats
And speaking of the pleasures of the countryside – the Ioannina region, so rich in natural bounty, has some of the best regional cuisine of all Greece. The pies, in particular, are of special note. In addition to being made with delicate hand-rolled phyllo, they are exceptional in their great variety.
In addition to the cheese and spinach that one finds all over Greece, here one tastes pies of wild foraged greens, of mushroom, of meats, and – especially delicate and delicious – of the orange pumpkins of fall. The wild terrain is fine grazing land, and some of the finest grilled lamb one could wish to find graces the tables, along with fantastic stewed meats served with rustic hand-rolled pastas and savory sauces. Local wines of note accompany the hearty fare with finesse. And as a final touch, desserts are truly very special. Their ways with delicate phyllo are remarkable, and here one tastes some of Greece’s best baklava, as well as the local favorite “Gianniotiko” – named for Ioannina – this is a roll of shredded kataifi pastry stuffed with walnuts, then wrapped in crisp phyllo before being baked golden and drenched in rich honey syrup.
Ioannina in the Autumn
The pleasures of Ioannina are wonderful in any season, but in autumn, with the vibrant colors of the foliage reflected in the lake, it is truly at its finest.
Have you ever been to this splendid region of Greece?