Ioannina

Ioannina is in a beautiful setting on the shores of Lake Pamvotis and surrounded by mountains. The area is very fertile; tobacco and grapes grow in abundance. It is a major city, the capital of Epiros and a university town, but apart from the picturesque kastroarea most of the architecture is modern and dull and the traffic density is said to be the second highest in Europe, after Milan! However it is compact and everything we want to see is in easy walking distance (although, beware: it is easy to lose one's bearings, and the town is badly lit at night.)

The city has long been famous for its silver work; in the 19th century there were thirty four silversmith workshops here. Some of the old silver workshops are now being restored. You will see lots of silver for sale but we thought it old fashioned and lacking style. Ioannina is also known for embroidery and lace, but again what we saw was not tempting.

As in Thessalonki there are many signs of the Turkish occupation, which began in 1432 and only ended in 1913. From the 13th to the 18th century Ioannina was a prosperous town, the largest in Greece and an important cultural and intellectual centre. The rule of Ali Pasha, 'the lion of Ioannina', from 1788 to 1822 was the most infamous period of the city's history. Ali Pasha, born in what is now Albania in 1741, was a bit of an adventurer and opportunist who fought or served the Ottoman Sultan as it suited him. He was made Pasha of Trikkala in 1788 as a reward for helping the Turks against the Austrians but got greedy and seized Ioannina in the same year. Ali Pasha also played games with the French and British both of whom sought to influence him. In 1797 he collaborated with Napoleon, but the next year he took Preveza from the French; in 1817 the British gave him Parga as a reward for his support. His ambition was to cut free from the Turks and become independent but in 1822 the Sultan sent an army of 50,000 to Ioanina to capture Ali. He was promised safe refuge on the island but the Turks attacked and he was killed. His head was cut off and displayed all around his territory before being taken to Constantinople. The rest of his body is buried on the Its-Kale.

He was a cruel and ruthless man; in 1809 Lord Byron visited the Pasha and afterwards wrote to his mother that 'his highness is a remorseless tyrant, guilty of the most horrible cruelties'. He was said to have a harem of 400 women, but not content with that he tried to seduce his son's mistress. When she rejected him he had her and fifteen (or 16, or 17, depending on which book you read!) other women put into sacks and thrown in the lake.

The Ottomans ceded Ioanina to Greece in 1913. The city suffered badly from bombing in the Second World War during which the Jewish community, which had been there since the 14th century, was deported.

The Kastro This is a lovely area on a promontory surrounded on three sides by the sea, its narrow winding streets lined with traditional Ottoman houses; a peaceful place away from the traffic and noise of the main town. Known as the Frouria the fortress was originally built in the 11th century and considerably restored in 1815 by Ali Pasha. There are two acropoli on the citadel, the inner citadel known as Its-Kal, in the East corner and the other known as the Epano Goulas acropolis in the north west corner. Several entrances/exits lead from the kastro to the lakeside (and the ferry to the island). On the lakeside promenade are a number of striking modern sculptures.

Its-Kale Through a monumental gateway you come first to the old guardroom and the kitchens which are now a nice cafe where you can have a coffee or beer and light snacks. In the far left hand corner is the Fetihie Cami (Victory Mosque) and the tomb of Ali Pasha.

Facing the entrance to the kastro is the old palace, or serai,where Ali Pasha entertained Byron in 1809; it is now the Byzantine museum. Entrance 3 & 2, closes at 1700, a small, light museum with information in English on the history of Epiros.

There are lots of paintings including a magnificent Christ the Judge, 1773, many icons, some photos of Nikpolis,including frescoes and mosaics and the C6th city walls, old manuscripts and bibles, and 14th & 15th century pottery. In the first two rooms there is stonework from churches and monasteries C7th - 13th. In room 2 are several C16th paintings of St George, and in the last room there are yet more St. Georges; he is, of course the patron saint of Greece as well as England.

Across the courtyard is the silver museum (in the old treasury). Here there is a varied collection of ecclesiastical and secular silver and interesting information on silver work in Epiros (in English but not totally comprehensible!), also workman's tools and benches.

I particularly liked the filigree work including a wonderful silver plated belt,a lovely chalice, cup holders, buckles, the Benediction crosses with incredibly intricately carved wooden decoration, and a C20th duck shaped box.

On the Epano Goulas Acropolis is the Aslan Pasha Mosque which houses the Municipal ('Popular') museum (closes 1500 in winter, maybe 2000 in summer.) Entrance 2. This is fairly well sign posted from the entrance to the kastro and is well worth a visit.

You enter through an archway, note the large pile of cannon balls,and the remains of a kitchen on the right, turn left and go past the Medresse, or Muslim seminary, a fine building surrounded by an arched colonnade, (in which there is a museum of weaponry, also worth visiting I am told) and beyond that a small synagogue. Turn up to the right and you come to the Mosque which was built 1618 on the site of a Christian church; it is a charming building with a stone roof, complete with its minaret and is in a wonderful setting with a lovely view over Ionnina and the lake.

The vestibule has five arches supported by four marble columns. On either side of the door to the inner sanctum are five arched recesses where worshippers left their shoes.

There are some superb C19th & C20th Epirot costumes many with the most wonderful gold embroidery; also belts and buckles from women's clothes.

There is a small exhibition of Jewish life in Ioanina, including some synagogue rugs donated by the now tiny Jewish community. Also in the vestibule are rifles and swords, and a model of the kastro.

The main area of the mosque, the prayer room, is fabulous: Twelve small brass chandeliers hang beneath a huge dome (12 metres high) which has remnants of decoration; at the base of the dome are four niches with Arabic inscriptions from the Koran; steps lead up to the Mimbar or pulpit.

Above is the Dikka, a wooden loft or balcony where the women came for prayers. A door in the corner leads to the minaret; the muezzin went up seventy five steps to a balcony from which he called the faithful to prayer. There are some fine examples of Islamic furniture including walnut and mother of pearl chairs and tables.

After admiring the view of the lake do go round the back of the mosque for a view of Its Kale and the mausoleum of Aslan Pasha; a sweet octagonal building with a decorated dome and stone slabs with Arabic inscriptions.

The Folk Museum in the town centre is worth visiting, although tricky to find. It is in a lovely old house and has some fine traditional costumes.

The Archaeological Museum is closed for refurbishment.

Niss (The Island): Ferry 1, pay on board, the crossing takes 10 minutes; boats go every 30 minutes on the hour and half hour; a hooter sounds 2 mins before leaving!

There are tavernas at the landing stage (pricey but nice, fish, eels, frogs and terrapins in tanks) and in little square round corner. Lots of shops selling silver, local sweets and souvenirs, including replica pistols and daggers. The island is a peaceful haven: there are only a few resident's cars, just the sound of the putter of the ferry engine, reed warblers and cocks crowing. There are lots of wild flowers and trees and the island is surrounded by reed beds. The houses are mostly single storey, white painted stone with stone roofs. The Monastery of Pandelimonos where Ali Pasha was murdered is now a small museum (do visit it) entrance 0.60. (The building has been rebuilt after it was demolished by a falling tree.) You can see the bullet holes where he was shot though the floorboards, and a wonderful huge painting of his head being offered to the Sultan. There is an interesting contemporary account of the murder in English and also the local legend. You go through a small olive wood souvenir shop on the way out.

There are sign posts to other two monasteries, worth going to even at siesta time when they are shut. (out of siesta time knock on the door for entry).

Eating out in Ioannina

We had a very good meal at Argonaftas, tel 0651 0 34735, a trendy but unpretentious restaurant, on Garibaldi, the other side of the kastro. A wide range of food and prices. Local wine. We had 'village vegetables', 'brown vegetable' (like spring rolls), chicken with orange sauce & Athens chicken and 1 litre of house red for 26. The restaurant was full at 10.30. Service was very good. It's quite a small place, not suitable for large groups.

We also ate at Koyzina Seipios www.seirioskouzina.gr, tel 26510 77070 on Evangelistou, (on the left hand side, set back from road with large open area in front.) Very nice: 'crepes' with ham & cheese (more like croquettes), potato souffle (mashed potato, ham, mushrooms with cheese gratin) meatballs with yogurt sauce, chicken a la creme, 1 litre house wine & free creme caramel, for 26.80. It is big enough for a large group, with large indoor and outdoor areas.

Evangelistou leads to the lake & cafes & tavernas. Turn right at the end of Evangelistou towards the kastro for lots of big bars, cafes and tavernas.

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