Finding Byzantium in the byways of Ioannina, Greece

Lake Pamvotis, Ioannina

Lake Pamvotis, Ioannina

As my sisters and I disembark the ferryboat onto into a calliope of sound, smell, and color, we walk up to what seems to be a pet shop. Chickens and doves squabble in hanging cages. Turtles elbow frogs for a better view. Eels shimmer amidst schools of trout, and a lone marsh hen sits dejectedly in a tank. A more careful look paints the broader picture. This is Taverna Propodes, and here you are meant to feast on the bounty of this large inland lake. We step inside, where Dionysus the Crocodile regards diners with a wary eye. He’s not on the menu, but a beautiful, clear village wine is, so we settle onto the patio to figure out our next move. The view makes our dallying a pleasure: grand mountains rising behind lapping lake waters, a fisherman’s kaiki in the foreground.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • A strong sense of the Byzantine Empire remains in Ioannina
  • Ioannina’s architectural treasures are world-class
  • Ioannina isn’t part of the usual Greek tour routes

An Island of Byzantium

Prodhromos Monastery, Nisí

One of the Byzantine monasteries of Nisí

The capital of Epirus, Ioannina, is the eighth largest city in Greece, a city that retains the imprint of the Romans, the Byzantines, and the Ottomans. Founded by the Emperor Justinian in the Sixth Century, the city’s symbol is a double-headed eagle: a view of its sprawling growth as seen from the mountains to the north. It spills across a bowl in the high snow-capped Pindus Mountains of northwestern Greece, a sea of white buildings washing against the deep green waters of Lake Pamvotis, with Nisí a prominent landform in this vast expanse of water.

An island – the island, for Nisí means Island in Greek – Nisí once served as an enclave of monks, a cherished site in ancient Christendom when icongraphers lavished thousands of brushstrokes on vivid scenes of the saints and of Christ. In Ioannina, this blossoming era of early Christianity under the Byzantines was erased by the Norman conquest of 1204. As Norman influence faded, the Muslims moved in. Ioannina became an important seat of the Ottoman empire. With the Ottomans in charge, the ancient Christian artwork was desecreated, but not destroyed.

An old woman dressed in black greets us, keys in hand. At the entrance to the Monastery of St. Nicholas Philanthropinos, she instructs us against photography as our eyes adjust slowly to the dim light. Vivid images cover the walls and ceilings: haunting depictions of the tortures of the saints, the wonders of heaven. We continue into the stone-hewn walls of the Monastery of St. Nicholas Dilios. Life-size figures clad in flowing robes and gold-leaf halos, their eyes gouged out or frescoed heads desecrated, virtually beheaded, by the unbelieving, stir an unexpected fervor in the soul. The reverence of Byzantine artists resounds through the ages.

On Nisí’s eastern shore, more religious sites call for our attention. Inside the Monastery of St. Panteleimon are several rooms of relics, documents, and ephemera documenting the death of the despotic ruler Ali Pasha within its walls. An adjoining Athonite church, decorated with Byzantine frescoes and icons, withstood the march of time with little damage. Beyond, the Prodhromos Monastery huddles close to the cracks and crevices of the rocky hillside. Some small caverns served as monks’ cells, others as powder magazines for the Ottomans.

Ancient Echoes

Arabic steles and tombstones

At the Mosque of Aslan Pasha

On the high bluff overlooking Lake Pamvotis, at each corner of the fortress, the Ottomans erected grand mosques. Their domes and minarets still gleam in the sun, a tribute to preservationists. The Mosque of Aslan Pasha, at the northwest end, provides a backdrop for steles and tombstones covered in flowing Arabic script. Inside, the Municipal Museum presents relics of Ioanninan culture: popular dress, weapons, pottery, metalworking, and rugs. In the inner dome of the mosque, oil lamps dangle low from the colorful ceiling.

Enclosing the old heart of the city, with its winding cobblestone streets and centuries-old townhouses, the fortress is an imposing site. Its walls are thick enough to hide entire streets in their darkness; it rises three stories and more. The origins of the fortress are lost in time; the first recorded fortification stems from the Normans, who conquered the city in 1082 and 1204. Serbs and Ottomans added their touches over centuries of conquests. At the southeast end of the fortress, the Fetihie Mosque guards Ali Pasha’s remains. The Ottoman despot, known for his cruelty, ruled Epirus from 1788 until his assassination for treason in 1821. His sons continued to rule until the Greeks ousted the Turks in 1821.

Castle of Ali Pasha, Ioannina

Castle of Ali Pasha, Ioannina

Beyond the mosque, crumbling catacombs await, the haunting remains of Ali Pasha’s castle. We walk the dark, dripping chambers in awe, imagining the clash of swords and the boisterous songs of ghostly guards. Wings flutter in the depths. Archways devour archways in an architectural déjà vu, a Byzantine maze of geometric tangles. Hidden behind one shadowy archway is a twisted staircase. We could mistake it for a piece of M.C. Escher artwork, it is that perfectly geometric, that perfectly confusing.

Ioannina is a city of artisans, metalworkers who create beauty from silver, gold, copper, bronze, and tin. Religious icons, copied from patterns passed down from the Byzantines, decorate every shop door. Beside them are massive platters with elaborate, more secular scenes: harts playing in Ali Pasha’s game reserve, a crazy quilt of village houses, the ever-present intertwined peacocks. Along Kalari Street, smiths work at their forges turning mortar casings into vases and umbrella stands, beating swords into art. Ancient history inspires these modern artists, bringing the Byzantine beginnings of Ioannina full circle.

Practicalities

  • Olympic Airways offers one or two flights from Athens to Ioannina (IOA) daily. By ferry and bus, it’s a two-hour bus ride through spectacular mountain terrain from the port city of Igomonitsas to Ioannina.
  • An inexpensive ferry is your transportation to Nisi. Go early, as the monasteries are generally only open only in the morning, prior to siesta. Photography is not permitted in the interior of these historic religious sites. Entrance fees (or donations) are generally required.
  • At the time of our visit, English was not widely spoken in Ioannina, nor were English-speaking tourists common.

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