Every year, sun-starved visitors from Northern Europe and elsewhere flood Greece’s sun-bleached islands, sandy beaches and coastal resorts. For decades, the country’s tourism has largely depended on the sunny, carefree and light-hearted face it presents to the multitudes coming to bask in its light. Unfortunately, few of these tourists will ever encounter what lies beneath Greece’s glossy surface. Fewer yet will experience the authenticity and pureness that a place such as Ioannina has to offer. And yet ironically, it is this unawareness among the masses who visit the country that has allowed Ioannina to keep its rich cultural identity and traditions intact.
Ioannina could be considered the dark, brooding and mysterious alter-ego of the sunny, happy-go-lucky ambivalence that prevails throughout the country’s more well-known tourist destinations. It’s a land dominated by thick forests, jagged mountain peaks, wild rivers and treacherous ravines. From the tribal clashes of the pre-historic era, to the violent battles during the Greek Revolution, down to the successive wars of the 20th century, brutality and bloodshed have shaped Ioannina’s fate just as much as its rivers have shaped the landscape. Its natural resources, culture and beauty have attracted tribes and nations for millennia.
Archaeological excavations have unearthed artefacts which suggest that the region was inhabited as far back as the Palaeolithic Era. The first people to call Ioannina home were most likely members from the Mollosian tribe who settled throughout the wider Epirus area and later fought against other tribes such as the Helians, Thesprotians and Pelasgians for control of the area. The region’s abundance of fresh water, fertile valleys full of wild game and numerous caves were exactly what these pre-historic tribes were searching for.
One of these tribes, (most likely the Thesprotians) was responsible for the foundation of the sacred oracle at Dodona sometime during the second millennium BC. It would eventually become a revered source of wisdom, second only to Delphi throughout the ancient world. Today a well-preserved theatre and foundations to various buildings stand where the oracle bestowed wisdom and guidance so many centuries ago. However, Ioannina’s reputation as a centre of wisdom and knowledge was destined to live on.
The Byzantine Emperor Justinian I built the castle of Ioannina in 528 AD to fortify the empire’s defence system and to act as an administrative centre of the region. In the centuries to come, Serbian, Albanian, Venetian and finally Turkish rule would claim the city as its own. Nonetheless, Ioannina grew to become a cosmopolitan centre of knowledge, thanks in part to its numerous libraries and schools which were founded by the highly successful members of its diaspora who had found fortune throughout Europe, mainly during the 18th and 19th centuries. They came from all corners of the region which excelled in metallurgy and jewellery making, masonry, tapestry, carpentry and several other types of craftsmanship. Ioannina reached such fame that it prompted the famous scholar Neofytos Doukas to claim that “During the 18th century, every author of the Greek world was either from Ioannina or was a graduate of one of the city’s schools.”
This cultural and cosmopolitan legacy is still palpable today throughout the streets and alleyways of the city of Ioannina. The region’s metal-working industry is still alive and well, as seen in the numerous jewellery shops throughout the town. The lively stoes are full of shops, cafes and restaurants which give the city a vibrant energy that abounds throughout its young student population. Ioannina’s famous castle dominates the area, as one of the few places within the country and throughout Europe which has a permanent population living within its walls. Strolling through the narrow alleyways and imposing mosques, harems, mansions and dungeons creates an ominous feeling of mystery and intrigue that’s almost tangible. From the castle houses of Aslan Pasha, visitors can enjoy mesmerizing views of Lake Pamvotida, around which the city was built.
It was here that the legendary Turkish ruler of Ioannina, Ali Pasha had his son’s Greek mistress Frosini and other promiscuous women throughout the city tied up in sacks and drowned after his daughter-in-law complained of her husband’s adultery with Frosini. Although tragic, it was but one of several dramatic twists within the scandalous history of Turkish rule that has left its mark culturally, architecturally and historically throughout the city. It is this poignant mixture of culture that gives the city an added flair and spice.
For those who prefer living their own adventures rather than learning about those of others, the wider Ioannina region will not disappoint. With hundreds of rivers, tributaries and streams, white-water rafting enthusiasts and kayakers will feel as though they’ve arrived in heaven, with options ranging from the 2nd-5th level of difficulty. For rock climbers, the sky is literally the limit, with dozens of mountains and gorges to set out and conquer. Paragliders can take it one step further and defy gravity while enjoying breathtaking views of Ioannina’s varied landscape below.
Back on the ground, cyclists can take advantage of the numerous organized tracks as well as several routes off the beaten path. Ioannina’s hiking scene is one of the most well-organized and diverse throughout the country, taking walkers through colourful forests, over centuries’ old stone bridges, inside deep gorges and up to remote alpine lakes.
Culture lovers will swoon over the numerous traditional settlements and picturesque mountain villages that dot the landscape. Life has changed little throughout the past decades for much of the rural population and visitors will be able to witness how traditional trades such as carpentry, metallurgy, tapestry and wine making are still carried out.
The area of Zagorohoria is a truly magical and almost fairytale environment comprised of several villages perched throughout the Pindos mountain range and around the famed Vikos Gorge, which several researchers claim is the deepest of its kind in the world. Various botanists and herbalists have come to discover what the famed Vikos doctors knew centuries before: The gorge is home to an incredible array of rare and endangered plants, some of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world and possess a wide array of therapeutic qualities. Walking the length of the gorge is a truly unforgettable experience; though even gazing over it from one of several vantage points is enough to keep devoted visitors and nature enthusiasts coming back year after year.
The Tzoumerka region is another such place which offers visitors raw, wild beauty along with cultural gems, such as the villages of Kallarites and Syrakko, both of which have been named World Heritage Sites. Famous for their skill in metallurgy, residents of these villages travelled abroad and gained significant wealth. The most famous of these was Sotiris Voulgaris who reached as far as Rome and opened his first shop in 1884, which would go on to found the world famous BVLGARI brand. No matter how successful the villagers were, they never forgot their roots, and used their wealth to finance ambitious public works such as the construction of roads, schools, churches and bridges.
Perhaps the most famous builders throughout Ioannina were those who hailed from the wider Konitsa area known as the mastorohoria or “builders’ villages”. The hands of these famed builders went on to build some of the region’s most impressive churches, bridges and mansions. Their fame took them throughout the Balkans as well as Europe and even as far as America and North Africa. Their legacy can be seen throughout Konitsa as well as the superb villages of Pirsoyianni and Aetomilitsa, which literally sit at the top of the prefecture under the shadows of Mount Grammos.
West of Konitsa lays the fertile region of Pogoni, which acts as a grazing ground for thousands of sheep and goats that produce Greece’s famed feta cheese. Many Greeks consider Ioannina feta to be the country’s best, and Pogoni is the perfect place to sample the fresh cheese. Wine enthusiasts will also delight in the Zitsa region which produces the local white Debina wine as well as red varieties. Nature lovers will love exploring the Gormos River Valley which is a welcome respite amidst seemingly never-ending mountain ranges. The fertile valley has been supporting both humans and animals alike for millennia, as archaeological digs have unearthed a plethora of artefacts here dating back to the Palaeolithic era. They can now be seen at Ioannina’s Archaeological museum. The beautiful waterfall of the Kalamas River as well as the natural bridge known as Theogefyro or “God’s Bridge”, are two highlights easily reached by foot.
Travellers hiking, biking and driving around the region are bound to work up an appetite, and the village of Metsovo in the Eastern part of the region is a must for cheese-lovers and wine aficionados. The local Metsovone cheese can be seen hanging in windows throughout the village’s shops and visitors to region must try the smoky variety before they can claim they’ve truly experienced Ioannina. The area is makes several other cheeses as well, and its tavernas serving dishes made with the cheese as well as locally raised meet and wild boar are some of the highest-regarded throughout the region.
What better way to accompany the various cheeses of Metsovo than with a glass of wine from one of the country’s top producers, Katogi Strofilia. The company’s flagship winery operates out of the eponymous hotel and offers both white and red varieties as well as wine tastings and tours.
Metsovo’s ski centres are the perfect place to burn off the food and wine indulgences of the area. With three separate centres, there are tracks ranging from beginner to advanced as well as equipment rental and ski schools.
Ioannina may not boast the golden beaches and turquoise waters of the Aegean but it offers a natural beauty, serenity and authenticity found nowhere else throughout the country. If you’re looking for something other than endless sun loungers, package resorts and picture menus, take refuge in Ioannina’s fairytale setting of stone bridges, enchanting forests, leaf-covered paths, gentle-flowing rivers and majestic mountain villages.