Ioannina: Lion City of Epirus

The Epirote city has played a key role in modern Greek history and is an intriguing destination for visitors, as William Gourlay reports

Recent history states that Epirus attracts few foreign tourists, or Greek ones for that matter. Modern Athenians see it as the Wild North, a remote realm of craggy mountains and provincial backwaters. Yet 200 years ago, English poet William Haygarth described Ioannina, the capital of Epirus, as “more civilised than any other town in Greece”.

For modern visitors, the appeal of modern Ioannina lies somewhere between these extremes. Its gentle charm, its physical setting, and the historical legacy that made it (almost) a worthy capital, mean it is one of the most intriguing cities in Greece. Embracing Lake Pamvotis, and backed by the rugged Pindos Mountains, Ioannina is an appealing destination for all seasons.

Like most cities in Greece, Ioannina has an eventful history. Founded during the early Byzantine centuries, the city became part of the Despotate of Epirus in 1204. Aristocratic families fleeing the Crusaders in Constantinople arrived in Ioannina and established monasteries on To Nisi (the island) in Lake Pamvotis. On the island, the Monastery of St Pantaleimon is still a popular site for visitors.

A ferry (tickets €1.50) makes the short trip across the placid waters of the lake, to a cluster of white-washed cottages, fish restaurants and market stalls selling locally made silverware. The monastery itself, of sturdy stone construction, is set amidst impressive oak and plane trees. As a go-it-alone city-state, medieval Ioannina contended with Albanian armies and Serbian emperors, and in 1430 was taken without bloodshed by the Turks. Despite the comings and goings of different peoples, the city’s history has been largely one of tolerance.

Greek aristocratic families retained their privileges and estates after the conquest. As well as Greeks, Turks and Albanians living side by side in the city, there was a Jewish community that had been established as early as the 9th century. There is still a synagogue (Ioustinianou 16) in the old town. At a crossroads in the Balkans, Ioannina became a major trading centre. In 1702 a French visitor remarked that Ioannina was “like a small Marseilles”. Local merchants traded in silver, fabrics, furs and leather. The mercantile atmosphere lives on in the bazaar area outside the walls of the Kastro. Along Averof Odos are various artisan workshops and boutiques selling silverware, jewellery, replica firearms and komboloi.

The most famous, or notorious, figure in the city’s history is Ali Pasha. Albanian-born, Ali was part brigand, part local authority. Winning the favour of the Ottoman sultan, he became pasha of Trikala in 1787, then carved out his own fiefdom with his court at Ioannina. Legends and rumours swirl around Ali Pasha. Sometimes called the Lion of Ioannina, he was the archetypal Oriental despot, noted for cruelty, ruthlessness and sexual perversions.

But under Ali’s rule, the city was a peaceable, multidimensional city. Banditry was stamped out in the countryside and trade expanded rapidly. Ioannina’s merchant class extended networks to Russia, Vienna and Venice, and brought increasing wealth back to the city. Lord Byron visited Ali Pasha’s court in 1809, remarking on the colour and “barbarity” of his capital. You can still get a feel for this era in the Kastro, the walled old town that juts into Lake Pamvotis. A lakeside walk around the city walls, built in the 13th century, and shaded by mighty plane trees, makes a pleasant promenade.

Inside the walls is a walkable maze of streets, white-washed houses and historical sights. In the northern corner of the Kastro is an Ottoman-era library, a rare example of Turkish urban architecture. Beyond is a medrese (Turkish seminary) which now houses a fascinating ethnographic museum. Adjacent stands the Mosque of Aslan Pasha, dating from 1618.

The lawn nearby affords views of the lake: the combination of greenery, the imposing slate dome and minaret of the mosque and the mountains backdrop must be Ioannina’s most iconic sight. At the eastern edge of the Kastro is the Its Kale (Inner Citadel), once the site of Ali’s palace. Inside are the garrison’s former kitchen, now home to a pleasant cafe, the Fethiye Mosque, a Byzantine museum and a Silver work Hall, highlighting Epirote silver making traditions. Just outside the gate to the Its Kale is a wonderful unnamed souvenir shop, an Aladdin’s cave of coins, puppets, prints and stamps.

During Ali Pasha’s reign, Ioannina’s increasingly wealthy Greek merchants endowed the city with educational institutions and printing presses. The city became a centre of Greek literacy and learning; one 19th-century observer commented that “all Greek authors” were either schooled here or had links to the city. Significantly, Ioannina’s Greek schools and writers contributed much to the awakening sense of Greek nationhood. And when Ali Pasha attempted to seek independence from the Ottoman Empire he set the scene for the later Greek struggle for independence.

Ioannina, truly a lion city, nurtured the seeds of modern Greece. On the Via Egnatia Highway, Ioannina has regular and speedy bus links with Igoumenitsa (for Corfu and the Ionians) and Thessaloniki and regular services across Epirus and Macedonia and to Athens.

The city has a wide range of accommodation options. Some recommendations include Hotel Politeia (www.etip.gr) and Hotel Kastro (www.i-escape.com/hotel-kastro/overview). Thanks to the large student population nightlife and bar scenes are busy. Lakeside restaurants are popular; Ithaki (Stratigou Papagou 20a) is a favourite.