Mosques, monasteries and memories reflected in a shimmering lake

Myths surround the city of Ioannina. They hover in the mist that often hangs over its lake and the island in its centre. This time, the myths don’t revolve around  gods and heroes, but rather historical personalities. Chief among them is Ali Pasha, the maverick 19th century Turko-Albanian ruler and his court. Intertwined with Ioannina’s history, in this corner of Western Greece, other myths haunt the old, walled district, the Kastro, the citadel of Its Kale, the Byzantine monasteries on the Island and the rich museums.

They are an inseparable part of the city’s life and you will feel their presence even in its green parks, in the little shops on Independence Street, in the groups of lively university students and their hangouts, in the lakeside restaurants, bars and cafes. You’ll catch glimpses of them in the peerless work of Ioannina’s famed silversmiths. And they may even follow you up to the cave at Perama, the theatre at Dodoni and the Zagorohoria mountain villages. Let yourself be captivated by the legends surrounding this beautiful city in Epirus.

What to do in Ioannina

Lake Pamvotis: a 20,000-year-old attraction!
City life revolves around this romantic, silver-grey lake. Get to know it by strolling along its banks, taking a boat ride, fishing, rowing, or having a drink or a bite on the lakefront. According to geologists at Cambridge University, it was formed between 20,000 and 26,000 years ago.

Nisi: the Island, a Byzantine realm
It’s only a short boat ride to the Island, but once there, you’ll have to walk. Make sure you visit the Byzantine monasteries, which all have wonderful frescoes. And then take some time to learn about Ali Pasha, the Lion of Epirus. Regarded by Napoleon as an equal, he was erratic, a heady brew of  fierce and fearsome, cultured and charismatic, hosting a great number of foreign dignitaries in his palace, including Lord Byron.

He ruled over greater Epirus for 30 years in defiance of the Sultan. In the Ali Pasha Museum, arranged to resemble a traditional Ioannina home of the period, you’ll learn the whole story, which ended with his assassination in the monastery of Agios Panteleimon. Finish your visit on a lighter note with a feast of local specialties, such as grilled trout and eel, at one of the island’s tavernas.

Its Kale, the Kastro’s inner citadel in Ioannina
Just sit in the cafe, encircled by the impressive buildings and walls of Its Kale with the lake beyond them, and you’ll feel transported back to another era. Then go explore the citadel in depth, for here are the Fetihe Mosque (which Ali Pasha built for his seraglio’s worship), the tomb (where his headless corpse was interred), the exceptional Byzantine Museum, the resplendent Treasury, the Arcades and Bohemond’s tower.

Ancient Dodoni: oracle and theatre
A spectacular narrow valley, just 22km south of Ioannina, is the site of Dodoni, one of Greece’s most important archaeological sites. A centre of worship for the father of gods and men, it was renowned for its oracle, thought to be among the oldest in the Hellenic world. The priests interpreted the will of Zeus through the rustling of the leaves from his sacred oak tree and the flight patterns of the birds that nested in it. The site’s most impressive attraction is the celebrated theatre from the 3rd century BC. With a capacity of about 18,000 spectators, it is one of the country’s largest.

The Perama Cave, pride of the Balkans
A mere 4km from Ioannina, this cave ranks among the most extraordinary in the whole of the Balkan peninsula. Geologists date its age at 1.5 million years. See if you can discover all 19 different types of stalactites. Noteable spectacles within include  the large ‘hall’ of the ‘mythical palaces’, the Statue of Liberty and Santa Claus, and a chamber with breathtaking  subterranean pools.