IOÁNNINA, the provincial capital of Epirus, with some 130,000 inhabitants, boasts an idyllic setting, its old town jutting out into the great Lake Pamvótis along a rocky promontory, its fortifications punctuated by spindly minarets. From this base, Ali Pasha “the Lion of Ioánnina” carved from the Turkish domains a personal fiefdom that encompassed much of western Greece and present-day Albania: an act of rebellion that prefigured wider defiance in the Greeks’ own War of Independence.

Although much of the city is modern and undistinguished (albeit home to a thriving university), the old town remains one of the most interesting in Greece. There are stone-built mosques (and a synagogue) that evoke the Ottoman era, and Ali Pasha’s citadel, the kástro, survives more or less intact, its inner citadel, the Its Kale, now a museum park. In the lake, Nissí island has a car-free if overly prettified village, and frescoed monasteries. Ioánnina is also a springboard for visits to the caves of Pérama, among the country’s largest, on the western shore of the lake, and a slightly longer excursion to the very ancient Oracle of Zeus at Dodona. Finally, the city is also the gateway to what is possibly the area’s most rewarding corner, Zagóri.

The Kástro

In its heyday the Kástro’s walls dropped abruptly to the lake, and were moated on their landward (southwest) side. The moat has been filled in, and a quay-esplanade now extends below the lakeside ramparts, but there is still the sense of a citadel, with narrow alleys and bazaar-like shops.

Municipal Ethnographic Museum

Signs inside point to the ethnographic museum, an elegantly arranged collection of Epirot costumes, guns, silver-work and Islamic art, housed in the well-preserved, floodlit Aslan Pasha Tzamí, allowing a rare glimpse inside an intact Greek mosque. It dates from 1618, built on the site of an Orthodox cathedral pulled down in reprisal for a failed local revolt of 1611. The interior retains painted decoration in its dome and mihrab (niche indicating direction of Mecca), as well as a vividly coloured mimber or pulpit, nicely complementing a walnut and mother-of-pearl suite on display in the “Muslim section”.

More poignant is a section devoted to synagogue rugs and tapestries donated by the dwindling Jewish community of about fifty.

The inner citadel (the Its Kale)

Southeast of the Aslan Pasha Tzamí lies the inner citadel, signposted as Its Kale, a transliteration of its Turkish name – a kind of fortress within the fortress. The park-like grounds, with wonderful mountain views from this elevated spot, are occasionally used for concerts after-hours, and there’s a large and pleasant terrace café-restaurant near the entrance, occupying the garrison’s former mess.

Next to the old Fethiye Tzamí (“Victory Mosque”) and its slim, rocket-like minaret – which occupy an upper corner – one of the two Ottoman graves, surmounted by an elegant wrought-iron cage, is probably that of Ali Pasha, while the other contains his first wife Emine and one son. The mosque itself, remodelled by Ali, was built atop the remains of a thirteenth-century cathedral.

Next to the mosque, on the site of Ali’s vanished palace, where Byron was entertained, stands the arcaded so-called Byzantine Museum, a thin, largely post-Byzantine collection. The displays comprise masonry, coins, pottery, icons and colour prints of frescoes from various ages; the only actually Byzantine painting is a fresco fragment of The Betrayal.

A few paces down the hill, in the presumed treasury of Ali Pasha’s seraglio, is the Silverwork Hall, containing important masterpieces of Ioánnina’s centuries-old silver-working tradition.

The old bazaar and Jewish quarter

Apart from the kástro, the town’s most enjoyable district is the old bazaar and Jewish quarter, a warren of narrow lanes and alleys between the citadel’s main gate and Anexartissías avenue bounding it on the south. It retains a cluster of Ottoman-era buildings (including imposing mansions with ornate window grilles and founding inscriptions), as well as a scattering of copper- and tinsmiths, plus the silversmiths who were long a mainstay of the town’s economy. Retail silver outlets cluster either side of kástro’s gate; you’ll find the last traditional tinsmiths at Anexartissías 84, and the last copper-mongers at no. 118–122. Stoas off Anexartissías serving old warehouses, now being gentrified, can also be rewardingly explored.

Nissí island

The island of Nissí in Lake Pamvótis is connected by water buses from the Mólos quay on Platía Mavíli. Only islanders’ cars are allowed, hauled across on a chain-barge to the mainland opposite. The pretty island village, founded during the sixteenth century by refugees from the Máni, is flanked by several monasteries, worthy targets for an afternoon’s visit. By day the main lane leading up from the boat dock is crammed with stalls selling jewellery and kitsch souvenirs. Except at three overpriced waterfront restaurants and another cluster by Pandelímonos, quiet descends with the sun setting vividly over the reed beds that fringe the island.

Lake Pamvótis itself is certainly idyllic-looking enough, and it’s the region’s largest lake, but runoff pollution is an ongoing problem and most locals do not advise either swimming in its waters or eating its fish.

The Pérama caves

Some 5km north of Ioánnina, the village of PÉRAMA claims to have Greece’s largest system of caves, extending for kilometres beneath a low hill. They were discovered during late 1940 by locals attempting to find shelter from Italian bombing raids. The one-hour mandatory tours of the complex are primarily in Greek (commentary repeated in passable English) and make some effort to educate, though there are the inevitable bawdy nicknames for various suggestively shaped formations.

Dodona: the Oracle of Zeus

DODONA, 22km southwest of Ioánnina in a broad, mountain-ringed valley, comprises the ruins and large theatre of the ancient Oracle of Zeus, Greece’s first oracle, some of the site dating back as far as four millennia.

The impressive theatre was built during the reign of King Pyrrhus (297–272 BC), and was one of the largest in Greece, rivalled only by those at Argos and Megalopolis. The Romans added a protective wall and a drainage channel around the orchestra as adaptations for their blood sports. What’s now visible is a meticulous late nineteenth-century reconstruction. Almost all except the stage area is now off-limits, though it’s worth following a path around to the top of the cavea (seating curve) to fully savour the glorious setting, looking across a green, silent valley to Mount Tómaros. A grand entrance gate leads into the overgrown acropolis, with Hellenistic foundations up to 5m wide.

Beside the theatre, tiered against the same slope, are the foundations of a bouleuterion, beyond which lie the complex ruins of the Sanctuary of Zeus, site of the oracle itself. There was no temple per se until late in the fifth century BC; until then, worship had centred upon the sacred oak, inside a circle of votive tripods and cauldrons. The remains you can see today are adorned with a modern oak tree planted by a helpfully reverent archeologist. Nearby is a useful placard detailing the entire site.

Dodona occasionally hosts musical and ancient drama performances on summer weekends, though sadly since 2000 these are staged on modern wooden bleachers rather than in the ancient theatre.

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