The last time I was in Greece was in October 2007 with my mom and brother. I’ve wanted to return so badly, and finally had the free time and a pretty sexy reason (if that’s even a requirement) to return. This time for a couple months (yikes) holiday in between my trip home and my return to Spain in October. Not too shabby and a lot a bit scary. I’m here this summer with absolutely nothing to do but eat tzatziki and the reddest tomatoes on the planet, walk around getting blacker by the second, jump in mediterranean waters, squeeze in some exam studying, tend to this blog which I’ve handsomely neglected this year, and see some untouched Greece along the way. Nothing to do. Who even has time to say that? Not many, especially the Greek I’ve come to see.So here I am in the northwest region of Epirus, neighboring the island of Corfu and Albania, in the city of Ioannina, which I’ve been told has about the same population as Santa Barbara County (for those interested in population counts and want a point of reference). It ain’t big, but my, is it beautiful and untouched, and a side of Greece that few, if any, think of when the country comes to mind. At its center lies Lake Pamvotis, with the unnamed island perched in the center. Surrounded by mountains on all sides, the city of Ioannina was once quite secluded and a journey to get to, until the initiation of a great highway system. On my first day here, Mr. Chops zipped us around town via sparkling red Vespa, and my first thought after “I hope I don’t fall off this thing,” was “this is exactly what I envisioned for my European life!” those eons ago when I first planted the seed of a life in Europe in my 10 year old brain. The city consists of a bustling stream of cafes and shops surrounding the hushed part of town lying within the once-upon-a-time castle walls. There are cobblestone streets aplenty, renovated buildings side-by-side with ones in disarray and graffiti, a stunning lake, and of course since it’s Greece, captain of all things ancient and crumbling, a plethora of remnants from the Byzantine and Ottoman eras.
Lambchops has been quite concerned for my boredom here, and how I’ll keep busy for a summer, which is unbearably sweet. To be honest, there isn’t a ton to do in the realm of excitement, so I understand, but I’m also not looking for a crazy time; and gorgeous places are within a mountain’s drive or boat ride away. I also like to wander, so I’ve done enough of that to turn about 5 shades of negro darker and find myself in a new part of town on most days when he comes to fetch me after work around plus or minus 3pm.
Of the ways I’ve spent my weekday afternoons while he’s been busy working his brain off and I’m not trying to add my womanly touch to his quarters (lots of scrubbing required), well, let me break them down for you.
1. Drink Coffee Like the Greeks Do, and People Watch
There are so many cafes in this city that it’s quite hard to choose just the right one. They’re all so cute, and when I look for a cafe to sit in I definitely look for a ‘cute’ ambience. I know, how girly of me. But after coming from Korea, land of the cafe, to Spain thats sucks as far as cafe culture goes, Greece has the cafe on lock. After you’ve chosen your locale, choose your coffee. Nescafé rose to fame some time ago with their Frappé, or simply Nescafé because they own that entire market. They’re quite sweet, and from the looks of the tummies on most men, consumed on the regular. I personally have been ordering an Espresso Freddo, which is essentially espresso over ice with sugar, only I ask for medium sugar because health (and I just can’t do espresso black because of sensitive tummy and bitterness). And when I’m feeling particularly in need of calming, and mind-traveling, a glass of white wine, because I’m in Europe and that’s what people do in the afternoon besides eat a huge lunch and nap.2. Walk Through the Castle Walls
If you’re in the market for some quiet wandering, just walk towards the lake and you will be met with these ancient walls at one point or another. Once you enter it’ll amaze you how you can hear a pin drop. It’s so unbelievably quiet (unless you’re being followed by a hoard of loud and obnoxious out-of-work youths). These homes are from what I have been told some of the most expensive property in the city, and date back 100s of years. This region of the city has seen many changes in power whether under the Byzantine or Ottoman rule of Ali Pasha. Walking through here is one of those reasons why Greece is so fascinating to me as an American. It’s amazing to see structures like Ottoman bathhouses that have been preserved from seriously hundreds and hundreds of years ago.
3. Visit Its Kale Fortress
As I already mentioned, it’s really amazing to walk through a modern city, and then stumble onto remnants of eras passed. Within the castle walls lies yet another set of walls, and the former home of the Ottoman ruler Ali Pasha. Sitting high on the acropolis overlooking Lake Pamvotis, this fortified area underwent massive amounts of renovation during his rule. While his palace is in ruins, there also lies Fetiyie Mosque overlooking the lake, with his immaculately designed tomb just in front, and the Byzantine Museum in between the two.4. Ferry Out To the Nameless Island
A ferry leaves the main port in Ioannina every 30 minutes and makes its 10 minute journey over to the island, which plays home to approximately 100 people. Aside from the restaurants serving up fresh seafood (the specialty I hear is eel, and not my thang), there are a few streets filled with residents begging you to buy souvenirs of silver and baklava from their little shops. Delicious baklava I might add. Once you get past the main entry point, you are free to wander and roam through the white-washed walkways and see the many Ottoman-era monasteries that litter the tiny island. I walked past some, but frankly it was too hot to ascend the hills, plus I get cathedraled or religiositied out and am more into seeing how the people live and the picturesque streets and boats. I basically went to the island and spent a lazy afternoon walking around, swatting mosquitos, itching my bites, visiting the Ali Pasha museum where he was beheaded, drinking white wine by the lake, and talking to two little girls who were in awe of the foreign English speaker at their cousin’s restaurant on this tiny little island.
5. Visit Ioannina of the Mountains
This is of course just what I call it. One of my first days here, we took the vespa way up (about halfway up) the mountain on the other side of Lake Pamvotis to a lookout point, that also happens to bear a monument in memoriam to the people of Ligiades who were massacred by the Germans in October 1943. Fun little fact about Ioannina is that before World War II, it was also home to the biggest Jewish population in all of Greece. Who knows, perhaps the Greek side of Mama Schaeff’s family originated from here before settling in Odessa. I wonder! Though not religious in any sense of the word, I am fascinated by Jewish history, and love that Mr. Chops has enlightened me to that history of his city. And funny I’d end up here, in the land of Greek Orthodox.
6. Jump In A Pool
When the heat needs to be beat, jump in a huge vat of water at a hotel pool. Ioannina is about an hour from the beaches of Igoumenitsa, Sivota, and Preveza (amongst others) which we have definitely visited, but you can see are a bit out of everyday reach when sans vehicle or public transport. So pool it is! Lambchops told me about Hotel du Lac which has a lovely pool open to the public for 8 euros a pop, which is more than worth it for a dip and a shade change in the dead of summer. They also have other nice spa treatments and massages which I may just treat myself to in the not so distant future.
7. Get Fit
Lambchops and I said we were gonna get active and keep our health regimes in check, which I think we’ve both done a decent time of maintaining despite the lack of cooking utensils and materials in his apartment. That aside, we are big meal sharers, and I found the studio Yoga Union which is excellent, unlike the yoga I signed up for in Korea (me, a sweater who never sweat, imagine that). I signed up for the month, and at the very least it gives me one thing I need to commit to!
8. When All Else Fails…
Take a nap, because the entire city turns into a ghost town between the hours of 3-5pm. The siesta culture here is insane. Even more pronounced than that of Spain, the country that claims the siesta. I was out walking around one afternoon and was literally in awe. It’s one of those things you don’t really fully believe until you see that absolutely nothing is open and any restaurant that is actually open is sans comida. I’m not kidding, there’s even a typed out reminder to keep your trap shut during said hours in the entryway to his apartment building.
Now that you’ve seen the exhilarating ways I’ve been spending my early afternoons, stay tuned for the late afternoon/early evening excursions to come. They’ve been beautious and open an eye to a historical and lush side of Greece that you will definitely want to see if you haven’t already!