SThe lake is shiny as a mirror. Above that is a long mountain range with white cloud towers against a clear blue sky. It is pleasantly warm here until the end of October and the beginning of November. The ferry takes only a few minutes from the provincial capital Ioannina to the island in Lake Pamvotida with its historic monasteries from the Middle Ages.
In 1822 the ruler Ali Pasha, notorious for his cruelty, fled from his Ottoman opponents here to the medieval Panteleimon monastery. Hidden in a cellar cell, the 82-year-old tyrant, known as the Lion of Ioannina, was tracked down and killed. Only his costumes have remained in the monastery museum, including instruments of torture and swords, which in the end were of no use to the Pasha.
On the island’s steep stairway to the older Moni Agios Nikolaos Filanthropinon monastery, you can quickly work up a sweat. The name of the historical building goes back to the clergy of a family who once came from Constantinople to Ioannina and founded the first spiritual center on the island, says the local Greek guide Irini Mimistri.
The remote monastery is famous for its colored wall paintings that adorn the rooms, most of which date from the 16th century. Holy Mass is celebrated here once a day.
On the steps back down, you won’t meet a soul when you pass the small settlement on the northern shore of the island with its one-story stone houses under tall trees. Small paddle boats bob around in the water next to thick reeds. “Traditionally, people here live from fishing and frog breeding,” says Mimistri. “But most of the 120 families commute back and forth.”
Enchanted streets in the old town of Ioannina
Back in Ioannina, the capital of Epirus. The metropolis of the Greek northwest with its 168,000 inhabitants appears surprisingly tranquil. When walking through the winding streets of the old town in the late afternoon, only a few people are out and about.
It is the city that said Ali Pasha made great in the 18th century. He was an Albanian and through murder and intrigue was able to rise to the position of the wealthy city’s pasha in 1788. After a relatively short time he ruled large parts of Macedonia, Albania, Thessaly and the Peloponnese.
Before he fled to the island, the pasha resided in a fortress that reached far into the lake. The castle hill was built on a huge embankment. The facility was totally destroyed in a fire in 1870.
Today there is a Byzantine museum in the same place. Twenty kilometers to the south lies Greece’s oldest oracle site on a plateau below the almost 2000 meter high Tomaros Mountains, the ancient Zeus sanctuary Dodona, which dates back to the late 4th century BC.
The Oracle of Zeus in Dodona
At the edge of the mountains you approach the amphitheater on the plain covered with trees, bushes and flowering shrubs. And suddenly stands in the warm autumn sun in front of the stone semicircle from ancient times – again as the only visitor.
Only a few craftsmen are currently working on the seats in the amphitheater. The condition of the 25 stone rows of seats made of simple limestone is poor, each plate has to be cleaned and sealed.
“The oracle of Zeus here in Dodona is older than that of Delphi”, Irini Mimistri draws the comparison to the much better known place of worship, which the Greeks for a time considered the center of the world. “But like all of Epirus, it was very remote until recently.” Delphi on Parnassus, on the other hand, was there at an important crossroads with connections in all directions. “And so it became more famous than Dodona.”
It was King Pyrrhus, ruler of the Molossian tribe, known as the fiery head because of his red hair, who brought the ancient sanctuary and oracle of Epirus under his rule early on. For the Epiroten, as the inhabitants of the Epiros region call themselves, he had the cult site expanded into a religious and cultural center with a spectator area of 18,000 seats.
At that time, Zeus was worshiped as the highest god under a sacred oak. From the rustling of the leaves and the cooing of the doves, priestesses fathomed the will of the gods. Tripod cauldrons made of bronze surrounded the oak and were struck and made to sound in Zeus’ honor. At that time, until the 3rd century BC, most of the buildings in the sacred area of the oracle were built, it was its heyday.
Festival planned in the ancient theaters
Around seven centuries later, when Christianity became the predominant religion in the east of the Roman Empire, Emperor Theodosius the Great had all ancient sanctuaries destroyed. He ordered the sacred Zeus oak to be torn down and removed along with its roots.
Anything to do with worshiping the old gods was forbidden by decree. But the ancient world of gods has long since risen again – not as a cult, but as a return to one’s own culture.
Also this year in Ioannina there will be a festival of tragedies and comedies in all the ancient theaters. And with a little luck there will be performances again after years of restorations in the oracle. After “Elektra” was last played here from 1960, the 2000 year old theater has been closed since 1998.
Remote villages in the mountains of Epirus
The next morning we set off for the mountainous north-west of Epirus, in that sparsely populated region with peaks more than 2000 meters high, deep valleys and gorges, where, like almost everywhere in Greece, one encounters herds of sheep. The tour to the remote villages of the Zagorochoria, known as Zagori for short, leads over winding roads with wonderful views.
Around noon a mighty mountain range appears on the horizon. It is the almost 2500 meter high Tymfi mountain range in the Pindos Mountains. The massif can also be seen in the distance from the “Lithos” restaurant in the village of Dilofo.
At lunch on this warm summer autumn day on the terrace, the table bends under all the delicious starters and salads, followed by meat dishes and vegetarian mushroom creations. Finally there is the traditional “Epirus pie”.
The longest and deepest canyon in Greece
The sun is already low when the village of Kipoi comes into view, whose stone-roofed houses nestle against a steep slope. You can’t tell from the look of the hamlet that it was once the capital of the 46 villages in the heart of the region.
The villages, shielded by the high mountains, emerged around the year 1400, when the population tried to flee from the Muslim Ottomans. By clever tactics, they were largely spared from attacks. They even received special privileges for self-government, but had to pay copious amounts of taxes.
Today only a good 100 people live in Kipoi. The main attraction are the arch bridges from the 17th and 18th centuries in the rocky surroundings of the village. For example the single-arched Lazaridi-Kontodimou bridge from 1764, which leads over a gorge to a steep rock face.
But the climax in the Zagori region is yet to come. It is the Vikos Gorge, the longest and deepest gorge in Greece: twelve kilometers long, up to 1000 meters of steep rock faces. On a high-altitude path, one approaches the Oxia lookout point with a sensational view of the Vikos Gorge opposite, which has dug deep into the mighty rock walls.
No water can be seen in the gorge. That flows under the rocks today. But on the erosion of the rock formations you can still see the different heights of the former river banks. What you can still see: curvy rock formations, formed in the Ice Age. Not only gods shaped the area, but also glaciers that created this divine sight.
Tips and information
Getting there: For example with Aegean Airlines via Athens to Ioannina. Those who fly to Athens alternatively with Lufthansa or Easyjet can also reach Ioannina from there with the domestic airline Sky Express.
Accommodation: In the “Epirus Palace Hotel”, a palatial hotel near Ioannina, an overnight stay with breakfast in a double room costs around 100 euros (epiruspalace.gr). In the renovated “Kipi Suites” in Zagori (ariahotels.gr), an overnight stay in a double room including breakfast costs from 60 euros.
Information desk: discovergreece.com
Participation in the trip was supported by Marketing Greece. You can find our standards of transparency and journalistic independence at axelspringer.de/unabhaengigkeit.