The closest mainland area for a quick weekend getaway from Corfu is the region of Epirus. Ioannina is a popular choice for the people of Corfu, even for a daily trip for shopping and to enjoy the great food. In December, we decided to travel to Ioannina, spend a night there, and then visit the archeological site of the Necromancy of Acheron and the village of Parga the next day. From the port of Corfu, the trip to Igoumenitsa on the ferry takes around 1.5 hours. From there, the drive to Ioannina on the Egnatia highway takes about 45 minutes.
With a population of over 65,500, Ioannina is the most populous city in the Epirus area. It sits on the western side of Lake Pamvotis and is located to the east of the city of Igoumenitsa by around 80 kilometers (50 miles). Ioannina is widely recognized as one of Greece’s most cosmopolitan cities due to its long history as the region’s commercial center. Ioannina was a prosperous city during the Ottoman occupation and provides a useful contrast to Corfu, which was governed by the Venetians. They are two Greek towns in proximity to each other, both lovely and steeped in history, yet they couldn’t be more different in character.
While Ioannina was founded in the sixth century A.D., recent archeological digs have revealed relics from the city’s Hellenistic era. During the late Byzantine era (13th -15th centuries), Ioannina had tremendous prosperity and substantial autonomy, drawing many wealthy Byzantine families to seek refuge after the destruction of Constantinople. By 1430, the city of Ioannina had already capitulated to the Ottomans, and it remained the Pashalik of Ioannina’s administrative headquarters until 1868. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the city served as a focal point for the development of the contemporary Greek Enlightenment. In the wake of the Balkan Wars that ended in 1913, Ioannina was handed over to Greece.
As Ioannina is home to the University of Ioannina, students have helped make the town a bustling city with many stores, restaurants, and taverns. The University Hospital of Ioannina and the General Hospital of Ioannina (“Hatzikosta”) are two more highly regarded medical institutions.
The city of Ioannina is well-known for its delectable cuisine, which features roasted lamb and pork, traditional pies, and other pastries and sweets. When it comes to desserts, baklava is unrivaled in popularity. If you’re in need of something sweet, we highly recommend getting some of them at any of the city’s many patisseries.
During the day, cafés surrounding the lake in Ioannina’s picturesque downtown area attract a diverse crowd, while at night, they transform into lively bars. There is a newer part of the town by the city’s iconic clock, where all the stores are, and an old town by the lake, where the castle sits. When it comes to fortifications, Ioannina’s castle is the oldest.
While much of the current fortress was built during the late Ottoman period under Ali Pasha, certain Byzantine features are still visible.
The city was supposedly founded and originally fortified by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I in the sixth century. Moreover, early 21st-century excavations have uncovered Hellenistic period (4th – 3rd century B.C.) defenses, whose path was mainly followed by the later rebuilding of the citadel in the Byzantine and Ottoman periods.
The castle is situated on a rocky peninsula that reaches into Lake Pamvotis in the southeast corner of the contemporary city. The castle’s two citadels, one of which is currently overshadowed by the Ottoman Aslan Pasha Mosque and the other of which is considerably bigger and called Its Kale, were already built by the late 11th century.
The fortress in the region’s northeast has a surface area of around 6,000 square meters and is encircled by a wall that was built at least in part during the Byzantine era.
The southeast citadel, better known by its Ottoman name, “Its Kale”, meaning “inner castle”, is effectively its own fortification within the old town, occupying an area of almost 30,000 m2.
Its Kale was entirely reconstructed by Ali Pasha and used as his primary residence.
In the castle, you can visit the Byzantine Museum of Ioannina, the Fethiye Mosque with the tomb of Ali Pasha decorated with an iron latticework, and an exhibition on the history and techniques of silversmithing in Ioannina and the surrounding area, an industry that flourished during the Ottoman era. Right in the middle of the lake, there is a tiny island, which is a great place to relax and unwind. There are several monasteries on the island, but the most well-known is the Filanthropinon Monastery, which has been serving the local community since the 13th century. In addition to the Ali Pasha Museum, you should check out the Lake Pamvotis Tourist Information.
The Caves of Perama and the Pavlos Vrellis Wax Museum of Greek History are also not far from Ioannina. The Dodona Archaeological Site and the Archaeological Museum of Ioannina are an absolute must-do. Dodona, a Zeus sanctuary that may have been established as early as the second millennium B.C., was the second-most famous Greek oracle after Delphi.
Nekromanteion, a fascinating archaeological site about an hour and a half’s drive from Ioannina, is well worth the trip. As a necromancy sanctuary, the Nekromanteion served as a shrine to Hades and Persephone in classical Greece. It stood in Epirus, close to the river Acheron. Believers considered this location to be the entrance to Hades, the underworld.
Nekromanteion literally means “Oracle of the Dead”, and it served as a meeting place for believers to commune with their forefathers who had passed on. In order to communicate with the dead, celebrants would first convene in a temple-like space and consume specific food and a narcotic combination as part of complex rites involving the usage of the Nekromanteion.
After performing a ritual cleansing and sacrificing a sheep, the devout would make their way along a maze of hallways, leaving sacrifices at each of the many iron doors along the way. After the priests asked a series of questions and chanted prayers, the devout watched as the priests rose from the ground and began to soar across the temple on the backs of theatrical cranes. The devout took them for a long-dead relative of their own.
Polygonal masonry, iron-fenced gates, an internal partition with corridors and a building that supports the worship and rites of the infernal gods make up the necromancy temple. Two parallel walls separate the main sanctuary’s main hall from two smaller side halls. The Holy Crypt is a subterranean chamber below the main hall, with a ceiling supported by fifteen limestone arches.
The hall’s subterranean location and excellent acoustics are two of its most notable features.
The Monastery of St. John the Baptist was built in the 16th century in the main sanctuary of the Hellenistic Nekromanteion, on its remains. Up until 1958, the monastery served as a religious center.
The Ottoman feudal lord’s fortified home, built in the first part of the nineteenth century, may be found beside the Nekromanteion. On top of this rectangular two-story structure, you will find a tower. The basement not only housed the animals but also served as a location for storage and defense. The feudal lord and his family resided in a single chamber on the upper level.
After seeing everything Nekromanteion has to offer, head to the nearby town of Parga. Just 30 minutes of driving will get you there. It is possible to see the castle of Anthousa, located on a winding, narrow road, just before descending to the beachside part of the village of Parga, with a stunning panorama.
In 1814, Ali Pasha of Ioannina erected the castle of Anthousa above the town of Anthousa, which is about 3,000 meters high. Parga was the only city in Epirus that Ali Pasha had not conquered after the collapse of the Venetian Republic. Ali Pasha was fixated on it, but he dared not take any action since French soldiers were stationed to defend the quaint village.
After Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, Ali Pasha felt emboldened to break treaties between the Turks and the French by raiding the towns of Ayia and Anthoussa, located on the border between his pashalik and the French domain. Despite this, he refrained from taking any action against Parga. He instead constructed a fort high above Anthoussa with the intention of launching artillery strikes against Parga.
It appears that the fortification of a besieged city was a regular tactic for the pasha. In 1814, work began on what would become Anthoussa Castle. It became clear that the fort was worthless. Both Parga and the Ionian Islands were conquered by the British from the French in 1814. The assault strategy was scrapped after this turn of events. In one of the most exciting chapters of modern Greek history, the Brits sold Parga to Ali for 150,000 pounds in 1819.
The picturesque town of Parga is located on the shore of the Ionian Sea, not far from the city of Igoumenitsa. Its beautiful natural scenery is one of the major attractions of this vacation destination. The Thesprotians were ancient Greeks who lived in the region. In 1401, the town fell under Venetian rule and was run as an offshoot of the Venetian dominion of Corfu on the mainland. By the middle of the 15th century, Ottoman attacks had become rather common in the region. The town was held by the Venetians until the fall of the Republic of Venice in 1797, except for a few brief periods during which the Ottomans held it. Afterwards, France took possession of Parga.
When the French economy collapsed in 1815, Parga’s residents revolted against French rule and turned to the British for help. Once the Brits paid off Ali Pasha of Ioannina financially in 1819, the city fell under full Ottoman authority. As a result of the widespread disapproval of this decision, many people in Parga fled to neighboring Corfu to escape Ottoman authority. As Greece was victorious in the Balkan Wars in 1913, Parga and the rest of Epirus became part of Greece.
As you drive or sail closer to Parga, the Venetian castle and the brightly painted traditional homes will attract your attention. Sitting on a hill with a commanding view of the city, the Castle of Parga served as a stronghold against land and sea attacks. In the eleventh century, the locals of Parga erected it to fend off pirates and Turks. The stronghold and the homes within it were razed to the ground in 1537 by Ottoman admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa. The Venetians strengthened the structure and made it into an impenetrable fortification that withstood attacks until 1819, including one by Ali Pasha of Ioannina. The iconic Panagia islet, which can be found just offshore from the port of Parga, is one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations. Part of the fortress the French constructed on this little, green island in 1808 is a charming, whitewashed church.
Currently, Parga is a popular tourist destination thanks to its unique beaches, stunning scenery, and historic buildings. While it is located on the Greek mainland, the town of Parga manages to capture the feel of the Ionian Islands. Those who wish to spend a day in Parga can do so on one of the numerous boat trips that depart from Corfu every day.
Since it was winter and all of the restaurants in Parga were shut when we visited, we opted to eat in Igoumenitsa before catching the boat back to Corfu. The port of Igoumenitsa serves as a vital link between the northwest of mainland Greece and the Ionian Islands and Italy. Located on the easternmost tip of the Gulf of Igoumenitsa in the Ionian Sea, the city’s economy depends heavily on marine, transportation, services, agriculture, and tourism. Igoumenitsa is the endpoint of the 670 km (420 miles) long Egnatia Highway that serves northern Greece, making it a popular starting point for visitors traveling from Europe and a destination for trucks traveling from Turkey.
Igoumenitsa is home to around 9,000 people. Igoumenitsa’s excellent souvlaki can be found at the taverns on the pedestrian plaza behind the seaside road, as well as at the many other excellent eateries that line the road itself.
Greeks often find it more convenient and cheaper to travel to another country than to another city in Greece due to the country’s steep mountains along the mainland and its hundreds of islands. Corfu is a stunning place to call home, but getting off the island requires at least a three-hour round-trip on the ferry. As a result, the residents of Corfu Town frequently take a Sunday Road trip to the town of Acharavi, located to the north of Corfu. But if you’re spending more than a week in Corfu, you should take a trip to the enchanting nearby province of Epirus.
Photos: Corfu Perspectives Guided Tours