I lived on an island. For nearly a decade. In Greece. The closest point of civilization was the university town of Ioannina, nestled in the mountains of Epirus. Steeped in ancient history and lore, with cozy cafes lining the lakeside and cozier pot-shop restaurants- where you poke through the pots bubbling on the stove to choose your meal, Ioannina offered an escape from the hectic tourism that battered Corfu.
It took a ferry boat to Igomenitsa and a bus ride through the mountains to get to Ioannina, but the best places are harder to reach- accessible only to those who go the extra mile, take that farther step. Ioannina, the capital of Epirus, is one such rewarding destination.
I’ve taken many trips to Ioannina, usually unplanned and on the spur of the moment and the travel tales have piled up over the years. Here are a few. I hope you enjoy them.
Snakes in the Lake and Other Stories: Travel Tales from Ioannina, Greece
Snakes in the Lake
The ferry carried us across the pea green waters from the shores of Ioannina to the tiny un-named island in the middle. The air held a chill from the still snow-covered mountain tops, but spring had forced its’ way into the area anyway, gently reawakening the earth.
I’d been to this island before. I knew of the secrets, the stories and the bullet holes. Today I was coming for lunch. I even put in an order at our favorite restaurant before heading out to take a stroll along the road that follows the island rim. Last time I walked the road I spotted a wildcat in the brush, it had stopped and stared me down, before slipping into the overgrowth. This time would be much different.
Walking past the monastery where the Ottoman empire ruler, Ali Pasha, faced his demise, a movement in from the thick, cloudy water caught my eye. I turned my head and nearly fainted. Not one but several snakes slithered through the split pea soup colored lake! I tried to count them- got to 20 and lost track as they twisted and turned, diving beneath the turbid waters, popping up again to slide across the surface, their bodies cutting trails through the green murky lake.
My heart jumped into my throat. To someone else, like reptile-loving Ross Allen or Croc Hunter Steve Irwin, it would have looked like a graceful ballet performance, but to me… who held Indiana Jones’ take on snakes, (I hate snakes!) it was a nightmarish scene. To see so many of them slithering over each other and frolicking in the water froze me with shock. It was like watching that horrible part of a movie where you know you should cover your eyes, but you just keep staring! So of course I approached the water’s edge. A branch rose from the lake depths and colorful snakes dangled from the abandoned limb.
“Do you think the whole lake is filled with them?” I remember asking, looking out at the vast expanse of Lake Pamvotis. I had never seen them before, or noticed them. And all I could imagine was someone accidentally falling off one of those fishing caiques into the lake and getting swarmed by those snakes. But despite their antics, they stayed in the water- and didn’t venture onto the sunny island shore, which is a curiosity in itself. We watched the snakes a while longer before returning to the taverna.
I had ordered eel that day, and it was waiting at the table on our return. Battered and fried. Coiled up neatly on a white plate. Like a snake.
“Do you think this is…?”
We both looked at each other. “Nah.”
Lake Pamvotis is a protected area and one of the oldest lakes in the world. Among the wild life inhabiting the unique ecosystem are egrets, raptors, frogs and eels! Several types of water snakes also slither through the pea green depths- and love spring as much as us. We had merely come upon snake breeding season! Definitely not for snake-o-phobes like me!
Island Zoo and Other Edibles
My initial visit to the little Nisos (island) of Ioannina happened one chilly winter. It snowed later that day and I even had to buy a winter coat- some islanders are never prepared for winter!
We took the 10 minute ferry trip across Lake Pamvotis. The sky was grey and cloudy as we poked around in the Panteleimonas Monastery, the summer home of the Albanian Ottoman ruler, Ali Pasha. There were few visitors to the island, but someone stopped to show us the bullet holes where Ali Pasha was shot and killed. I wondered how he actually knew.
Ali Pasha was not the reason we had come to the no-named island. We were told the the best restaurants in Ioannina were located on the Nisos. Restaurants aren’t usually difficult to find, so we began our hunt for the recommended fish taverna- there was a stylish place by the ferry dock. We stopped for a shot of Tsipouro, a fiery liquor made from fermenting grape skins & seeds (the best places make their own)- the liquid burned my throat, but warmed my empty belly.
We dove deeper, into the backstreets and away from the docks, past the tiny silver shops and whitewashed stone buildings with their grey slate stone roofs. Eventually we walked by a shopfront filled with animals. Fish floated in fish tanks- marsh hens waited in cages. Turtles. Birds. Even a chicken.
“Oh look, a pet shop!” It was the first pet store I had ever seen in Greece, but there were no cute puppies or lounging cats here. Smells of grilled meats wafted from the door. A quick peek inside told me that this little pet shop was the fish taverna for which we were searching.
I had read about places where you could pick your lobster from a tank to eat, but this taverna was an eye-opening little zoo! Fresh langoustines. Trout. Eel. Duck. Take your pick- point out your favorite and wait for dinner!
After getting over the idea of fresh food (no, I didn’t go for the Marsh hens or any two legged critter!), we chose our entrées, a jug of village wine and braved the chilly day to eat on the patio. The meal, served with fresh horta- village greens flavored with fresh lemon, pungent garlicky Tsatsiki and crusty bread was one not easily forgotten. Pet shop indeed!
Farm to table fans take note- next time you’re on the island of Ioannina, look out for Oi Propodes- and partake in your freshest meal ever.
Fresh Food Island Fare
This story was written years ago. Oi Propodes has grown, renovated and updated. The cages are long gone, but the fish tanks are still there!
Secret Rooms & Living in the Moment
The unnamed island in Lake Pamvotis swirls with mystery, intrigue and brutal past. Dotted around the island are several small ancient Byzantium monasteries. The air around these monasteries smells earthy and cool. Rocks jut from the patches of soft green grass- more like moss across the hillsides. In the morning a mist hangs low over the island. This feels like the place of legends and lore. You have to remind yourself that Lake Pamvotis and Ioannina sit high in the mountains, and the phenomena is merely mountain weather.
I’ve visited the monasteries twice to view the frescoes of the saints that decorate the walls. A lot of the paintings were vandalized during the Ottoman occupation and later- faces scratched out & worn with time- precious history and art lost.
In one of the little monasteries, the 13th Century Agios Nicholos of Filanthrpinon there is a secret room. We had to find the caretaker to let us inside the musty little area. Some say it was where the priests kept Christianity alive during the Ottoman rule. Others say it was where the written history of Epirus was hidden. Either way, people hid there, risking their lives for their beliefs.
I’ve slipped into the secret room twice, the last time with my two sisters, and wondered what exactly took place within those walls. What secrets were whispered. What people were hidden. Did the Ottoman soldiers search the church while priests held their breaths, holding back sneezes and coughs? No one will ever know the whole truth. Ever.
We were quiet when we emerged from the past back into the present, each of us lost in our thoughts. History in Greece does that to you.
Our eldest sister began scribbling furiously in a tiny notebook she kept at her side. We walked a rocky slope and she wrote as we walked. I thought she would trip, but her pencil scribbled across the little pad, her eyes darting to check the path every few seconds.
“Why are you doing that?” I asked.
“I have to capture the moment.”
Our sister Sue had joined Sandy on one last trip to Greece, where I was living at the time. Sue was in between radiation treatments for an incurable brain tumor that stubbornly continued to weave its poisonous web across her brain. This would be the last trip the three of us would share. This was our moment. Three sisters together in Ioannina.
“Put the notebook away,” I told her. “Live in the moment- you can write all about it tonight in the hotel room- but for now, I know this cool restaurant that looks like a pet store…”
Sandy put away her notebook and in the narrow island streets, while living in the moment, she stumbled across her ‘special man’ en route to the fish taverna.
It was a super-man type doll in a box with an “S” emblazoned across his shirt. The box label read: Special Man. But that is a whole other story, and hers to tell.
Hidden in the Hills
The hill of Goritsa overlooks Lake Pamvotis, the little village of Perama nestled against the rising slope above the lake. You can see it from the lakeside of Ioannina. It’s a short trip in a taxi (under 10 minutes) to reach the entrance to Perama Cave, a geological wonder hidden in the hill of Goritsa. My two sisters and I headed to Perama Cave to work out the logistics of an attempted homicide. A ‘fictional’ attempted murder, I might add, that took place in a Sidney Sheldon thriller that all three of us had read: The Other Side of Midnight.
A genius plot master, Sheldon set this novel in Greece, swirling it around Greek Tycoon Constantin Demiris, a pilot, Larry Douglas and his lovely wife, Catherine, whom Larry tries to eliminate in Ioannina so he can shack up with a sexy French actress.
In the story, Larry and Catherine tour the enormous cave inside of Goritsa. Filled with huge stalactites and stalagmites formations, like dripping wax candles (and even water!) it would be easy to lose someone in there- and Larry tries. And fails. After he doesn’t manage to lose her in the depths of the underground- he tries to push her off a cliff.
The three of us must have spent nearly an hour on the path that wound around the hill trying to figure out how on earth someone could get pushed off of a cliff and suffer any harm.
“Maybe a broken arm or leg. But death? No way!”
We debated the possibilities for ages, but in the end we couldn’t figure it out. I suspected maybe Sheldon’s fictional tale was just that- a work of fiction.
I re-read the book years later and now think we were actually on the wrong path! Go figure! But this goes to show that true fans will go to great lengths to figure out the logistics of even a fictional story! (Yes, we were definitely book nerd sisters!) It certainly added interest to our trip to Perama Cave.
Incidentally, Sidney Sheldon later came out with a sequel to The Other Side of Midnight called Memories of Midnight. Chapter One is set in Ioannina. Another fantastic tale. Am waiting for the movie!
Locals used the nooks and crannies around Goritsa hill to hide during World War II bombings. The main cave of Perama was discovered by accident in 1951. The taxi driver told us it was by local kids, but the official story hands the discovery to a geologist. The cave remains a constant cool temperature year round. You must take a guided tour to go through the cave and there are steep steps (600) to climb at the end of the tour- and yes, they keep track of all of the guests in their groups.
My sisters and I were headed on the hour and half bus ride from the port town of Igomenitsa to the capital city of Epirus: Ioannina. Sue and I shared a seat- on the bouncy ride up into the mountains, and the old, wore out government run KTEL bus groaned, jerked and sputtered its way along the road, climbing higher and higher into the mountains.
At one point I started hearing an odd squeak- and then another. Sue and I exchanged puzzled looks.
“Maybe the driver’s wearing leather pants,” I suggested, not sure what sound we were hearing.
The driver, young and sexy in a Josh Duhamel- sort of way, concentrated on the road. Leather pants had become a popular trend through Greece at that time. We both craned our necks to try and check out his trousers, but couldn’t see.
We rode higher and higher. Mountains everywhere and nothing else. Greece may be a vast nation, but most of it is mountains, suitable for only goats! Every now and then we would pass by a tiny village with a cafe neon and not much else. Every squeak the bus made would have us looking at the driver with curiosity.
The driver finally stopped at one village and got up to help load packages off of the bus and indeed- he wore leather pants! We couldn’t stop laughing!
For the rest of the ride to Ioannina, every time the bus squeaked, we squealed with laughter. Was it his leather pants? Maybe- maybe not, but it certainly made for a hilarious journey.
KTEL Buses to Ioannina
The KTEL bus departs from Igomenitsa for Ioannina several times a day from the bus station in the town center. If you miss one, there’s usually another bus a couple of hours later.
Liked these tales? Check out these other travel stories:
- Mountain Climbing in Greece
- The Monster Encounter in Corfu
- Mystery Aboard the Marrakesh Express
- Attempted Abduction in Istanbul
- Mardi Gras Madness