Saturday, 23 February 2013

Greece: The unique splendor of the misty town of Ioannina

Narrow alleys, houses with vivid colors, smells from the famous traditional kitchen of Epirus with the lake as a unique background

by Kon Hans

View of the lake

The town of Ioannina (aprox. 150,000 habitants) has two skies; one up above, with colorful travelling clouds and one down below, deep in the humid embrace of the big lake. The tall mountains all around constitute the earthly and imposing frame of this beautiful canvas painted with melancholy, with Mitsikeli Mountain easily distinguishable, a faithful giant companion in the horizon of the town.

Fall and spring are the two best seasons for visiting and admiring this unique town. Golden-red, with the premature breeze of the bloomed nature, the town acquires a particular beauty, a beauty that many have praised and continue to do when they stand opposite from the AslanPasha Mosque and see its emblematic tower, tightly embraced from the evergreen plane trees, dancing on the surface of the lake.

The lake Pamvotis is the grand priestess of the town of Ioannina and the one that grants it a distinctive character. She will mesmerize you at the moment you lay your eyes upon her on a purple sunset and you will fall in love with her when the lazy flight of a gull softly strokes her foggy dress.  At her side lay the Castle walls; tall, proud, drowned in vegetation, they conceal in their interior another world with echoes from the Byzantium era and the Ottoman domination that waits for you to discover its secrets as you pass through one of its six gates.  In front of one of them and nearly “floating” on the lake exists the famous café “Kyra Frosyni”, that took its name from the tragic history of the handsome homonymous Lady that denied the love of Ali Pasha and according to the legend was thrown into the lake and became the spirit and the soul of Pamvotis.

Its Kale Citadel of the Castle of Ioannina
Upon entering the Castle, the narrow alleys, the beautiful old manors with vivid colors and the smells from the famous traditional kitchen of Epirus, all invite you to lose yourself in this forgotten labyrinth until you emerge to its Citadel “Its Kale, high up, and the grave of Ali Pasha. From there, after wandering on the beautiful stone bastions and in the memories of past centuries and after paying a visit to the Byzantine Museum, you may relax and enjoy the view of the town spreading below, the lake, and the sea of mountains beyond. A good local “tsipouro” (strong alcoholic beverage) with the accompanying tasty tapas in the traditional stone crafted cafeteria of Its Kale is the best way to bond your optical experiences with the gastronomical ones while you enjoy the sunset.  Afterwards, coming out from the central gate of the Castle and walking up the, famous for its night life, Kalari Street, full of “tsipouradika” (small traditional taverns), small cafés and bars, you will come upon the beautiful stone paved  alleys of the Old Town of Ioannina.

Here, the impressive mansions, the narrow alleys full of surprises, the beer houses and bars that compete even with those of London, the astonishing arcades full of student life and some of the best tsipouradika and taverns of the town, like theStoa Luli, all constitute a first class raw material for the enrichment of your experiences.  Leaving behind this oddly London-like atmosphere, particularly so with the ever-present fog, you can trace back your steps to the lake once more where, in Garibaldi Street now, new taverns and restaurants have transformed the street in a busy promenade next to the lake.  At the end of the street and in the space occupied by the old slaughterhouses, a new and impressive cultural cluster is now hosting various exhibitions and events.

If you are able to escape from the sirens of the lake and the magic of the Castle and the Old Town, then it’s time to head towards the centre of the town walking up Averof Street and marveling at the various local shops and the renowned local silver crafted jewelry in the displays.  At some point you will come across the Archaeological Museum which is worth a visit, with important discoveries from the wider region of Epirus and of the famed Dodona, where allegedly the most ancient Hellenic oracle lies, as well as wander in the adjacent beautiful park “Litharitsia” where once again the splendid view will amaze you. Additionally, you can savor a delicious “bougatsa” (cream or cheese-filled pastry) witnessing the passage of time as it is left imprinted in the Tower of Clock, one of the symbols of the town, or simply delight in the local architecture of the Town Hall, the National Bank and the Military Division.   Continuing up the road and at a short distance, the legendary “Diethnes” with its green terrace, the best confectionery of the whole region, is offered for a sweet, syrupy break until you reach the Central Square, opposite of the imposing building of the Prefecture, where the lake and the mountains will once again compose the infallible background in your photographs.
Byzantine ruins - Its Kale Citadel

Ioannina is also an ideal town for shopping, and as you are approach the heart of the shopping area, it is well worth your time walking the Michael Angelou and Charilaou Trikoupi Streets and combining shopping with a good espresso in the innumerable small and big cafés in the district.   Moreover, if you head up Michael Angelou Street at some point you will come upon the “Kostas Frontzos” Folklore Museum, one of the few remaining, probably the only one, Turkish manor of a traditional architecture dating back at the late 19th century.  Speaking of the important politician and benefactor of the town of Ioannina, we must also mention the “Frontzos Politeia, an exceptional compound, up on the Frontzos hill, with an exceptional open air and interior restaurant, a bar, a cafeteria and an idyllic hotel, all blessed with an astonishing view of the town and the lake afar in a tight embrace with the tall mountains spreading in the scarlet horizon.

With this image marked in your mind you will leave Ioannina, of which the history and culture are unbreakably bonded with its unique nature, and you will return… when you miss the serene Lady of the Lake and the winter breath of her great mountain-lovers around her. 

Published in KATHIMERINI ©, on September 1, 2012 (transl. & edited from greek, original here ) 

 (All fotos by Kon Hans)

Detail - lake view

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Greece: The different faces of Patmos

Greece: The different faces of Patmos

Kon Hans

A poetic path of self-awareness and discovery in the internal character of the island

View of the Chora  (foto by K.H.)
Cold waters, beautiful pebbled beaches, salt cedars that offer small oases of shade, creeks that compose the laced coastline of Patmos as it’s seen from above, from the awe-inspiring and mystic Monastery of Saint John the Theologian, which throws over the island the mythical veil of the Apocalypse.

And indeed, that Monastery is the first thing you see after your long journey to Patmos; illuminated up there in the Chora (main settlement of the island) as if suspended in the middle of the sky, seems promising enough  to make you forget the fatigue of the eight hour trip in the ferry from Piraeus.

The Holy Island of Patmos with its religious and devotional aura that accompanies it and appears to be emanating from its world known cave, -where St. John conceived the dark forms of the Apocalypse-, and then flows into the alleys of the Chora, where black dressed monks walk silently, will surely feed your spiritual concerns.

However, this is only one side of the island, beyond that there is so much more to be offered. A cosmopolitan island, with everything that may entail, with loads of tourists, mainly from neighboring Italy, an island with a natural and wild beauty sculptured upon its Aegean face and finally, an ideal destination for a personal exploration. Beginning from the small sunbathed wild creek to the calm and up to the serene figure of Mr. Vasilis in his nice municipal camping, there are several aspects to this island that are not covered only by a divine mystery, but a much more profound and humane one.

Except from the Chora with its intricate bright-white alleys and stunning mansions, the second largest settlement, as in almost all the Greek islands, is the port:  Skala is a touristically developed settlement, perhaps at the expense of the overall aesthetics, nonetheless alive and with the pulse of the international visitors. Here you may visit the various cafes and shops by participating in the playful promenade along the harbor, or eat an authentic patmiaki tyropita  (cheese pie of Patmos) from the traditional bakeries and stare at the skiffs and other boats as they sway to the gentle breeze. Coming the moonlit night you can visit the Skala and enjoy a drink at the colorful Koukoumavla, or taste some sea delicacies at Gorgones  and Hiliomodi at reasonable prices.

A “mandatory” visit

The Monastery in Chora  (foto by K.H.)

Leaving behind Skala, the ascent towards the hill that hosts the Chora can be done by a very pleasant marked trail that combines the freshness of the small forest overlooking the sea, as well as the possibility of stumbling upon some juicy figs along the way. As you reach  the top, and the trail give its way to a paved alley alongside some impressive mansions, you will know for sure that you have reached the Chora. You are entitled now to enjoy an iced frappe at Jimmie’s balcony, the most beautiful terrace in Chora with the whole island stretching down for your greedy eyes before you get lost amidst the alleys. Fresh and rested you may now commence the second ascend for the “obligatory” visit  the Monastery and principally to its exquisite Museum, one of the largest museums with sacred relics and treasures in Greece. Here, while you admire the impressive frescoes and treasures hidden in the bosom of the Church of Greece, at some point you will find yourself in front of an ancient Greek epigraph;  it is dedicated to the Greek Goddess Artemis and to all the ancient Gods who once inhabited this land and are now lost in the mists of time. 

Afterwards, continuing your exploration in the heart of Chora and admiring the photographic angles, the colors and panoramic views, some alley will take you eventually to the central square. At this point, you can drink a coffee in the historical Thanassi’s Cafe, a beautiful, traditional and cheap corner, or if you get hungry, Pantheon at the entrance of Chora and Vangelis in the same square are both good choices; alternatively, you can grab something from the bakery near the square, probably the best in the island, and do some shopping of souvenirs, typically religious in nature.

The second mandatory visit – or the first, it depends on you – is of course the famed Cave of the Apocalypse (Revelation), a bit further down the Chora. Here, in a small dark cave Saint John had his revelations and as witnesses of his sacred ecstasy you will find two small gaps in the solid rock, which are said to have originated from the unyielding prayer, as he leaned ceaselessly with his hand and his head on the surface of the rock. All these are kindly explained by a monk under the embarrassing looks of foreign tourists who, unfortunately, do not understand a word in Greek.

Sea and pebbles

Didymes Beach  (foto by K.H.)

Abandoning the penumbra of the cave and the awe that surrounds one of the most dreaded 
manuscripts of the Church, the sun-drenched beaches await you for a change of mood. In general, the beaches are not getting the best deal because of the harshness of the ground – most have pebbles rather than sand.  You will probably find the best conditions in Agriolivado, Vagia, Kambos and Meloi Beach, which also offers a nice camping place and a very good restaurant. Kambos is an organized beach, and the other two are sand beaches that also have good shade from trees. The Didymes beach deserves a special mention for its wild beauty, with the small but loaded canteen, and so deserves Lambi beach for its spectacular multicolored pebbles. The queen of the island though is Psili Ammos, probably the most remote and difficult to reach (I would suggest the boat if it gets really hot; the walk is long and arduous), it is, however, the most beautiful sandy beach of the island and, as the majority of the beaches here do, it has crystal-clear, cold waters.

When the time comes for you to leave, you will by now have discovered that Patmos can reveal to you what you are looking for, because it offers everything in generosity; the God, the Man and the Nature.  Moreover, man and nature are the two pillars on which the edifice of religion rests and Patmos seems to be the ideal place where this osmosis between the three shows you the way to find your own God, whoever he is.

Published in KATHIMERINI ©, on September 29, 2012 (transl. & edited from greek, original here )

 (All fotos by Kon Hans)

Psili Ammos Beach (foto by K.H.)

St. George Isle (foto by K.H.)

A deserted beach  (foto by K.H.)

In the Monastery  (foto by K.H.)