Sunday, 8 March 2015

Greece: A journey to the Highlands of Greece!

Beautiful small villages and proud mountains sleeping in the crystal breath of winter...

Pamvotida Lake
A lake is always beautiful. Any and every moment of the day that you let your eyes embrace its serene surface.  It can be a heavenly mirror that reflects the majesty of the sky or a magical and mysterious kingdom when the gray veils of the fog caress unhurriedly its surface.  “Pamvotida”, especially, the lake of Ioannina city in northern Greece, is a canvas of a particular beauty, in the heart of winter, as tall, white Mountains stand around majestically and the impressive castle walls of the city stand as guards.  This beautiful city and its unique nature are steadily becoming a pole of attraction during this period, as the visitors venture in the nearby natural landscapes and villages, one of which, “Zitsa”, is offered for an exceptional wine-tasting experience!  The capital of Epirus, Ioannina, is the best starting point to embark on this adventure and discover the unique highland nature of Epirus and its famous hospitality, its mesmerizing flavors and aromas, the soul of winter in all its glory. 
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The people of Epirus (which in reality means “Highlands” in greek), have been through many hardships in the course of history, and have learned to cope with the inhospitable nature and the cold winter nights, to cultivate the earth with their rough hands and to always welcome their fellowmen, with a warm and hearty handshake and a glass of “tsipouro” (strong alcoholic beverage).  It is the same warm way by which they are going to welcome you in every village, in every little tavern and offer you a “meze” (small tapas), because nature itself with all its adversities has showed to them the true value of companionship.  

Ioannina city, capital of Epirus

Ioannina will be your base for your explorations in the mountains and villages in the land.  The hotels in the city offer, in their majority, a high standard and some are known for their excellent quality and services as is the case of the most famous of all, the Gran Serai, where the orient glamour has transformed an old hotel into a luxurious complex.  Also known is the Epirus Palace with an equal taste for glamour  and the Du Lac complex, by the lake. On the other hand, the center of the city can offer some exquisite hotels, such as the Metropolis Hotel or you can stay at the “Frontzou Politeia”, a majestic complex, situated on the Frontzos hill, and overlooking the town, offering some spectacular views.  

In Ioannina you can do everything: from shopping to staying up all night in beautiful bars hidden in small alleys, you can explore the paved streets to admire the Castle and the lake, or walk at your leisure at the new pedestrian center or even take your bicycle and go for a tour around the lake in the new bicycle lane, as per the European standards.  It is indeed an impressive city, with many choices, where nature engulfs it all year round with unique beauty, and sometimes with a somewhat frozen embrace. Especially during the winter months, you can enjoy the rare phenomenon, when nature creates sculptures out of ice next to the lake with the help of strong frozen winds!  After strolling around the narrow alleys of the Castle and the magical lakeside, or in the heart of the old town, you can leave the beauty of Ioannina behind and start exploring the really mesmerizing nature around you, still sleeping in the crystal breath of the cold winter.

The village of Zitsa

As an alternative solution, for those of you  who want to live a lazy and laid back rhythm of a small village, then head to nearby Zitsa village, home to some of the best wines of the Epirus region and of the whole Greece.  There, you will find the charming Agnadi hotel with exquisite aesthetics and majestic views across the village.  Zitsa village, lies at a very close distance from Ioannina and is famous mainly for the production of wine, the most famed of which is the sparkling white wine of the local white grape variety, known as "Debina", which is internationally recognized.   Just half an hour from the airport of Ioannina, Zitsa can offer you not only the beauties of the countryside, but you can also have a chance to indulge in a tasting trip, visiting the wineries of the region, such as "Glinavos" or the "Zoinos Winery" and enjoying fine wine and "tsipouro" together with local delicacies.

You can make some interesting discoveries in the village itself, like the unique “bibliokipos” (Garden of books) belonging to Anna Ellis, from USA, and a permanent resident of Zitsa, who has  opened the first bookshop in the village and at the same time has offered a space for intellectual culture.  You can also visit Profet Elia's Monastery, situated on the hill of the same name, where Lord Byron himself has stayed for a few days during his visit to the region, and has praised the beauty of the place.  A walk to the local art gallery of Zitsa may also be an interesting experience, admiring the engraving work of some important  Greek artists.

The bridge of God

Following the river of Kalama, just outside the village you will come upon an impressive monument built solely by the forces of nature, widely known as "Theogefyro" (God's Bridge);  a naturally formed bridge, standing over you, imposing, twenty meters above the raging waters and was created as a result of the persistent river eating out the rock in its way.  Close by, you can find  the “Watermill of Achilles”, once an old mill, and now the base of inspiration for an impressive traditional building that functions as a coffeehouse and a restaurant in a place of a stunning and unique natural beauty. There, you can taste the well-known river trout and the infamous “proveio” (lamb meat), a mouth watering lamb that has been slowly baked in a traditional stone oven for twelve hours!  Epirus is definitely a place where you can discover, on your own, a thousand more magical places, in this wonderful, and at the same time wild land, that has tied up nature and its dwellers in a winter fairy tale.

(Published in KATHIMERINI ©, on May 11, 2013 (transl. & edited from greek, original here )

Tranquillity in the lake

Boat in the lake

Statues by the lake

Promenade by the lake

the spell of lake

Magic trees in the mist

Friday, 9 January 2015

Greece: Exarcheia, the vibrant, colorful downtown world of Athens!

Kallidromiou Street building

The downtown district of Athens, Eksarcheia, is a dynamic and vivid neigborhood of a thousand different faces!

"Two months have gone by since we have not seen each other, a whole century and nine seconds. The stars have lost their shine when you left". Poetry is written on the walls of Exarcheia, -a downtown district in Athens-, filling them like open notebooks.  Every city has the need of its Eharcheia, as a refuge for souls who seek, who search and want to be searched, or just flirt with the spirit of revolution.  Kreuzberg in Berlin or Lavapiés and Malasaña in Madrid demonstrate their unique character: a youthful spirit combined with an unyielding power and energy that stems from colorful, noisy and vivid neighborhoods.

Perhaps the most multicultural district of Athens and all Greece, Exarcheia is definitely open to all, despite the various tags that many have occasionally tried to stamp to it.  Its dynamism, its multicolored crowd of students, immigrants, conscious citizens, surpasses any prejudices and invites you, on a Friday night, to feel its pulse in cool small bars playing jazz or in small taverns in narrow alleys.  This lively district doesn't belong anywhere specifically and is constantly evolving; neither ideologically nor politically can it be defined, as it belongs to all who want to explore its narrow cobbled alleys and its beautiful small bars, cafes and taverns.

Here also, you can search for dusty old books in small, forgotten bookshops, retro vinyls in underground music-shops, taste sweet treats in "Sorolop" at Benaki street, climb up the Strefi Hill for a visit to the lively "Exostrephis" tavern  or just  walk the Kallidromiou Street, one of the most beautiful streets of Athens.  There, as well as in other famous streets of Exarcheia, like Tositsa, Benaki and Themistocleous you will be able to admire the chaotic beauty of the architecture of this downtown neighborhood.  From the so-called "Tower of Kallidromiou» an imposing abandoned mansion, and the "Blue combo building" a historical apartment building in the Exarcheia Square, to many other beautifully restored mansions, Exarcheia calls you on a historical tour in the heart of Athens in contrast with the modernist buildings full of graffiti. 


This legendary district is a vibrant and resonant incubator of ideas, as well as a traditional area of experimentation that leads the trends of the Greek capital.  And it does so with underground music scenes, such as the famous "An Club", alternative Greek-cuisine restaurants and taverns, and tiny cool bars that are constantly full of young people and positive energy.  The Benaki Street is now one of the most famous streets in the Athenian gastronomy map, as you can find excellent unconventional spots to eat and drink some good wine or "raki" (strong alcoholic beverage), and even post-modern restaurants that compete the more traditional taverns such as the historical "Rosalia" tavern in Valtetsiou Street, one of the oldest in Athens! 

Graffiti (photo by Katia Maglogianni)

 Exarcheia was the first place in Athens to integrate into the new environment of the economic crisis that hit hard Greece in 2010; many young people with an entrepreneurship spirit begun to experiment by opening original cafes, bars and small taverns with affordable prices and quality.

As a result, visiting crowds immediately rushed to embrace these efforts by filling up these new establishments, like the "Kokinos Lotos" bar, the "Saligaros" tavern and the "67" bar, and also other places made with a good mix of imagination and enterprising spirit.  All that never ending activity led to the famed "Botellon" effect (the Spanish term for drinking alcohol in public places, mostly squares) mostly in Eksarcheia Square and Valtetsiou Street,  though it looks like it is integrated within the general character of local entertainment as the bars around continue to be full of people. However, cleanliness is a big issue, especially every Friday and Saturday night, and it needs some extra care from the municipality services and some goodwill from the partygoers. 

Exarcheia district is definitely the beating heart of the youth of Athens.  It is a colorful, bustling neighborhood with no stereotypes, multicultural and open to everyone, from Erasmus students from all over Europe, from immigrants and tourists alike, up to the everyday Athenian buying his fresh fruits form the public market of Kalidromiou Street every Saturday morning (a definite must!), Exarcheia belongs to the whole world!

(Published in KATHIMERINI ©, on October 25, 2014 (transl. & edited from greek, original here)

Benaki Street (photo by Katia Maglogianni)

Old mansions
Athens scyline
Athens - Exarcheia between the hills