Welcome to the second and final part of my Balkan Open Jaw series. In the first part I described my flights from ORD to IST and IST to SOF with TK providing some destination photos from Sofia and also from my hometown of Petrich. Here is a link to the first part. In this segment I will start describing an amazing road trip a good friend and I took to the Greek mountain region of Epirus (with photos of the Vikos Gorge, the city of Ioannina, the lake island of Pamvotis and more). I will then continue with some photos from the Thessaloniki region and my flight from SKG to IST. Finally I will close this report with photos of my 21-hour layover in Istanbul and my return flight to ORD. I hope you enjoy.
A reminder of the entire itinerary. Red lines represent flights and white lines represent travel by car. Created using the help of gcmap.com.
The segments covered in part II:
Labels: 1=Petrich, 2=Metsovo, 3=Ioannina and Lake Pamvotis, 4=Vikos Gorge, 5=Lake Koroneia.
Our itinerary took us from the Bulgarian/Greek border south to Thessaloniki and from there we followed the newly-completed Egnatia Odos, a super-modern highway that features multiple (specifically, 76) long tunnels (some of which are a few miles long) through the mountains and an equally impressive number of tall bridges. I must say I was quite impressed by this highway. It didn't look like Greece at all. Our first stop was at the mountain town of Metsovo, located in a spot where the 3 largest regions of northern Greece (Epirus, Macedonia and Thessaly) meet. Metsovo, a cute little town up in the mountains warmed us up to what was to come next. Too bad that it was so foggy, we missed the opportunity to shoot some really nice photos of the alpine landscape offered by the surrounding mountains.
Bears are abundant in the area around Metsovo and the entire Epirus in general.
Santa Paraskevi church in Metsovo
View of Metsovo town
Reaching Epirus requires one to drive through tens of tunnels allowing an easier access through the mountains. One of them is the longest in Greece at 5km in length.
After Metsovo we headed further west past Ioannina (the capital city of Epirus, to which we would return later) and up another range of mountains to a bunch of villages known collectively as Zagorohoria. These picturesque villages made entirely out of stone are in the midst of some of the most unspoiled nature I have ever seen. One of the many rivers that originate in these mountains (Voidomatis River) is reportedly the cleanest in Europe (see photos below). We also climbed to a location that overlooks the Vikos Gorge (which as I mention below is considered by some the deepest in the world). Unlike most of Greece, which is relatively dry, this region is full of green forests, large lakes and beautiful rivers.
Approaching Mount Tymfi
Driving up the mountain surrounded by beautiful colors.
A pretty house in one of the Zagorohoria (Aristi village)
Voidomatis River. Many sources describe it as the cleanest in Europe, mainly due to the lack of mud in its riverbed.
Aristi Bridge over Voidomatis. So beautiful
It's so clean that if it wasn't for the reflection you wouldn't think there was water there...
One of the Zagorohoria villages tugged away on the mountainside
"Kolympithres" (translating to "the bathtubs") are little natural pools carved in the mountain stone by this small river. This is near the village of Papingo.
If it wasn't so cold I would mind taking a dip
Papingo village, one of the most remote of the Zagorohoria
St.Vlasios church in Papingo village.
People enjoying rafting down the Voidomatis
The road we took to get to Papingo
More of Aristi village
Taxiarches church at Kato Pedina village
Lovely colors near Vitsa
You need some proper wheels to be able to survive here
My new bovine friends
The Vikos Gorge. According to the Guinness Book of Records it's the deepest gorge in the world. Of course the definition of what constitutes a gorge is ambiguous and therefore the above factoid is often disputed.
Whether it's the deepest or not it sure is huge and rather steep too
Another river descending through one of the branches of the gorge
The Voidomatis as it carves through the gorge.
It was so beautifully eerie up there: Just me, my friend, the lovely view and tons of bear poop everywhere. Not for the faint of heart, especially if you can't handle heights like me.
The entire mountain is made of stones like these. This photo is from an area called "Stone Forest"
Our base-camp for this road trip was the city of Ioannina, the capital of the region and home to some 120.000 people. Ioannina sits on the edge of Lake Pamvotis. Within the lake there is an island (known as Pamvotis Lake Island or Ioannina Island) that has a small village of around 400 people. Those close to me me know of my love of small islands (and lakes) so it goes without question that we paid it a visit. As we were driving to Ioannina we passed by the town's airport (IOA) which appeared to be undergoing some kind of renovation. I also noticed a new control tower being built on the north side of the existing terminal. The airport is named after King Pyrros (or Pyrrhus), a ruler of ancient Epirus. The term "Pyrrhic Victory", referring to a victory that came at a considerable cost, was coined after him. There is only one scheduled flight out of IOA, heading to/from Athens with OA.
King Pyrros Ioannina Airport (IOA)
Hm, maybe the owner went a bit over the top with this?
The boat that would take us to Pamvotis Island
Lovely lake scenery. The lake is known as either Ioannina lake or lake Pamvotis.
Ticket for our short crossing to the island
Arriving at the island
Cute little boats anchored on the main island harbor
One of the many churches on the island (Koimisi tis Theotokou church)
I loved the little stone houses on the island
...just like the stone walkways between houses
Looking across the water. The island is closer to the east coast of the lake than it is to Ioannina
I love the fact that most buildings have moss growing on their roofs
The interior of a tiny church
Part of the island's defense system?
Ali Pasha museum interior. A whole lot of guns and swords. Ali Pasha used to have one of his hideouts here.
Some very oriental inscription on this sword.
The island is literally surrounded by reeds
Traditional fishing boat
Restaurants here specialize in crayfish, eels and frog legs.
The old man in charge of the boat that brought us back to Ioannina
Once we got back in town we grabbed some quick food and then drove up the nearby Mitsikeli mountain toward the tiny village of Liggiades where our hotel was located. The hotel offered amazing panoramic views of the lake, the island, the town and the mountains beyond.
A tower on the walls that surround the old city
One of the many entrances to the castle
A break for a tasty round of gyros
A few more words about the hotel. I won't talk about the views (the photos below will do the talking instead) nor will I talk about the cute stone huts that made up our accommodations. This hotel is unique simply because of its owners (a middle-aged couple and their daughters). The husband is an extremely friendly yet outspoken guy who literally gave us belly aches from all the laughing. Now get this: The guy has a Stalin fetish. A huge Stalin portrait hangs over his desk, he has planted little signs that read "CCCP" all over the hotel, and he even named the hotel "Mir" after the Russian word for "Peace". The reservations were made over the phone by my friend a few weeks earlier and during the booking process my friend had mentioned that he will be coming to Epirus with a friend of his who lives in the USA (me). Once we arrived the owner came up to greet us and immediately asked: 'Which of you two is the "American""? My friend pointed his finger at me, at which point the hotel owner turned his attention toward me and simply said: "We f***ed you in Vietnam". Hilarious. Don't go there if you get easily offended. However you will be doing yourself an injustice if you ever go to Ioannina and you don't stay at this hotel. The rooms were impeccable, the breakfast possibly the best I've ever had in any hotel in the world, and the hospitality (and entertainment) truly remarkable.
Sign at the entrance of our hotel's parking lot
Lovely stone buildings. Our room was behind the far left door
Not the kind of thing you expect to see in a high-end hotel
Our room had a traditional look and a Flintstones'-style bed
Nice views of Ioannina and the island from our hotel
Traditional Greek "spoon-sweet" (whole fruit preserve) that the owner treated us to, alongside some freshly brewed coffee (all on the house!).
Another look of the panoramic view of town later that night
More of our hotel
After we settled in our rooms we jumped in the car and drove back to town for some more sightseeing and dinner. Ioannina looks great both during day and night.
The pool of the fancy Du Lac hotel in downtown Ioannina
Main entrance to the Ioannina Castle. It is known as the St.George's gate
Illuminated walls of the old fortifications
Metsovone cheese fried with peppers and onions. Delicious!
Washing it down with some Greek Mythos beer.
The lights of the nearby village of Amphithea reflected on the lake
After we stuffed ourselves we took off for the hotel for a good night's sleep. The next morning we woke up at 7, packed our stuff and had a lovely home-made breakfast prepared by the owner's wife. We were offered some Greek-style apple-pie, Ioannina-style feta pie, homemade marmalades, freshly squeezed orange juice and some exceptional coffee. I wish I had this kind of breakfast every day! When we got back to the room to pick our stuff we found an unexpected visitor lurking on the floor next to the bathroom: A black mountain scorpion, apparently a harmless species that is common in the hills around the lake.
Lovely morning view of the lake
From up there we could also see IOA
Greek-style apple pie for breakfast!
Ioannina-style feta pie
An unexpected visitor to our room
The hotel is indeed situated in a great spot
The Tomaros mountains
The adorable tomcat of the hotel owner. He named it Pasok (after the Greek political party that was in charge of the government prior to the last elections) because "like Pasok, he does nothing all day"
Waiving the hotel goodbye with one last shot of the lovely views
After we got back in town we did a bit of shopping (the area is famous for its silver and amber) and then headed to the Old Town, the section of the city within the old fortress. The town has a strong Ottoman influence and it shows in the architecture of its older buildings.
Typical Epirus architecture
Houses within the fortified part of the city
Another castle door that probably hasn't opened in decades
An old Ottoman building
Entrance to Itsh Kale or "inner castle"
An Ottoman-era pillar with an inscription
The grave of Ali Pasha, ruler of the region in the early 1800s (the same guy who had a hideout on the island).
The mosque was apparently build on the spot of an old church.
Looking at the lake from Itsh Kale
Bye bye, Ioannina, I'm gonna miss you
After one final tour of town we jumped in the car for the drive northeast to Thessaloniki where I was to fly out to IST a couple of days later. Not so long ago (until the mid-2000s) this journey required a 6-hour zigzag drive through the mountains. Now one can reach Thessaloniki from Ioannina in just 2.5 hours.
Driving towards Thessaloniki
Driving east through the region of Kozani and its power plants that provide 80% of Greece's electricity.
In previous TRs I have posted a good deal of photos from the main sights of Thessaloniki. This time I decided to use the few hours I had in downtown Thessaloniki to visit some less-known parts of town.
Ministry of Macedonia and Thrace building
Abandoned buildings near downtown
The Greeks are pissed off at the banks and it shows
Old ladies in front of an abandoned mosque
Neoclassical architecture is abundant in Thessaloniki
The solution to Greece's problems? Hm...
More neoclassical beauty
The Rotunda, a building dating back to the 4th century
Arch of Galerius detail
The 8th century Agia Sofia church
Upper Town as seen from Aristotelous Square
One of Thessaloniki's many signature desserts: "Trigona Panoramatos". Too bad I don't like sweets.
St. Demetrius Cathedral. Seriously ugly architecture if you ask me.
Cute stray dogs
The semi-abandoned Aladja Imaret Mosque hidden away from view between some apartment blocks
Inscription above the entrance to the mosque
Mosque roof detail
The Roman Forum
More of the Galerius Arch
The guardian of the Arch
The Greeks clearly have more ancient stuff than they know what to do with...
Grapes hanging off a building roof in downtown Thessaloniki
The famous garden clock
The Olympion Cinema at Aristotelous Square
Juicy persimmons still on the tree
The White Tower (symbol of the city) seen in the distance.
Huge tankers are always present in the Thermaikos Bay