To break up our trip between Sarande, Albania and Thessaloniki, Greece we decided to spend a night in Ioannina. This was largely due to a lack of faith in Albanian transport and I was certain we’d never make a connection to Thessaloniki or thay might not be able to get a ticket. We went with the safe option and paused in Ioannina.
This turned out to be a really great thing and we had a wonderful afternoon and night in this charming wee city. We managed to cram a lot into about 6 hours and would love to come back one day to explore further.
Getting from Sarande to Ioannina
Before even leaving New Zealand we anticipated that getting out of Sarande might be a wee bit tricky. When we decided to go to Thessaloniki we started to research how to get there. Everything online said we’d have to get a taxi to the Albanian boarder, bus to Ioannina and then on to Thessaloniki. There was no information online about bus timetables or routes so we decided to dedicate one day to getting to Ioannina and one to Thessaloniki. We also figured that it would give us a chance to see another city, which can’t be a bad thing.
Getting from Sarande to Ioannina turned out to be easier than anticipated, though not without chances to go very wrong. In true old fashioned style, the only way to find out about bus times in Albania is to go to the station and ask. We were told that there is one bus a day from Sarande to Ioannina, leaving at 6am (ouch).
We brought our (very early) ticket and the next day got up at 4.30am (not a nice time) to get our bus. It was all going fine until we got to the Albanian boarder. What they did not tell us at the bus station was that the bus did not got to Ioannina. Our ticket went the whole way but the bus we were on was heading for Athens and we needed to change. At the boarder, we just sat on the bus, waiting to cross as we’d done countless other times. It turns out the driver was waiting for us to get off. Eventually a girl came down and with very little English managed to get us off the bus. Fortunately she was also going to Ioannina and somehow purseded us to follow her. The conversation went something like this:
Girl: you Ioannina?
Girl: me Ioannina
Girl: you follow
So we followed this girl, dragging all of our luggage and walked from the Albanian boarder to the Greek boarder. Passports were shown, bags were checked and eventually we found ourselves standing at another bus. The wonderful girl then explained (we think) to the next bus driver where we were going while we just smilled enthusiastically at everyone. We handed over a tickets and were issued with new ones for the new bus and after sitting around for about 45 minutes we were ushered on and off we went.
Who knows what would have happened if it weren’t for this lovely girl who bravely used her minimal English to escort and encourage these two embarrassingly monolingual tourists on to the correct bus. I’m sure it would have worked out eventually as we didn’t have tickets to stay on the bus but we are so grateful that she went out of her way to help us, when we didn’t even realise we needed helping.
Accomodation in Ioannina
Oh we stayed somewhere really nice! Accomodation in Ioannina was much more expensive than everywhere we have been so far and one night in Ioannina cost the same as 3 in Sarande. But it was only one night and it was lovely. We managed to find a cute Airbnb appartment, called ‘cosy studio near lake’, very close to the bus station. It had an open plan living/bedroom area, kitchen and bathroom. Infact it was so nice that it was hard to leave to explore the city.
Highlights of Ioannina
We arrived in Ioannina at about 10.30am and made our way to our appartment. After a small rest and a lot of coffee (remember the 4.30 awakening) we were ready to go exploring. I feel that we managed to cram quite a bit into our day though I wish we had had more time as there was plenty more we wanted to do.
Ioannina is a sweet little city that people don’t often visit. It’s not even in our guidebook. We got all of our information about what to do online and I found S Marks the Spots’ blog really helpful to make a bit of a plan. We saw barely an other tourists as we explored the town, it was great!
Castle of Ioannina
Our trip to the castle was a total delight and offered so much more than we had expected. The castle is on a little hill, surrounded by the old town which is inside the old town walls.
It was lovely to wander the streets of the old town. All of the houses are different heights and builds and many seem to be leaning on each other for support. There was barely anyone else around and it felt a bit like the town was deserted. We saw the occasional old Greek woman, dressed in all black and one or two other tourists but it really was slightly weird.
All of the streets in the old town lead to the castle. The walls of the castle are all intact and stand imposingly over the streets. Walking in in you are greeted with the ruins of the old keep. Some of the walls are still standing and there is even a 2 story stone building still intact but it is mostly fenced off. We spent an hour or so wandering around the castle ruins. Many of the walls are now at ground level but you can still see where the rooms and passages were and as I mentioned earlier, the external walls are all intact.
Inside the castle walls there are also 4 different museums you can visit. We really wanted to go to the Silver works museum but discovered that it’s closed on Tuesdays, and we happened to be there on a Tuesday. Ioannina has a strong history of silver work and the museum is meant to be really interesting. Entry is €2.
The Byzantine Museum: Your ticket for The Byzantine Museum also includes entry to two other museums within the castle walls, The Fethiye Mosque and The Treasury. Entry was €4. This museum was great to visit and displayed lots of artifacts from early Ioannina as well as providing good summaries of Ioannina’s history. It was a great way for us to quickly learn about the city we were in.
Daniel particularly liked the collections of old coins that had been found around the city. There was even an old lead coin that was crumpling in its display box. I have inherited a love of Greek Orthodox icons from my mum and the museum had about 4 rooms of glorious golden icons spanning hundreds of years I. Ioannina.
The Fethiye mosque: This mosque seems to mainly be a museum of Ali Pasha, a Ottoman-Albanian ruler. Everywhere we went in Ioannina there was information about Ali Pasha. There was English translations for the information on the bottom floor but no translations on the second floor. To get to the second floor you need to climb a very narrow spiral stone staircase. We really wanted to go all of the way up into the mosques tower but it was not allowed. The inside of the mosque was beautifully decorated with whites and blues, giving it quite a Turkish feel.
The Treasury: the third museum that you ticket gets you entry to is The Treasury of the old castle. This small museum has information about some of the important people who have lived in Ioannina and also some information about the evolution of silver work in the city. All of the items on display are examples of silver work or the equipment used to make the silver. There were many intricate bible covers, communion cups, traditional costume jewellery, tea services and jewellery. There was also a whole collection of silver snuff boxes. Some were tiny and others were encrusted with massive jewels.
The city of Ioannina is built around the edge of a large lake. Apparently it used to be swimmable but during our visit the water looked pretty gross up close. Despite the colour of the water, the lake is lovely to walk along or just sit by and enjoy the scenery. The lake is surrounded by trees which provide welcome shade from the hot sun. During our visit we brought some snacks and sat overlooking the lake before taking a walk along a lovely footpath and enjoying the view.
There are many cafes and restaurants along the lake front which would be lovely for a meal or drink. Some are less than three metres from the water so you can enjoy a carafe or Greek wine and some local frog legs (a local delicacy) while enjoying the view.
One thing I really wanted to do with our time was visit Ioannina Island. The island is very close to the opposite shore of the lake and there are boats running, every half hour in summer and hour in winter, which go to and from the island. One way is €2. Unfortunately we chose not to go as there was a thunderstorm brewing and we didn’t have coat.
From my reading Ioannina Island is lovely to walk around. It had an old town with many narrow streets to get lost in, lots of stores selling local food and crafts and many cute little cafes. There are also about 7 monestaries on the island. I don’t know if you can visit them but I’m sure it’d even be cool to have a look from the outside.
The house of the Despotis
We do love an abandoned building. A quick walk from where we were staying was the Despotis house. This is the only standing example of an Ottoman mansion in the area. From my research it looked like we’d be able to go inside and have a poke around. Unfortunately when we got there it was very well fenced off and some scaffolding had been erected so we could not explore. It looked like it was either going to have some renovations or be torn down.
We had a lovely short visit to Ioannina and I wish we had had more time to explore further. I also really wanted to visit the Ioannina cave and The Museum of Greek History but we didn’t have time. I highly recommend that if you ever get the chance to visit Ioannina, do it. Even if you just get to go to the castle, it’s worth it.
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Thanks for reading,
Chloe and Daniel xx