“Why do you go to Ioannina”? Pronouncing the town’s name very carefully in four syllables for our benefit, our driver broke the silence of several hours on the road from Athens during which the entire conversation had been limited to driving time and route information.
I wanted to say, “?ληθ?ς, δεν ξ?ρω,” (“Truly, I don’t know”), but then he might overrate my feeble grasp of his language and go off, full speed ahead, in Greek. Better to give the short answer, that I had never been any farther north than Delphi.
“The reason I ask is because most people head straight to Kalambaka, hit a monastery or two on Metéora, and have lunch either in Kalambaka or Metsovo, take a tour of Delphi, and then back to Athens.”
Perhaps, I thought, that would have been a better plan, but we decided our itinerary almost at the last minute. We had been planning a trip since May, but with one thing and another on our minds, we picked Greece only in September, and we had no idea of what to do after spending a few days in Athens. The quieter islands were closing up for the winter, and nothing could induce me to go to the popular destinations like Mykonos, where the cattle boats disgorge daily hordes of shirtless drunken Brits to fornicate on the beach. (Greeks, who are the most morally conservative people in Europe, are scandalized.) I had always wanted to go to Mytilene (Lesbos), “where burning Sappho loved and sung,” but for the time being that island has become a beachhead for the advance guard of the Islamic State’s invasion force.
The question came over lunch at a “fish-tavern” in Menidi, a small town at the head of the Ambracian Gulf. Menidi is a resort town for Greeks, but it was deserted because of the season and the chilly weather: The demon in my iPhone informed me the temperature was only 70 degrees. The time of year, however, could not account for the lack of development. As we drove in, we saw few signs of honky-tonkification. There were no high-rise beach hotels to mar the view of the sea, no endless rows of villette that you see all over the Mediterranean. Our driver repeated, “It’s the season,” apparently taking it for granted that Greece out here in the boondocks is still comparatively unspoiled. We sat at an unprotected table overlooking the water, where every prospect pleased, and what little of man we glimpsed was not so vile as he can be. Even filtered by sunglasses, the sunlight was bright enough to fire the rippling surface of the gulf and fill the air around us with ethereal gold.
We ordered Greek (i.e., “rustic”) salad, tiny shrimps that had been deep-fried in their crunchy shells, fresh calamari, and three grilled fish (tsipoura), which my wife picked out in the kitchen. Our Athenian driver exclaimed that the food was much better and much cheaper than in Athens. Such indeed was the motto of our trip to northern Greece—better and cheaper.
We spent four nights in Ioannina at a small hotel in the Kastro, the immense Turkish fort (replacing an older Byzantine construction) that now encloses a pleasant neighborhood not far from the lake. It was the home of Ali Pasha, the Albanian warlord who inadvertently prepared the way for the uprising against the Turks. Although we should have liked to spend a bit more time prowling around the town, we left early the next morning, after picking up a local guide, on a drive up to Metéora, to visit several monasteries. Of the two-dozen monastic establishments founded in these mountains, only six are still functioning, but they are open to the public only two or three at a time on a rotating basis.
The lunar landscape of tall rounded limestone peaks was apparently created when the region was under the sea. Now it is one of the most bizarre terrains in Europe. We drove around to look at several monasteries that were not open that day before going on to visit Agios Barlaam, where we were held up by a small but earnest group of Greek pilgrims. Like many Greek monastic churches, St. Barlaam is divided into nave and narthex of similar size.
Waiting to inspect the nave, we met the oldest member, a toothless monk sitting in the sun-warmed doorway with an expression of ineffable joy on his wind-beaten, sun-chiseled face. He asked where we come from. When the guide told him the United States, he asked, “Catholic?” and, raising his hands in the air, cried, “Ah, Pappa!” When I told him in Greek that we live near Chicago, he concluded that we were fluent in Greek and launched into a discourse of which I managed to understand at least a part.
In Greece, he said, there have been two categories of leaders. In ancient Greece, even pagans like Socrates wanted to know God and serve the truth. Today, though Greece is a Christian country, we (he said) have the other category, atheists like Tsipras. All the while he was smiling like a saint or an idiot. (I am inclined to the former view.) I twice asked our guide to translate his remarks, but he seemed to find them in bad taste and changed the subject.