Gillian Bouras
An Australian
Living in Greece

April 2016

Proper spring weather has arrived at last. (I seem to be obsessed with the subject of weather: perhaps it is because of my history of living in rural communities.) And here the wild flowers continue to riot.  Lent also continues, (although naturally it’s not meant to be riotous) as Western Easter and Orthodox Easter are four weeks apart this year. For complicated reasons that have to do with the phases of the moon. I have had the whole calculation explained to me, but it has not lingered in the mind. Fleeting passages through brain and memory cells seem to be a common occurrence these days.

But visions of Ioannina are still safe. We visited there in December. And as I may have said, I had never been there before, and was fascinated by it. We stayed in a village high above the city, which itself is situated on Lake Pamvotis, where the almost mandatory island enhances the scene. As we were fortunate enough to have dazzling winter weather, the island appeared almost to float, with its bumps of hills protruding through a thin layer of cloud. And the scene after dark was like a fairyland of massed twinkling lights. But perhaps I wouldn’t want to live there: it is the wettest city in Greece.

In many ways, visiting Ioannina (literally the town of John) is like entering another world, since the province of Epirus has been Greek for a mere hundred years. Like all of Greece, the area has a layered history. Ioannina was established by the emperor Justinian in the sixth century. In the thirteenth Byzantines arrived in considerable numbers, having fled from the sack of Constantinople during the notorious Fourth Crusade. Then the Serbs took over for quite some time, and after the Serbs came the period of the Ottoman Turks, which lasted the best part of five centuries.

Best known perhaps is the period of Ali Pasha’s rule, from 1789 until his assassination in 1822. When the person known to history as the Lion of Ioannina died, he was more than 80, a pretty good innings considering the hard times and the number of enemies he had. He was actually Albanian, and had had a predictably tough early life. He became a brigand, like his father before him, and eventually rose through the Ottoman ranks until he was powerful enough to seize Epirus. At the peak of his power he could raise 50,000 ready troops in the space of a few days.

A friend of mine did not care for Ioannina. She felt the shade of the awful Pasha to be very much with her during the course of her visit, and indeed Ali does not enjoy a good press. Nor did he in the past: the poet Byron, for example, who wrote about Ioannina in his long poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, considered him a cruel and remorseless tyrant. He has been described as a despotic pragmatist or vice versa, and the lists and descriptions of his many atrocities have no place here: I hope I write a family diary!

But it was during Ali’s time that Ioannina was a great centre of Greek culture and learning. (Ali always spoke Greek in his daily dealings with his court.) It was famous for its high standards in physics, chemistry and mathematics; it was also famous for its theologians and for its merchants, and is still a centre for exquisite work in silver. As well, it was a city where people lived in comparative harmony with one another. Ali was a clever and complex man: if you kept a low profile you were generally left alone. ‘Huh,’ said my cynical son, ‘he kept people more or less contented so that he wouldn’t have a revolt on his hands.’ Very likely, but still. It is well worth noting that the Jewish community flourished in Ioannina until 1940: now just a remnant of it remains.

My grandsons were gripped by tourist attractions outside the city, and so was I. One of these is the very large Museum of Greek History, which houses the waxworks created by the late Pavlos Vrellis. The theme, somewhat predictably, is that of Greek freedom, and the waxworks are quite frighteningly realistic in their depiction of the often bloody struggle: no wonder seven-year-old Maximus had nightmares later. The fact of the wonderful craftsmanship was quite lost on him: again no wonder.

We also visited the Perama Caves. These were discovered in 1940 by the locals, who were looking for shelter during the war, but the caves were not investigated by explorers and scientists until the 1950s. Thought to be nearly two million years old, they contain 19 different types of stalagmites and stalactites (mites grow up and tights come down, I was taught when young) and are about 5km in length. The public is guided through only about one kilometre, during which distance explorers discovered fossils and teeth of the Cave Bear, the first time such evidence of the species had been found.

It is an amazing experience to see the huge ‘rooms’ and the sparkle of salt everywhere. At one stage all I could think of was a huge wedding cake, while the most general scene was that of several pipe organs. Then there was a curious vegetable cavern, with the shapes resembling nothing so much as carrots and heads of broccoli.

An old friend used to say that the mind is like a room, and so needs furniture. I think I’ve got more than the average three-piece suite, and we are all working on giving the children many varieties of décor.

Gillian Bouras


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Gillian Bouras 2018