From the Peloponnese, I planned to make my way across western Greece, from the Gulf of Corinth to Meteora. The route I had chosen would take me through 2 cities I wanted to visit; Arta and Ioannina. The first intrigued me, as it was the capital of the old Despotate of Epirus, and if the pictures can be believed, chock-full of 13th-century churches. Ioannina looked interesting as well, though its fame came later, during the time of Ali Pasha. In Arta, I particularly wanted to see the Church of St. Theodora and the Paregoretissa, as well as the Panaghia Vlacherna nearby. In Ioannina, my goal was the relics of St. George the New, one of the martyrs of the Ottoman Yoke. Little of these plans actually came to fruition, however, as the day was spent primarily in transit--the simple logistical slog of getting from here to there.
The Despotate of Epirus is one of those fascinating asterisks of history. At the fall of Constantinople (the one in 1204, not 1453), the Byzantine ruling class scattered, establishing several small kingdoms-in-waiting. The Lascarids, and later the Palaeologus established a government-in-exile across the Bosphorus in Nicaea. The Komnenos located in far-away Trebizond. And the Emperor's cousin, Michael I Angelos Komnenos Doukas escaped to Arta.
Each had an eye turned towards Constantinople, to which they hoped to return one day, and another eye towards each other, their kinsmen and potential rivals. Although the family names might change--from Doukas to Komnenos to Angelos to Lascaris to Palaeologus to Cantacuzene--the Emperors of the East were all of one family, from the rise of Alexios I in 1081 to the fall in 1453. Repeated marital alliances with the Nemanjics of Serbia and the Assens of Bulgaria further confused the relationships. By the mid 13th-century, one would be hard pressed to find a member of one of these families who was not descended from all. Although marriage between close cousins was strictly forbidden, this web of connections surpassed even that of the Coburgs in the 19th-century.
The drive through Epirus was much easier than the previous day's endurance run. And I was beginning to need some relief. While one medical problem was addressed back in Mystra, others were beginning to compound, leaving me wearied and tired, when I had really not exerted myself at all. The Pindhos Mountains along its eastern boundary isolates Epirus a bit for the rest of Greece. The mountains within the region itself are not as severe as in other regions, and give way to broad river valleys lush with irrigated crops, rather than olives or orange groves. A new north-south expressway provides swift access through the province. Unfotunately, there is one entrance onto the highway, which I missed, and no more for 75 kilometers or so. It was quite literally a case of "you can't get there from here." While stuck on the old road, twisting and turning through the middle of towns and farmland, I would occasionally catch a glimpse of the expressway which roughly paralleling my course. I would see the cars zipping towards Arta, my destination. Obviously there must be a reason for my being forced onto the back road. I just had to wait and see what it was.
I stopped at a gas station on the edge of a small town to purchase a bottle of water. In Greece, there is no such thing as a self-service station, and your gas is just as liable to be pumped by a little old lady dressed in black, as was the case here. Leaning against my car, drinking my water and resting a bit, I took note of a rather handsome church on the adjoining lot. On top of the dome was one of the largest stork's nests I have ever seen. I love to watch for storks and their enormous nests when traveling in the Balkans. Four young storks occupied the nest, waiting for their lunch, no doubt. They reminded me of four Baby Hueys. And then I realized that perhaps it was this, these "God-protected storks," that I was supposed to see on this back road.
In due course, I arrived in Arta. My image of the city was colored by my having seen pictures of various churches in Arta. I thought it to be an old town, with lots of character. Yes, the churches are still there, but Arta is a thoroughly modern Greek city, and all that that implies. Concrete block buildings predominate, traffic is thick, and there are no places to park. Despite my experience in Patras, I am generally not at all intimidated by driving in foreign cities. Arta was doubly frustrating, however, for I did actually pass some of the churches I wanted to see, but there seemed no way to stop and park...anywhere. Finally, I wedged my car into a wide space in the bend of a road. I was not at all sure it ws legal to park there and was uncomfortable leaving it unattended. The makeshift parking space was only a block from the Paregoretissa.
The Paregoretissa has to be one of the most unusual Orthodox Churches I have visited. The structure is unlike any I have seen in all my travels. The Italianate influence is clearly evident in this design, constructed in the late 13th-century, during the reign of Nikophorus I Angelos Komnenos Doukas. A straight-forward, square 3-story building, the only things that gives it away as a church are the 5 domes atop. From the outside, it is a striking building, yes, but not a beautiful one. Once inside, however, I was a bit awe-struck. Standing in the nave, I looked up to the Pantocrator. The ceiling was a full 3-stories above...and then the dome. Paregoretissa is simply magnificent. The iconography is in a fair state of preseveration, as well.
Leaving the church, I walked across the street to a park, where I could sit and rest--and watch my car. By this time, I was feeling particularly unwell and I made a decision to forego the Church of St. Theodora, as well as the Panaghia Vlacherna, and push on to Ioannina. I now regret not making more of an effort here. Theodora was the long-suffering wife of Despot Michael II Angelos Konemnos Doukas--one of our few married women saints. I learned of her life from Mother Nectaria's Evogleite. Her story is a compelling one. I realize that I gave Arta short shrift. Should I ever return to Greece, I hope to remedy that situation.
I pushed west until I crossed the Louras River. Here, I turned north and paralleled the river. Along the way, I passed by the ruins of the Pantanassa Monastery. The monk Job Melias, in his 13th-century biography of St. Theodora, relates how her husband, the Despot built two monasteries as a gesture of repentance for the shameful way he had treated her. Pantanassa was one of them. The site was completely obscured by overgrowth until 1970.
A few kilometers further up the road, I pulled in at a restaurant, wedged between the river and the road. I chose an outside table near the water, between the trout tank and restaurant. A German couple occupied a spot a few tables down. How do I know they were German? One just knows. This late lunch came just in time, and the fresh trout went a long way towards restoring my spirits. The one problem, however, was the "mountain greens." My waiter suggested this option, a local staple, instead of a traditional salad. I was a bit suspicious, as it sounded very much like turnip greens--something I have never yet been hungry enough to eat. When he brought my food, I quickly saw that turnip greens by any other name are still...turnip greens. Not wanting to disappoint my waiter, I made a valiant effort at eating some of this huge mound of greens. I chewed and chewed and chewed and forced down 3 or 4 mouthfuls. My waiter noted that I had left most of them on the plate and I made the best excuse I could--that they had simply given me way too much to eat. We talked a bit. He had been to the U.S. before--New Jersey, I think. I explained, the best I could, about Texas. He encouraged me to visit the churches in Thessaloniki, and I assured him I had every intention of doing so. I lingered here for quite some time, listening to the rushing water of the Louras River. My German neighbor had stripped down to his Speedos and was splashing around in it. I looked upstream.
Ioannina was only a few kilometers further on. The city sounded inviting, as it lay on the shores of a large natural lake. Many of the historical sites there are associated with the Ali Pasha (1740-1821,) a flamboyant autocrat who ruled the more or less independent of the sultan in Constantinople. McLees tells of the fascinating story of his favorite wife--a Christian--the beautiful Kyria Vasiliki. The Kastro is right on the waterfront, as is the old mosque. Ferries ply the waters across the lake to the island village and monasteries. As interesting as all this would be, I particularly wanted to visit the relics of St. George the New Martyr (thanks to John at Mystagogy for post, here .) In Evlogeite!, Mother Nectaria gave no directions, but suggested to stop and ask for its location. This did not sound good. I asked my waiter, and he had never heard of the church. I left the restaurant and drove on into Ioannina. I stopped for gas and asked again. They had never heard of the church at the service station. I drove into the city and found it to be as beautiful as described. Ioannina was much nicer than Arta, even without considering its prime lake-front location. I drove around a bit, hoping to see the church, but without any success. If it had been earlier in the day, I would have taken a ferry out to the island. As it was, I decided to push on to Thessaly and Meteora and the hopes of a soft bed.