A Jewish Greek odyssey

We travel off the beaten track to discover lovely Ioannina's dark past


The canopy of leaves over the lakeside café in Mavili Square offered blessed relief from the hot summer sun. Idling over frosted glasses of ice-cool water, we sat back to admire the loveliness of the view.

With our children scattered either to summer camps or holidaying with friends, my husband and I had travelled to Ioannina, on the banks of Lake Pamvotis in north-west Greece.

What drew us here was a chance to explore the country's Jewish heritage as well as to visit a destination way off the British tourist radar.

And from the pine-speckled mountains rising up from the lakeside to the medieval fortress that crowns this historic city, it was clear that Ioannina promised a stunning holiday setting.

Some way ahead, a small boat chugged across the water, ferrying passengers to an island in the north-eastern part of the lake. Known simply as "the island", it's thought to be the only inhabited lake-based island in Europe - population 150. Its traditional buildings, historic monasteries and winding streets thronged with craft and food stalls, from baklava to Greek brandy tsipouro, draw day trippers aplenty, including ourselves.

Getting there

EasyJet flies to Thessaloniki from Manchester and Gatwick. Returns cost from around £85 in October.
Rooms at The Eagles Palace Halkidiki start from £307, at Hotel du Lac, Ioannina from £90 and at The Excelsior Thessaloniki from £125.
To tour the shul in Ioannina, email

Yet as we sat drinking in the tranquility of this beautiful spot along with our drinks, our guide books offered a tragic parallel narrative.

In the early hours of March 25, 1944, the Jewish population - which for centuries had peaceably lived and traded with Ioannina's Muslims and Christians - was forced by the Nazis to gather in the very square where we were now relaxing.

The weather was freezing and snow had settled on the mountains. But nothing deterred the Germans. With no immediate railway connection to the death camps, some 1,870 Jews were bundled into 97 lorries and taken to the town of Larissa, then by train to Auschwitz, where over 90 per cent were gassed.

Known as Romaniote, the Ioanninan Jews had emerged from the first Jewish communities of Europe. They spoke their own language, a fusion of Greek and Hebrew, and made up one of Greece's oldest communities. In one day's work, the Nazis wiped out 12 centuries of Jewish presence in Ioannina.

Today there are fewer than 30 Jews in the town, mainly living in the old Jewish quarter. But those who remain are determined to keep the history alive - including Allegra Matsa, one of the community leaders, who is currently planning ways to bring descendents of the Jews of Ioannina scattered around the world back for a special service this Yom Kippur.

It's Allegra who guides us around the remaining shul, explaining how the sefer torah and other sacred vessels were only saved from the Germans thanks to the town's mayor, who hid the greatest objects in the crypt of the city's old synagogue.

On the shul walls, the names of the townspeople who perished in the Holocaust are carved in marble: they include 561 children.

With so much history to see and absorb, we were glad that we had decided against making Ioannina our first stop, especially since it is a two-hour drive from the area's main airport at Thessaloniki .

Instead we'd headed to the third and least developed pensinsula making up Halkidiki, staying at the Eagles Palace spa hotel. Overlooking a long sandy bay with uninterrupted views of Mount Athos and the island of Ammouliani, it's the perfect relaxed start.

We idled on the private beach, and took a boat trip across azure waters around the many uninhabited islands off the coast before dining at one of the al-fresco restaurants.

Then on to Ioannina, via Thessaloniki itself, a city where the vast majority of its once vibrant Jewish community also perished in the Holocaust. In the early 20th century, the 80,000 Jews in Salonika (as it was then known) formed the majority of the city's population of 157,000, maintaining over 50 synagogues and exerting huge influence over the city's economic and social life.

Today much of this is documented in the fine Jewish Museum tracing the community here from the 3rd century to the present day. There is a modern synagogue in a fairly drab building but you can also visit the Monastir synagogue built in 1927, which was reopened in May after a full restoration.

The best way to see Thessaloniki is on foot so we checked into the Excelsior, a gorgeous boutique hotel, designed by Jewish architects Pleyber and Hassid Fernandez in 1928. Located a stone's throw from the town's main Aristotelous square, it's the perfect base from which to explore the city whose history spans Roman remains, Byzantine glories and Ottoman alleys.

As a city with more café bars per capita than anywhere else in Europe, it seems the whole place is constantly eating. There are also two kosher restaurants - Chabad, which offers daily kosher meals and where we enjoyed a lively, ouzo-soaked Friday night, and a new addition, The Agioli Sefarad, on the seafront. Dishing up traditional Salonika kosher cuisine, it also offers a pre-booked Shabbat service.

Fortunately we had plenty of excuse to exercise it off in Ioannina. There are many places to stay in town but we chose the spacious Hotel du Lac, attracted by its colonial-style grandeur, its generous outdoor pool and the fact it is a 15-minute walk from the centre.

One day we hired bikes for a leisurely ride around the lakeside path. Another, we explored the town on foot, threading our way around the large squares and historic walls.

With a hire car, there is more to discover nearby. The surrounding areas include Zagori, a network of 48 beautiful traditional stone villages spread across the mountains.

And not far away lies the ancient theatre of Dodoni, once home to the oracle of Zeus. Having previously slogged the ruins-and-relics tourist trail in Athens, the peace here is deafening.

We left Greece mourning the loss of its Jewish life but feeling restored by both the beauty of the country and warmth of its people. There's no question that, one day, we'll return.

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