26 August 2019

Sunrise at Igoumenitsa,
the harbour that leads
to northern Greece

Sunrise in the Gulf of Igoumenitsa (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Many people associate holidays in Greece with island hopping. So, I suppose I did something in reverse on Sunday morning [25 August 2019], when I hopped off the island sailed into the sun.

I left Agios Georgios at 5.30 to catch an early-morning ferry from the small port of Lefkimmi, on the south-east coast of Corfu, and crossed the narrow passage in the Ionian Sea that separates Corfu from the Greek mainland.

The sailing from island to mainland takes less than an hour, and as we got closer the mainland, the sun was rising above the Pindus Mountains above the harbour.

In front of us was the whole region of Epirus in northern Greece. To our left or to the north we could make out the coastline of southern Albania. The mountains were cast in a dark silhouette against the glowing orange sky, and the sea below us was sparkling in golden rays of sunshine.

Moments later, we had docked in the small mainland port of Igoumenitsa (Ηγουμενίτσα), and the normal daily routine of harbour morning life had already started, although the town before was still sleepy.

Igoumenitsa is a small town and its economy depends on the port and harbour traffic. About 26,000 people live here, but only 10,000 within the bounds of the town itself. In the medieval and Ottoman times, it was known as Grava (Γράβα), meaning ‘cave,’ but when it became the capital of the prefecture of Thesprotia in 1938, its name was changed to Igoumenitsa, meaning the town of the abbot.

Early morning in Igoumenitsa (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Yet this is the gateway to northern Greece, and it stands at the beginning of the Egnatia motorway, built between 1994 and 2009. This road runs parallel with the route of the Via Egnatia, an ancient Roman imperial highway, leading past Thessaloniki and into Adrianople or Edirne in north-west Turkey, across 670 km, through 76 tunnels and over 1,650 bridges.

This is the link between Turkey and mainland Europe, and ferries from Igoumenitsa and Patras continue the journey on to Ancona, Bari, Brindisi and even Venice.

As we headed east through the Pindos Mountains, we were travelling through Epirus in northern Greece, a province with a population of about 350,000 people. The neighbouring part of southern Albania is known to Greeks as Northern Epirus.

It might have been interesting to stop at the archaeological site at Dodoni, at the foot of Mount Tomaros, where the theatre was once the largest in Greece with 18,000 seats, and the stadium was one of the few in classical Greece with stone seats.

It might have been interesting to stop at Ionannia, the capital of Epirus, once an important seat of Greek learning and once the seat of Ali Pasha.

It might have been interesting to stop at Lake Ionannia, with the island in the middle associated with some of the myths and legends about the capricious Ali Pasha.

But we continued along the Egnatia Highway, turning off for Kalambaka. It was still early Sunday morning, and I wanted to spend much of the day visiting the monasteries, perched delicately on the pinnacles of towering rock formations.

Igoumenitsa was far behind us, but the thoughts of that sunrise made me happy I had decided to stay on the deck of the Ioannis Kapodistrias with my early morning coffee instead of catching up on my sleep.

The port of Igoumenitsa is the gateway to northern Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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