I can feel beads of sweat drip down my back as I ride out of Lefkada.
There is only one way off this island. And everyone leaving must take the same road and cross the same bridge. So the traffic is crazy. I take advantage of the small profile of my motorcycle and edge along the right side of the cars lined up and waiting until I get within a few cars of the bridge. That’s when I realize it’s not a bridge. The short span across the narrow waterway or channel is about 100 feet. Boats use this channel to access points north of Lefkada.
The bridge is a boat, sort of. When other boats need to head out to sea, the bridge morphs into a small ferry-like boat that motors out of the way while lifting its port and starboard ramps, like wings, into the air 90 degrees, giving room for the other boats to pass.
I’ve seen nothing like this. And I didn’t even notice this when I rode onto the island several days ago.
But I get it. The channel is too narrow for a traditional drawbridge, so this movable bridge provides the solution—as well as the traffic. When the boat returns to the gap, drops its winged ramps, I motor across and make my way north.
The road winds through a gentle pastoral countryside, with tall mountains looming to the east. Here roadside stands sell vegetables instead of honey or olives. As a crest a rise in the road, I’m taken by a huge swath of orange. It’s a stand with some of the largest pumpkins and squash I’ve seen—and it’s still several months until Halloween.
I’ve crossed the border of the Ionian Islands region, and into the northwestern most region of Epirus on my way to its primary city, Ioannina.
Greece is divided into regions, unlike my country which is divided into states, or Canada which is divided into provinces. There are thirteen “administrative regions” in Greece. These regions are divided into prefectures (now known as regional units), which I assume are similar to counties as we have in California and other states.
To date, I count riding through seven regions of Greece: Attica, Central Greece, Western Macedonia, Central Greece, Attica, Peloponnese, Thessaly, Western Greece, and today I’m heading to my eighth, Epirus, the place where the Lion of Yannina, Ali Pasha once held court during the Ottoman period.
While southern Greece and the Peloponnese were liberated from the Ottomans after the Greek War of Independence in 1830, the province of Epirus remained under Ottoman rule until 1913. As the Ottoman rule over Greece weakened, the despotic Ali Pasha took advantage of and harnessed his power through brutal means, including drowning anyone who he didn’t like by putting them in a sack filled with stones and dropping the sack from the top of the castle walls into Lake Pamvotida. He also enjoyed forcing people to dance over beds of dried thorny bushes until they bled to death.
Pasha’s heritage was Albanian, not Turkish, and he continued to be at odds with Constantinople and Sultan Mahmud II. Over the years of his rule, he waged a separatist campaign against the Ottoman’s and sought to create an autonomous state. The Sultan waged war against Ali Pasha, urging him to surrender. But Ali Pasha refused to surrender, fighting until his fateful end when in 1822 the Turks captured and killed him in his castle on Lake Pamvotida here in Ioannina.
As was common in medieval times, the Sultan ordered proof of Ali Pasha’s death by demanding his head be returned to Constantinople. There they presented his head to the Sultan on a silver platter. Today, the headless body of Ali Pasha is buried in a tomb outside the Fethiye Mosque in Ioannina, while his head is buried in Turkey.
Ioannina and Epirus continued under Ottoman rule for over 80 years, but today this part of the once Ottoman empire that spread to north Epirus and into Albania and beyond, is now Greece, though through the area the influence of the Ottoman’s and their some 500 year rule is clear, especially in the hillside villages north of Ioannina.
I find a hotel inside the walls of the old town of Ioannina, just outside “Its Kale”, the Ottoman name for the Southeastern citadel. There are only two gates or entrances to the old town, and as I ride by each I notice signs clearly marks them as “do not enter”. I’m confused and trying to figure out just where I can ride my bike through the imposing walls.
Just outside one gate marked “do not enter”, I pull over, take off my helmet and look at a map. I notice a group of four police offers standing next to a police bike and car. They stare at me. One officer approaches me. I worry they’ll ask me to move, that I am blocking traffic. Wrong.
“Can I help you,” he asks with friendly eyes and a warm smile.
“I need to get into the old town,” I explain, pointing to the stone archway that serves as one gate into the city. “Can I ride through there?”
“It is forbidden,” he tells me, matter-of-factly.
He pauses and then says, “But it’s okay, you can go.”
Ah, so that’s how it works here. He asks the usual questions of where I’m from, where I’m going and about the motorcycle.
“You need anything else?” I explain he’s been helpful and thank him for the information.
I ride through the walls of the old city and find my guest house. Though I’ve broken the law here in Ioannina, my head is still intact and I’ve no fear anyone will try to drown me or make me dance to my death!