Igoumenitsa is the saddest provincial capital in Greece.
Approaching the city by boat, it emerges, white and gleaming, like a mythical lost city in some Mesoamerican jungle. You can see the faces of the unsuspecting ferry passengers, enthusiastic and wide eyed, snapping photos. As we get closer and the city’s detail become more pronounced, the astonishment turns to confusion, and then disappointment at being misled. ‘What a ripoff!’ I imagine them thinking as they trudge to their vehicles. Igoumenitsa is a sheep: pretty from a distance, but the closer you get, the uglier it becomes.
Of course there are many cities like this, but few have such an incredible position as Igoumenitsa, surrounded by a wide, verdant bay, hugged by mountains, with green hills rolling endlessly into the distance. The city’s appearance is almost Ozymandian, though it quickly devolves into Ballardian. Igoumenitsa is truly a tragedy of wasted potential. With just a little bit of urban planning, this could have been a destination in its own right.
As you move north, the city becomes much more agreeable. There’s been some gentle development on the coast and a pleasant promenade separated from the road by a park. Although, like in most Greek cities, the park has been left to overgrow, so that an attempted stroll more closely resembles a trundle through the marshes. Beyond this mixed attempt at liveability, the town peters out to a long, needle thin peninsula called Drepano, which boasts a remarkably clean and sandy beach, from where you can sit and watch the ships drift in and out. It’s one of the longest, prettiest and least spoilt stretches of coastline on the Greek mainland. Hidden in plain sight.
My mother remembers Igoumenitsa being just three houses when she was younger. I think I’ve found them. Suspiciously older and prettier than anything else in the city, they huddle up for safety by the port’s exit road. If one squints, it’s possible to detect a hint of faded pink or ochre colour, and even some evidence of architectural planning. One now holds a pizzeria.
There are signs of outward prosperity in Igoumenitsa. In contrast to most Greek cities, it is growing; sucking in migrants from the surrounding region. Its bars and restaurants are perpetually busy, and the double whammy of the port, which is still expanding, and the Egnatia Odos Motorway has kept it, at least afloat. Here, it seems, things are working. But for me, the feeling of Igoumenitsa is one of melancholy, a testament to Greece’s degrading development after WW2. A concrete sadness; a refrain to what could have been.