“Here,” the smiling Greek woman said, proffering a jar of burnt-amber marmalade. “It’s homemade. We call it the Jewish citrus.”
When I think Jews and citrus, I think of Florida and how my grandfather in Century Village used to send me a care package of honeybells every winter. I never expected to find anything Jewish in Parga — a sleepy resort town on the Greek Epirus coast opposite Corfu — let alone oranges. But as I learned over breakfast in a hotel café, the variety of citron grown on these green mountains for millennia is none other than the biblical etrog, whose role in the Sukkot ritual has cemented the association.
In fact, although biblical citron was as close as I came to finding Jewish culture during a weekend in Parga, Jews — a mix of Sephardim and Romaniotes, Byzantine Greek Jews — lived among Epirus’ orange trees as far back as the eighth century. (Most either perished in World War II or emigrated to Israel shortly thereafter.) And that marmalade was awfully good. I spread it on fried sufganiyot-style pancakes at breakfast, chasing each bite with a spoonful of thick strained yogurt and even thicker coffee.
Nestled into a turquoise bay in the shadow of the Pindos Mountains, Parga resembles nothing so much as a slice of Italy’s Amalfi Coast — which is perhaps unsurprising when you consider that Parga spent much of its history as an outpost of the Venetian Empire, passing into French, English and Ottoman hands before joining Greece a century ago.
The town itself is a picturesque jumble of colorful houses overlooking a half-moon beach, where inviting cafés dot the waterfront promenade, and small boats bob in a harbor. I watched the shadows shift over a series of tiny, rocky islands just offshore; two larger isles, the lyrically named Paxos and Antipaxos, are visible on the horizon.
From the hills above Parga, you can see all the way to Corfu, a resort of international renown. But while boats sail regularly from Parga to Corfu, Paxos, Antipaxos or nearby Lefkada, most Corfu-bound vacationers depart from the larger port of Igoumenitsa, just north on the Albanian border.
Apart from Igoumenitsa and Corfu, Epirus — which lies along the Ionian Sea — is a sparsely inhabited region of olive groves, pine forests and stunning mountain scenery. Between Parga and Igoumenitsa, endless sandy coves glistened beneath the seaside cliffs along a lonely highway, with nary another car in sight. Sleepy villages and whitewashed churches appear from time to time, along with roadside apiaries that fuel a local honey industry.
Then there are the ruins. Inhabited since classical times, Epirus is thick with the vestiges of fortresses erected against Turkish pirates. We explored 14th-century castle ruins on a rocky, pine-forested bluff at one end of Parga, where shady paths wind around the headlands to the wilder, more expansive Valtos Beach just north of town. Many visitors catch a bus for Anthoussa Village to tour the Ali Pasha Castle, a grander, better-preserved relic of Ottoman times.
Parga itself is easy to explore on foot, but in the sunshine of a late-spring afternoon, the sea beckoned. “I wouldn’t set foot in that sea after September,” laughed a hotel clerk as she handed me a beach towel. Seventy degrees may be frigid for Greeks, but visitors from more northerly climes found the water delightful at Parga’s three sandy beaches.
After a dinner of whole roasted fish and cold retsina, I set out to do some shopping. The cobblestoned streets of Parga Town are largely flat — ideal for puttering amid shops selling sun gear, flaky honey and feta-cheese pastries, handmade leather goods and soap crafted from local olive oil.
I had scoped out the shops after lunch, but in the soaring midday heat, everything had been closed save for the ice-cream counters. Parga comes alive as the sun sets over that fortress hill; at dusk, families of all ages, Greeks and Italians and Albanians as well as British tourists, stroll along the lapping waves of the harbor. Cafés slowly fill with locals sipping ouzo, sharing platters of mezze and moving on to metaxa as night falls. As the crowds settled into bars to watch Barcelona play Munich, I lingered along the water’s edge — inhaling that heady fragrance of pine, sea salt and Jewish citrus.