We’ve all been fed stories of ancient Sparta. Inhabitants of that grim warmongering city left weak and sickly infants to die of exposure, pushed unwanted or useless people off cliffs, and ordinary existence was pretty harsh. Anyone who couldn’t take the rigors of military discipline was disposed of – which means if I had been alive then, well I probably wouldn’t be. I’d be off the cliff.
Maybe you’ve heard of the legendary Spartan King Leonides, whose courageous band of three hundred soldiers defeated the Persians at Thermopylae in 580BC. Maybe you haven’t, but he did. And thanks to Brad Pitt and his friends, we know that in Mycenaean times the whole area of the province of Lakonia was ruled by the Spartan King Menelaus who goes down in legend and history as the unfortunate cuckolded husband of Helen of Troy. (Hence the word “laconic”, no doubt).
The modern town of Sparta (or Sparti, as the Greeks know it) is set in a wide peaceful valley of the Lakonia plain, surrounded with lush citrus and olive groves, and guarded by the awesome dark mountains of the Taÿgetos range. The north-south main street is rather like a disturbed anthill – people everywhere enjoying its eclectic collection of tavernas, kafeneia, cafés and fast-food joints – but there are enough interesting shops and reasonable hotels to distract the visiting tourist.
However, the ruins of ancient Sparti lie just out of the town. There, hidden among ancient gnarled olive trees, repose remnants of venerable walls, piles of timeworn building blocks, marble fragments, and the rubble of ages past. If you’re there in May you’ll see a magnificent collection of wildflowers decorate the scene. Ramblings lead to the remains of the ancient acropolis where, with another leap of the imagination, it’s easy to fantasize about grim Sparti, the place where life was so laborious. Built on top of the ruins, a Byzantine church and monastery, now itself reduced to hardly more than rubble, stares blankly down at a once mighty theater, a rival in size to Epidavros, but now nothing but a shell, an imprint left by time. The few pathetic remnants of the seats, columns and blocks, have been lined up in symmetrical rows by somebody with restoration in mind. It looks as though this person said, ‘Wait here, while I get help,’ and never returned. But archeologists are at work now and the new excavations are revealing much more of the ancient town.
Over everything broods the black, misty, magnificent Taÿgetos Mountains resembling a present-day Mordor, reaching for the heavens through drifts of fuzzy clouds which continually reveal higher and yet higher peaks and then close over them like drawn curtains. Heady stuff, I can tell you.
A taxi from Sparti will take you to the top entrance of the Byzantine ruins of Mystras – a must-see of the Greek Peloponnese. How can I describe the magic of Mystras? Mere words are not adequate. Entering the stone gateway transports you into one of the most fascinating, spectacular, astonishing places imaginable. Every turn of the cobblestone path, every flight of stone steps, every archway, or doorway, or rubble strewn courtyard brings a new vista, a new perspective of Byzantine life. Ruins of mansions, palaces, houses, churches, all draped and festooned with wild flowers, bushes, figs, pines and leafy trees, cascade down the hillside from the thirteenth century fortress crowning the very top.
From the thirteenth to the fifteenth century AD, Mystras was a city of over twenty thousand inhabitants, and although it suffered the same fate as most other early cities and was captured and lost by most of the warring states, it grew to major importance and reached a population of forty thousand under the Venetians from 1687. But from 1770 it was successively burned by Russians, Albanians and Turks and gradually fell into the abandoned and ruined state of the present time. Nowadays it’s the tourist invasion – but at least Mystras is cherished as a World Heritage Site.
It’s best to begin a tour of Mystras from the top of the hill, as the climb is steep, and down is best on the rough, original cobblestone street! From the fortress crown, the path leads past the Church of Agia Sofia, almost at the top of the upper town. This is a unique little Byzantine church with an arched portico and little round cupolas in the orthodox style, capped with ribbed terra cotta tiles. A bit further down is the youngest of the Mystras churches, the church of Agios Nikolaos, sixteenth century, a wonderfully peaceful place with original uneven tiles on the dirt floor and more striking frescoes on the walls.
Approaching the “Palace of the Despots” through the arched Monemvasia Gate, an incredible vista of the Lakonian Plain opens out, with Sparti Town in the distance like a pile of colored pebbles. The Palace is a collection of large buildings, the seat of the former rulers of Mystras, a Frankish leader with a rather exotic name, Guillaume de Villehardouin among them. It’s undergoing renovation and reconstruction – I can’t wait to see inside when it’s finished. Around the heights above this site is a bonanza of ruins, bones of dwellings, leavings of lives long gone.
One of the most interesting of the Byzantine churches is Agios Dimitrios, also called the Mitropolis, a thirteenth century place of crumbling vaulted arches, old balconies and a peaceful courtyard entry surrounded with potted plants and flowers. Inside the church are fine frescoes. Much restoration work has kept the building in a remarkable state of preservation. Another rough, narrow pathway leads to the convent of Panthanassia, where the beauty and serenity of the place is unexpected and particularly tranquil. The convent perches precariously on the hill slope, anchored to the rock by a high thick wall. Into this wall was built the cell-like rooms still occupied by a few nuns.
Inside the church are more beautiful frescoes in the original state. Sitting outside on the ledge of the balustrade and soaking up the views from this sublime place, sets you wondering how many others over the past seven centuries have viewed the vast panorama of orchards and olive groves, farmlets and hamlets, surrounding brush covered hillsides, and mist laden mountains.
A tiny rough pathway leads onwards to the monastery of Perivleptos, with another amazing fourteenth century decorative church, looking rather like an elaborate birthday cake in stone, sprouting from the rocky hillside itself. Inside, the walls are painted with the most perfect of all the frescoes, each scene depicting some biblical event, the nativity being the most exquisite.
Pathways continue wandering around the hillside. There are wild gardens of old ruined mansions, stone walls, arched gateways and staring, empty colonnades of windows, draped with an abundance of wildflowers, creepers and greenery. Against the backdrop of trees and conifers and the wild mountains it’s sheer poetry.
More pictures of Sparti and Mystras in the galleries of this website. Enjoy!