Sparta and Mystras

Thursday 1st May 2008, Sparta
It has been a day of spectacular scenery with wild, bare mountains, snow-capped on their northern face while we have been quite sunburned as we followed the winding route across Mounts Likodimo and Taygetos. Starting from sea level we reached over 1,000 metres at the top of the higher pass. As her diesel level gradually dropped Modestine accepted she was not a girl-racer with screaming brakes and reverted to her normal, plodding ways, coping with each hairpin bend with quiet determination. There was little traffic up here and certainly no camping cars. The countryside still showed evidence of last year’s arson fires with entire forests wiped out leaving nothing but charred trunks of pine trees and blackened hillsides already being reclaimed by wild flowers. At one point we even saw the remains of a burned-out tanker, its tyres a solidified dribble of molten rubber.

Burnt trees on the route from Kalamata to Sparta

Our route through the rocks on the way to Sparta

On the way we passed through towns evocative of the splendours of ancient Greece. Messina was rather a disappointment being just an unremarkable modern town. It seems that ancient Messina is a considerable distance away. With campsites in short supply we decided to head on towards Sparta and the Byzantine city of Mystras. We drove down from the mountains to find Mystras closed for the day. We’d forgotten it is 1st May and a national holiday. From the castle gates we looked down onto the plain still far below us, the white buildings of Sparta spread out across the centre.

13th century Byzantine city of Mystras

Sparta seen from the gates of Mystras

Down in Sparta we parked Modestine by the cathedral. No difficulties parking anywhere in Greece. At first the town seemed deserted and rather boring being predominantly blocks of white rendered flats. In the centre there is a large square surrounded by cafés where the tables were crowded with families and friends enjoying the bright afternoon sunshine. Groups of young men sat together chatting. As they did so they deftly threaded a string of worry beads through their fingers. We have been intrigued by this sight. So often we pass people walking along the road or sitting on a park bench, their beads slithering through their fingers. Another popular pastime at the café tables is to play backgammon and we saw several groups of young men either playing or watching.

Cathedral, Sparta

In the main church a funeral service was ending. The priest was followed out on to the steps by the coffin bearers. We were slightly taken-aback to see the coffin lid propped against the side of a car and the deceased being bounced down the church steps in an open coffin! He was popped into the back of an ordinary hatchback car and the lid slid on over the top before he and the priest were driven off. Meanwhile the bereaved family stood around chatting and smoking! As the church was now empty we popped inside to admire several small icons elaborately set in silver, and the painted icons on the walls and ceiling.

There is little evidence in modern Sparta of the brutal, formidable regime that conquered and ruled so much of Greece back in the 5th century BC. Outside the football stadium stands the impressive statue of King Leonidas who held back the Persians at the pass of Thermopylae. It recalls the splendours of Sparta’s past, but you have to walk beyond the stadium to find the remains of the ancient Acropolis and theatre. Here it was silent and peaceful, the ruins lying amongst a grove of huge, ancient olive trees, the only sound that of birds and the humming of insects. The grass around the stones was long, filled with seed heads, wild flowers and flittering butterflies. The sun shone warmly on the ancient, inscribed stones and the rough paths between the different parts of the site were constructed of broken potsherds from the ancient past. Looking down on the ruins of the theatre was an impressive experience. Below lay the remnants of an ancient civilisation, beyond lay the modern city of the same name, while towering over it all were the snowy barren peaks of the mountains, just the same as they had been when Spartan baby boys were left on their icy flanks to die if they were judged unlikely to cope with the rigours of a cruel and demanding military life – the lot of every Spartan male.

King Leonidas, Sparta

Remains of Sparta in an olive grove

Sparta, ancient and modern, overlooked by Mount Taygetos

Inscribed stone, Sparta

It was evening by the time we’d walked back into the town, so we returned to a campsite we had seen as we arrived this afternoon. It is extremely quiet and pleasant with olive trees for shade and a view back up towards the mountain pass we descended earlier today.

Saturday 3rd May 2008, Zaritsi Bay, Gulf of Argos
We arrived back at our campsite last night to find David and Lesley had arrived a few minutes before us. So the evening was spent together over a convivial glass or two of wine while we caught up on each other's activities over the past few days. Their puncture problem was eventually resolved though they wasted a day and are now a couple of days behind us with their site seeing. We moved on this morning leaving them to discover Sparta and Mystras for themselves.

We arrived yesterday at the gates of the Byzantine city of Mystras early in the day before the heat became too oppressive. Already by 10am it was 29 degrees. Built by the Franks in the 13th century to replace mediaeval Sparta, Mystras was soon passed over to the Byzantine Empire of Constantinople. Designed for defence it is perched in a near vertical position up the side of a hilltop overlooking the plains. Two curtain walls descend the cliffs, the city nestling between them. Today most of the site is in ruins but the beauty of its location is quite awesome and enough remains to show how impregnable it must have been. Topped by a defensive castle the city was built in three parts with the palace, administrative buildings and monasteries in the middle and the houses, merchants and trades people at the bottom. Much planning went into the buildings, water supply and the steep cobbled streets and there were regulations concerning the rights of the inhabitants with regard to public amenities.

Mystras looking towards the castle

Town gate, Mystras

Main street with arcades, Mystras

It became an important cultural centre and only surrendered to the Turks in 1460, several years after the fall of Byzantium. Occupied by the Turks it was captured briefly by the Venetians in 1687 who held it until regained by the Turks in 1715. By the time of Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s it was an abandoned ruin. The last inhabitants left in the 1950s though there is still a small community occupying one of the monastic buildings today.

Monastery of Pantanassas, still occupied by nuns, Mystras

We climbed steadily from the gate in the wall at the bottom of the city, seeking the shade and stopping at every bend to gaze back at the landscape spread out like a map below us. Down on the plain, stretching to the distant hills, was a chequered patchwork of olive trees - green circles against a background of red sandy soil. The higher we climbed the more awesome the scenery. Down there we could just discern Modestine parked by the roadside. She looked so small yet the castle was still a good hour’s climb above us.

Plain of Sparta with olive trees, seen from Mystras

Approaching the castle, Mystras

Inside the castle, Mystras

It was with real relief that we entered every monastery, chapel and courtyard on the way up. Each offered cool darkness and shade after the glare of the sun. Once our eyes accustomed to the interiors we discovered faded and damaged remains of beautiful ancient frescoes. Outside, the walls and paths were covered with the most beautiful of spring flowers, there were shady olive and pine trees, lizards peered from gaps in the stones, bees collected pollen for the renowned Greek honey and huge, iridescent green beetles hummed on wings too small for their heavy bodies.

Mitropolis or cathedral where the last emperor of Byzantium, Constantine XI was crowned in 1449, Mystras

Agios Theodoros, Mystras

Fresco in the monastery of St. Sophia, Mystras

Fresco in the monastery of Agios Nikolaos, Mystras

Mystras set amidst the wild flowers

We left when the site closed at 3pm and made our way down to modern Sparta where we restocked Modestine’s larder, used the internet and enjoyed a coffee on the main square. A nice touch here is that coffee is always served with a large glass of chilled water. It was much appreciated after our hot sweaty climb amongst the ruins of Mystras. We even discovered where to buy worry beads! From now on life should be much calmer as I have a set to count and twiddle while waiting for traffic lights to change, or for Mr. Kyriacos to exchange lengthy greetings with his neighbour as they lean out of their car windows at the crossroads.

This morning we lingered over breakfast with David and Lesley until they disappeared off to Sparta with Erik to explore the ruins. We set off on what was to be a stunning day crossing a deserted mountain landscape devoid even of the ubiquitous pines and eucalyptus trees usually seen on the high hillsides.

Communication around the Peleponnese is difficult with very few roads of any size in the interior of the region. Initially we drove along badly tarmaced roads that occasionally degenerated into unsurfaced tracks. Here there was a monoculture of olives as far as the eye could see. Sometimes we would pass a shepherd with his goats or a farmer pruning his trees. Just occasionally we would be passed by another vehicle but generally driving was very relaxed and peaceful. Eventually though we had to turn up into the mountains. They seemed to rise up for ever, leaving the olives and flowers behind.

Leaving the olives behind

Stopping for a picnic lunch and to allow Modestine to cool down we discovered clumps of deep pink cyclamen and purple hyacinths growing wild. As we enjoyed a surreal lunch in hot sunshine overlooking a deep ravine we were waved to by the occasional vehicle passing by.

All day we have wound through the massive, grey, bare mountains. It has been very relaxed though demanding constant attention to potholes, fallen rocks and hairpin bends on unfenced roads with sheer drops down into bottomless gorges.

Our route through the mountains near Elonis

Modestine's quite small really

At one point we stopped to explore a small monastery gouged out of the cliff face. A Greek christening had just ended with smartly dressed guests carrying away little blue boxes as gifts. Presumably it was a baby boy. Where had everyone come from? The door of the little church was still open. Inside dozens of brass oil lamps were suspended, the air was heavy with the smell of incense, while in front of each of the lavishly mounted icons were small votive offerings in the form of metal plates with pictures of what needed healing – a leg, an arm, even a heart. At the foot of the steps leading up to the monastery a charming lady gave us oranges, still with their leaves on, to taste. They were deliciously sweet and we willingly purchased a bagful.

Priests at the monastery of Elonis

Cells and church at the monastery of Elonis

Distance-wise we may not have travelled very far today but it has taken us all day. Coming down is easier for Modestine but just as fraught with possible dangers for us. Eventually we came down into the charming little town of Leonidio with its stone houses and narrow streets. Every corner was crowded with geraniums, pink oleanders and purple or scarlet bougainvillea. Cats lazed in the sun and old men drank coffee and chatted under olive trees outside the kafenio. A man beckoned us into the walled courtyard of the most impressive building in the village and explained (in English of course) that it had once been the home of a wealthy Greek merchant. Inside the main room of the tall stone building were a couple of huge, wooden box beds, heavily shuttered windows and an attractive wooden ceiling from the 17th century Venetian period.

Coming down into Leonidio

Merchant's house, Leonidio

Interior of the merchant's house, Leonidio

We have now crossed to the eastern coast of the Peleponnese and are heading north along the edge of the bay of Argos. It must be from somewhere along here that Jason set out on his adventures with his fellow Argonauts! There is a definite thrill knowing we are in the land of legends, seeing for ourselves that they are at least partly based on fact.

The sea is clear and blue. From the coast road it looks like paradise. Seeing a sign to a campsite we followed a bumpy, narrow, unmade track steeply down to the sea, found a shady spot on the site beneath eucalyptus trees and eagerly walked the short distance to the grey pebbled beach. What a disappointment! There are massive concrete blocks covering the entire length of the narrow beach. Why they are there we don't know but they are very recent. It must have been a real blow to the campsite as it has quite spoilt it. Fortunately we are only here overnight and otherwise it is quite pleasant.

Gulf of Argos

Campsite beach, Zaritsi Bay

Actually, Greece is rather keen on concrete. Does the name come from Crete I wonder? Most of the limestone mountains of Greece consist entirely of the raw material for concrete and, reinforced with iron rods, it is used extensively in building construction. When we were in Crete some years ago we were delighted to discover even the beds are made from concrete! Maybe they are here, we don't know, having Modestine's really comfortable bed to sleep on.