Modern Sparti lies just where its ancient predecessor did, on the Laconian plain in the Southern part of the Peloponessus. The ancient Spartans did not leave much behind and this time its not the ancient remains that bring the visitors but something almost 2 millennia newer but somehow, culturally, maybe even more distant.
In the foothills of snow-topped Mt Taiyetos rise many smaller hills and on one of them a whole ruined city can be found: Mystras, a capital of the Byzantine despotate of Morea which in the early centuries of the last millennium ruled large parts of the peninsula.
Its places like this which make me realise the Easterness of Greece much more. The Eastern Roman Empire lasted 1000 years longer than the Rome centred Western one and Mystras was a part of a late (and last) flowering of Byzantium not long before its final demise. When in Northern and Western Europe Gothic cathedrals were piercing the sky with their soaring spires, this fortified city flourished here in an altogether different tradition.
In June 2005 we pitched our tent in a completely empty and wonderfully grassy, small campsite Paleologio located about 2km from Sparti and 4 km from Mystras. A small swimming pool is opened for us and I enjoy an evening swim looking up the towering, snow topped massif of Mt Taiyetos, the highest on Peloponessus at 2404 m. In the three days we spend here we get all kinds of weather from blazing sun to overcast to cheery cumulus clouds playing in the breeze to mist to stormy rain and the crags and peaks look different every time I raise my eyes at them.
We take a bus to the site next day and enter through the lower gate. The ticket office sits in a massive gatehouse and from there the atmosphere of the place starts to work its magic: its a true city, of which parts were inhabited up to the 1950s (last few families left when excavations resumed on the site) but whose core fabric is clearly medieval. We walk along narrow alleys and countless stairs paved with now shiny and precarious cobblestones and, armed by the map from ever-useful Rough Guide and informed by clear signs, make our way around.
The site consist of three levels or parts: the lower town where most of the impressive churches are located; the upper town with the focal point of Despots Palace, and the castle at the top. The whole area is dotted with information panels, very nicely done in several languages but annoyingly limited to social history so we can learn about money, fashion (they imported Western styles, especially for women), law keeping and monastic life but there is precious little about particular houses, streets or convents we are actually looking at, as if they were scared of giving us dates and names and facts (or maybe wanted us to buy a guide?).
Mystras is a strange, beautiful and incredibly atmospheric place: large in area and full of half-standing walls, recessed doorways strangely bricked up, arches opening into a ravine; with bushes and trees growing from among the stones in what was living or eating chambers.
Twisting alleyways (they had no wheeled transport here, all was done on foot or on donkeys backs and the rich were carried in sedan chairs) and steps half-worn by hundreds of years of usage lead us higher and higher; its hard to believe that people actually chose to live at such an incline but the evidence is everywhere and obviously the defence considerations were paramount.
Among the ruins of houses and walls are the churches and monasteries, preserved or renovated or under renovation, and in the churches: the frescoes, some still vivid and clear, some almost totally faded away, all strangely powerful in their almost expressionist use of colour and absolute faith. I have never really seen Byzantine frescoes before but they dont seem alien. In many ways they are the source of so much in art that came afterwards: not only the Russian Orthodox icons which are clearly from the same stem; but Giotto as well and of course El Greco who must have drunk freely from this source before emerging at the westernmost edge of the continent.
Practically all the churches we visited were worth at least a quick glance, but amongst the highlights was definitely the cathedral (Mitropolis) with a beautiful courtyard and a small museum attached to it. Vrondohion monastery of which the refectory kitchens and a beautifully restored church of Odhiyitia was definitely worth the detour as was Panadanassa convent, the only one in Mystras still inhabited by a few nuns clad totally in black, its courtyard filed with a carnival of red, pink and orange flowers, the church a wonderful mixture of Byzantine and Gothic.
Unfortunately, the convent with apparently the best frescoes in Mystras (Perivleptos) was closed for renovation, so from Panadanassa we trudge back to the Monemvasia gate that links the lower town with the upper section. That part contains the massive rectangular shape of the gothic-looking Despots Palace, from the outside pretty intact but again closed for refurbishment, plus a few more churches. The views are getting more remarkable as we climb up above the palace and St Sophia church; the whole Evrotas river plain before our eyes; modern Sparti just below and the hills from which the ancient Spartans must have controlled their dominion far on the horizon.
Navplio gate leads to the upper entrance to the city but my husband has an obsession with getting to the top of whatever hes climbing, so Katie gets loaded into the backpack-child-carrier and we continue at a brisk(ish) pace up a steep path to the castle, which retains a lot of its towers and battlements and from where a truly magnificent view of the whole city clinging to the slope below can be had.
Alas, it starts to rain, so we have lunch in the cover of the gatehouse rather than literally on the top of the castle. We walk back down when the rain peters out into a drizzle just in time to be by the gate for closing time. We catch a lift to the campsite and we get there just as the storm starts in earnest, with silver lightning bolts dancing above Mt Taiyetos.
The site is located just outside modern village of Mystras (or Neas Mystras); 6km from Sparti and is locally easily accessible by bus or car/taxi.
For most people a vist would entail an overnight stay and there is plenty of accomodation in Sparti, Mystras itself as well as two campsites located in between.
The entrance fee is 5 euros, the bus from Sparta costs 1 euro, a taxi shouldn't be more than 8 euro, but check.
We spent almost 4 hours walking around (and we wanted more) so it would be reasonable to allow at least 2 hours for a visit that makes any sense.
If you don't feel up to schlepping all the way up, try to get transport to the upper entrance gate and/or skip the castle. If you do both, almost all walking will be downhill.
The site is almost totally inaccessible to pushchairs, wheelchairs or any other form of wheeled transport and the cobbles are in places worn shiny; so wear reasonably sensible shoes with thickish soles (though I saw a backpacker overtaking me in flip-flops so it's not THAT bad). Any adult of average fitness can enjoy the site though most would probably get puffy if climbing up rather than walking down.
Take water and snacks as there is nothing available at the site (water bottles can be refilled at the Panadanassa convent). Toilets are outside the site by the lower entrance only (though plenty of bushes for the desperate and the little ones).
There is quite a bit of shade available around the site and many thick walled churches provide respite from heat. Despite its size and lots of climbing involved it was one site that our 4 year old coped best with (she walked two-thirds of the way up and all the way down) and I feel this was because of frequent opportunities for cooling down.
The size of the place itself means that although you will be rarely out of sight of other visitors, you will also rarely be crowded in a throng, so it's not a bad one for the demo phobic amongst you.
All in all a superb site an a breathtaking setting, with wonderful atmosphere, great architecture and good art. If you are a Byzantine enthusiast, you probably already have been or have it on your list. If you are not, it's definitely worth visiting even just for a stroll around.
I consider it worth every cent of the 5 euro entrance fee and the detour from Tripoli (1h 45min by bus) it entailed on our way from Navplio to the west coast of the Peloponessus.
Mystras occupies a steep foothill on the northern slopes of Mt. Taygetos, 6km. NW of Sparta. The castle on the top of the hill was founded in 1249 by the Frankish leader William II de Villeharduin. After 1262 it came under Byzantine control, and at the middle of the 14th century became the seat of the Despotate of Moreas. In 1448 the last emperor of Byzantium, Constantine XI Palaeologos, was crowned at Mystras. In 1460 the hill was captured by the Turks and in 1464 Sigismondo Malatesta of Rimini managed to capture the city but not the castle. For a short period Mystras came under the control of the Venetians (1687-1715) but was again taken over by the Turks. It was one of the first castles of Greece to be liberated in 1821. The foundation of modern Sparta by king Otto in 1834 marked the end of the old town's life.