It was a fine day as we set out to visit the
Byzantine ruins of Mystras at the base of Mount Tagetos, overlooking
the city of Sparta and the fertile plain surrounding it. As we climbed
the hill on crumbling streets we looked in awe at the beautiful
churches with their elaborate brickwork, while lizards scurried
to safety from where they were sunning themselves. "Look Dad!
Some ancient pottery" shouted my daughter Amarandi gleefully
as Andrea and I ran over to see what kind of treasure she had found
in this holy city. Sure enough it was a small clay piece with the
traces of some kind of design. "Can I keep it? Please?"
she looked at me with those innocent eyes. I looked at Andrea who
had worked on an archaeological dig in Crete many years ago and
would know the legalities of keeping antiquities. She smiled and
shrugged. "I am sure it will be OK," I told her. " And if you get arrested
at the airport I will say it was mine as long as you promise to
visit me in prison". My daughter smiled back at
me and stuffed the shard in her bag. The birds were singing all
around us and the flowers of summer were in full
bloom. It was like being in heaven and all our troubles were forgotten.
We found a grassy spot near a cliff where we could see the entire
Spartan plain below and ate our simple lunch of brown bread, still warm
from the bakery, some feta cheese and a few olives. We looked at
one another as we enjoyed our meal in this spectacular environment. Indeed life does not
get any better than this we silently spoke to each other and.....
...No, I am lying. This is not what happened
at all. This is the kind of writing you find in travel magazines
from first-time visitors to Greece or professional travel writers.
Here's what really happened. We went to Mystras.
It was hot as hell, being July and we did not even want to get out
of the car. But I did. I jumped out of the car every few minutes
to take a photo and then jumped back in to the air-conditioned splendor.
Everyone was in a really bad mood. It was really miserable and it
got worse but that's another story.
We were planning to go to the island of Kythira
but the boats were full because it was the weekend and all the Athenians
were taking a little mini holiday. So we had a few days in the Peloponessos
that we had to figure out what to do with. I had already written
my Peloponessos Guide but had not made it to Mystras so I suggested
going there and taking some photos. We stayed in Githeon and the
next morning drove to Sparta and sat in the big square and had some
coffee. By the time we got rolling again the sun was high in the
sky and when we got to Mystras, which is about 10 minutes west of
town, it was pretty hot. There were several tour buses in the parking
lot and Andrea and Amarandi were already complaining and refused
to get out of the car. So I had a choice. I could climb through
the ruins of Mystras by myself and leave them in the car, or I could
do the lazy travel-writer thing which was find the best vantage
points and use my telephoto to take photos and maybe nobody would
realize that I did not actually go through the site. Then I could
write one of those travel magazine stories, like the one I began
this article with, and let people figure out if I really went there
or not. (I have heard that some travel writers do this).
Anyway as it turns out I did break down and
go into the site and take a few photos and walk around but I didn't
do the feta cheese and olive thing. I did get an instant of recall
and remembered my parents taking me here in 1963 when I was 8 years
old. I remember climbing through the ruins and seeing all these
churches and ruined houses and thinking "I'm hungry".
This time I was not hungry but I was hot and for that reason I suggest
choosing the time you visit Mystras (and Sparta for that matter)
carefully. Try to come here anytime but July-August, but if you
can only be here in July-August and it is hot, as it can be on the
Laconian Plain, come early in the morning. Mystras opens at 8am.
By 11 you want to be on your way to the beach or to the higher elevations
of Mount Tagetos.
The city was founded in the 13th century during
the Frankish occupation of the Peloponnesos by the Frank William
de Ville-hardouin who built a fortress, his palace and surrounded
them with the walls that defended the city for another 400
years. Ville-hardouin was defeated by the Byzantine Greeks in 1259
and it was during this period that the churches were build
as well as the Palace of the Despots and over 2000 houses. The city
had a population of over 25,000 and after the fall of Constantinople
in 1453, became the center of the Byzantine empire until it
fell to the Turks just seven years later. In 1687 the city was captured
by the Venetians under Morosini (the guy who blew up the Parthenon)
and it became a center for the silk industry. At that
time there were 40,000 inhabitants. (The modern city of Sparta now
has a population of under 15,000 to give you some idea of the size
of Mystras.) The original name of Mystras was Myzithras
which means cheese-maker and why it was called that nobody
knows for sure.
So we rushed through history, missing all
the incredible frescos inside the churches of Agios Demitrios, the
Odigitria, the Pantanassa, Peribleptos and Evangelistria, and jumped back
into our air-conditioned rental car and got on the road to Kalamata
that goes over and through Mount Tagetos. This turned out to be
the most spectacular part of the journey and one of the most interesting
drives in the Peloponessos. If you like mountain climbing, the Lagadas Climbing
Park, twenty minutes or so above Mystras on the road to Kalamata
has a number of trails. I wish I could tell you more but I could
not find any more information on the web. However if you take the
drive there is a map of the trails posted at rest stop along
the way. Be sure to stop at the roadside taverna under the waterfalls
and sample the Stefanouri Ouzo and Raki. (Sample!
Don't drink too much because the road is very curvy and ouzo will
make it seem more so.) Also stop at the guy who sells honey and
pine-cone baskets and see his Stellios Kazantsidis Eparcho Ouzo
sign and his JFK and RFK Icons. If he is still there. A fire burned up most of the forest a few years ago so where he is going to find pinecones I don't know.
If you are visiting Mystras you will
may want to stay in Sparta to get an early start. But you could also
stay in Githeon and be there in an hour if you would rather be on
the coast. Mystras is about a three hour drive from Athens so you
could actually do it as a day-trip with George the Famous Taxi Driver,
stopping in Corinth or Nemea on the way back. The archaeological
of the town of Geraki, on the site of the ancient city
of Geranthrai, 45 kilometers east of Sparta are also worth
seeing. They are being excavated by the Dutch School of Archaeology
and go back as far as the Neolithic period. Besides ruins from the
Bronze, Hellenistic, Early Christian and medieval periods, the summit
is crowned by the 13th Century Frankish castle of Guy de Nivelet,
one of the Barons of the Morea (Peloponessos).
Hotels in and Around Mystra
The Pyrgos of Mystra is a small luxury hotel, built in 1850 in the ragged shadow of Mount Taygetos. This imposing mansion has been transformed into a stately guesthouse. The Mystras Grand Palace Resort has free bikes and seasonal outdoor swimming pool. The 5-star hotel has air-conditioned rooms with a private bathroom and free WiFi. The hotel features a restaurant, and Mystras is an 11-minute walk away. Located at the foot of Mount Taygetus and surrounded by its private forest, the 5-star Euphoria Retreat - A Holistic Wellbeing Destination Spa has a unique architectural design drawing inspiration from Byzantine architecture. With a specific philosophy aiming to provide physical and emotional transformation, the hotel offers personal consultants for wellness and nutrition, a variety of activities such as Yoga, Pilates and Detox therapies, and has a 3.000-m2 spa center with a sphere indoor-outdoor pool . Set amid greenery, Mystras Castle Town is located in Mystras, just 30 m from the central square. It offers air-conditioned accommodations, some with mountain views from their balcony. Located at the foot of Mount Taygetos, in scenic Mystras Town, the traditionally built Mystras Inn features a stone-paved courtyard
and a restaurant. It offers free Wi-Fi and air-conditioned rooms with a balcony or patio. Also in Mystra, Pikoulianika Apartments offers self-catering accommodations with stone and wood. Each studio and apartment has a balcony with spectacular views of the castle and the whole valley.
Built in 1932, Archontiko is a traditional property located in the center of Anavriti Village, at an altitude of 901 m. It offers traditionally decorated rooms with a balcony overlooking the surrounding area. I recommend the Hotel Menelaion in Sparta which is like a small version of the Grande
Bretagne in Athens. It has a pool too. In Githeon I love the
Aktion City Hotel which feels like faded aristocracy.
For more Hotels in and around Mystras see Booking.com's Mystras Hotel Search
More Helpful Information
If you have a week or so the best way to see the Peloponessos
is by rental car so either contact Elias at www.greektravel.com/swift if you are a confident driver or George the Famous Taxi Driver at
www.greecetravel.com/taxi if you need a driver-guide-translator which makes the trip even more fun
These are the pictures I told you about. If
you click on them you can see them full size.