A coach party pulls up at our side, it smells of hot and sticky people. An aromatic cocktail of sweat, chemical toilet and exhaustion. One by one the stiff and sleepy Japanese tourists wobble off the coach and form an automatic zombie conga all the way to the Mystras entrance site.
We wait half an hour and then proceed to the entrance to pay our €6 pp entrance fee. We have a quick look at the map of the site and decide to split our day in two. Mystras is built on a fairly steep slope and covers quite a large area. There is a bottom gate and top gate. In the morning, we will do the bottom section, go back to Vin for lunch (and take the dogs for walk) and then drive the motorbike up to the top gate in the afternoon.
Plan sorted, we set off through the gates and straight away the smell hits us. It smells worse than the coach. We then notice the queue for the toilets. A lot of not so happy Japanese people…we are guessing last nights evening meal was not the best meal of their trip. The sheer volume of waste disposal has a profound impact on the delicate sewer system. A stench that wafts around the site for the remainder of the day.
Anyway, back to the site. Basically, they knocked down Ancient Sparta and pinched the stones to build Mystras. They carted the stones 7km up to the hill and commenced the town. Through the gates you walk the cobbled paths and zigzag your way up to the Metropolis before heading over to the Vrontokhion Monastery passing a number of churches along the way. Before heading to the Monastery of Perivleptos and Convent of Pantanassa (still a convent) passing the houses, mansions and more churches with beautiful frescos.
When you map our the historically timeline for Mystras & Sparta, it all adds up to a pretty fascinating place.
700 BC – One of the most powerful cities of Ancient Greece.
490 BC – The first Spartathlon when Pheidippides the messenger ran 246km in one day from Athens to Sparta to ask the Spartans to help out in the battle of the Marathon against Persia. Since then an annual foot race takes place with the current record at 20 hours and 25 minutes.
147 BC – Romans, a whole load of them came marching in to the Peloponnese and took over the place and by the number of Roman baths & ruins, they loved a good scrub.
430 AD – Peloponnesian War leads to the fall of Athens and its empire. Seems the Greeks liked to fight each other…a trend which continues for quite some time.
1204 – The Franks. Frankish leader William de Villehardouin chose this site as the head quarters for his Greek empire, which replaced the medieval Sparta.
1249 – Mista was founded as a town and they built a fortress, castle and plonked a whomping huge palace on the slopes
1259 – The Byzantine Greeks defeated the Franks at the Battle of Pelagonia, who then developed the town to support over 20,000 inhabitants.
1401 – Italian and Serbian scholars and artists flocked to Mystras creating an international city of culture.
1460 – The last emperor of Byzantium was crowned in the cathedral at Mystras before the empire fell in to the hands of the Turks. Jeez anyone else fancy having a go? Oh yeah, wait a few years and…
1687 – In came the Venetians and the town swelled to a large city of more than 40,000 people
1737 – Turks pinched Mystras back again and surprisingly, brought enough enthusiasm to completely ruin the city until eventually, the inhabitants fled to pastures new.
1770 – Russian’s put a flame to it and 10 years later, the Albanian’s had a go.
I could go on. Almost the entire history of Mystras and Sparta is made of arrivals – some welcome, some not so welcome but mainly just people turning up, putting in their two cents and then buggering off.
After all battles, Mystras is now a Ghost Town.
Rewind a bit though, imagine standing in the courtyard of the Palace of the Despots with panoramic views over the plains and looking down of a bustling city with over 2,000 houses. You turn around to chat with your new best mate, an architect from Serbia, an artist from Italy or a silk traders from Turkey. How fascinating and totally liberating must that feel.
Think on this a second. Over three centuries ago, before the age of mass transit, of bullet trains, motorhomes, planes, enormous smelly coaches transporting people from all corners of the globe, this single place attracted fine scholars and high achievers from miles around. Now take a step back, how did they even find out about this? No facebook, no text, no landline just pure word of mouth.
Imagine what a sight it must have been. Imagine arriving by land and sea, only by land and sea in those days and suddenly seeing this massive city with so many people in one place, streaming through this gate in search of a good life. Intellectuals at every level coming together to create this amazing city.
Imagine your pride, if you lived here.
As this ancient city shows, Mystras welcomed new arrivals, maybe because it’s fought so hard to get here as well.
We climb at high as we can go, up to the castle where not many people really venture. It is rewarding in many ways and we sit on the castle walls wondering what it like 2,500 years ago. When little boys at the age of 7 were sent off to the barracks followed by 23 years of torturous training to obtain Spartan Citizenship. Would Craig have passed or failed?
In the distance, we hear a faint whistle. We balance on the castle wall and slowly wobble around the edge. The distant whistle continues but changes direction. We look over to the valley where we walked yesterday and watch birds wheeling overhead in search of dinner. The whistle continues. We look down on the terracotta rooftops, it is beautiful. Holy, bloody moly Craig, what time is it? With that we make one huge leap and dash down the cobbled alley, nearly breaking our necks in the process. We arrive at the gate, puffing and panting but its too late, it is locked. It is 3.20 and the gates close at 3.
Please not again. I really do not want to jump over another Greek wall, this is becoming an occupational hazard. We really need to wear a watch and stop depending on the camera. We frantically scoot around in search of an assistance but nah, all gone. After much debate we tackle the HUGE stone wall. Craig just about manages to climb up and he tries to drag me up with the scruff on my neck. I don’t care, I ain’t being left in here all night on my jacksey! Not in a friggin ghost town. With that though, I was up like the rascal. Then I looked down, blocking ek, the drop is twice the size of this side. This was hard, one massive drop. What if we brake a leg or something. Jeez, vertigo stuff.
Craig goes first and elegantly slides down the wall with a little hop and jump at the end like a true Spartan. My attempt, well, roll on to my padded belly, cling on for dear life, dangle my jelly legs down the wall, kick Craig until he grabs my ankles…pause for half an hour whilst Craig yells at me “jump, just bloody jump, for Christ’s sake, I’ve got you”. In return, I yell “Don’t you Christ me and don’t rush me, I need time to work up courage”. Eventually, I drop and loose all dignity.
There are better way to exit Mystras, we recommend the normal option but equally, we recon our bravery would earn us title of Junior Spartans!
In the evening we sit in Vin. Its been a fantastic few days and loved every minute but a phone call with my sister delivers more worrying news about mum. Her dementia condition has accelerated significantly in the space of a few weeks and it is confirmed she is no longer able to live on her own. We sit staring out the windscreen discussing options. At the same time looking around and feeling on the edge of a vast peninsula we’d read about but never explored. We are worried about mum but excited about our journey. A mixed bag of emotions, as tomorrow we cross the Langada mountain pass, full of twist, turns and hairpin bends…just like life!