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To Byzantine Mystras


Home -> Europe -> Greece -> Travelogue Greece -> 12 May 2014

Monday 12 May, to Byzantine Mystras

After a homemade breakfast we pay our landlords and drive inland on the way to Sparta and Mystras.
Chapel along the road Chapel along the roadAlong the winding roads in the mountains we regularly see small houses, prayer chapels or the like, we think. Some are well maintained, others are neglected. Later we hear that these are iconostasis chapels that are placed in places where someone has died or was lucky and survived because of a traffic accident. Another time we will tell a bit more about Greek traffic because that is a story in itself. The number of fatalities per year is fortunately decreasing, but still much higher than in the Netherlands.
When we pass through the boring modern Sparta, we see the remains of old Sparta on the outskirts of the city. As powerful and feared as Sparta once was, so little is left of it. I am a bit spoiled with the fact that I lived in Egypt for years, where many antiquities have been much better preserved. To be honest, it's a bit of a disappointment to me here, my expectations were too high. At the gymnasium we read lively texts about places like Sparta and in some way the physical decline of this place is a bit of a downer.
Square in Mystras Statue of Constantine XIWe therefore drive to Mystras which lies only a few kilometers to the west. The modern village is small and on the central square stands a statue of Constantine XI, the last emperor of the Byzantine empire who was killed by the Turks. In 1453 they conquered the empire with which the Eastern Roman Empire came to a definitive end and established the Ottoman regime.
But before Constantine became emperor, he was despot (as the ruler was called here) of Mystras and lived in the then city, now a ghost town that lies outside the modern village.
Monastery at Mystras Metropolis basilica, MystrasThe city of Mystras was built in 1249 by a crusader (William II of Villehardouin) on a high hill but 10 years later he was captured and as a ransom had to surrender all his possessions, including this area, to the emperor and thus Mystras became part of the Byzantine empire. During the city's heyday, more than 40,000 inhabitants lived there and it became a cultural center. On the slopes you can still find the remains of many churches, monasteries and palaces.
Bell tower of the Metropolis basilica Metropolis basilica, MystrasThe Metropolis basilica or Agios Demetrios is the oldest of the remaining churches. A bell tower is built against the church. In Greece you will find mostly free-standing bell towers and we have read somewhere that this has something to do with the earthquakes that regularly occur here. Unfortunately I can not find where we read it because we can not find anything on the internet about it.
But whether the tower will become firmer by building it separated from the church building? No idea. It is true that half of all registered earthquakes in Europe occur in Greece. That should also make it difficult to keep the remaining buildings from antiquity in a good condition.
Inside the Metropolis Basilica, MystrasThe inside of the basilica is certainly worth visiting it, the walls and ceilings are beautifully painted, mostly in the 13th and 14th century and the colors look still lively. Most of the valuables that were here will now be in a museum or in a church that is still in use. It surprises us time and time again that in both the Catholic and Orthodox churches so much wealth is displayed, while there is sometimes no money for refurbishing a school. But apart from that there are big differences between the two churches that officially broke up in 1054 and the emotions about theirt differences can still be high.
Class outing in Mystras View from MystrasThe Pantanassa is a nunnery, the last one built in Mystras in Byzantine times and the only one still in use. It lies on a steep slope and a group of children on a class outing run past us, they have still fresh legs. We first have to rest a bit when we arrive in this beautiful monastery because of all the hillwalking. You can visit it and inside are also many colorful images. There is a pleasant, quiet atmosphere and it is nice and cool under the galleries, we can imagine that it is nice place to stay here.
Brontochion monastery, Mystras Brontochion monastery, MystrasIt is descending and climbing again and first we visit the museum where many objects from the Byzantine period are exhibited. Then we climb to the Brontochion monastery with 2 churches. Here they have undoubtedly been doing restoration work because the churches are reasonably intact and the bricks and red roof tiles are beautiful. It was the ancient Greeks who were already started in the 7th century BC. to use the terracotta roof tiles that were later distributed through the rest of Europe via the Romans.
Brontochion monastery, MystrasWhile the churches look pretty good, this is not the case for many other buildings that have fallen into ruins, as are many of the walls and ordinary houses of the then occupants. It is a fairly large area that you can walk through with a lot of altimeters and bad paths so good shoes are necessary. At the entrance gate at the parking lot you can buy a ticket that gives you access to the whole area including the castle at the highest point.
Climbing in Mystras The plain of SpartaWe notice that our condition is not getting better because the climbing is more and more tiring and we have to take regularly a break. Fortunately, we have a beautiful view of the buildings and the Sparta Plain everywhere around us. You can hardly imagine that there were about 40,000 people living on this hill and that two thousand years earlier a big city was a little further away that for centuries was the most important city-state of the Hellenic civilization. How many people lived there is not exactly known, but it is estimated that in 480 BC. about 16,000 men lived at Sparta. We do not know whether the slaves are counted in that number, but in total more than 30,000 inhabitants (including women).
Despots Palace, Mystras Villehardouin's castleOther buildings worth a visit are the despot palace and the castle of Villehardouin, the founder of the city. After Villehardouin lost his possessions, Mystras became the home for the ruler of Morea, an independent principality within the Byzantine empire, but this despot was always a son or brother of the emperor and was also appointed by the emperor.
Fortunately you can also reach the castle by car, because we are too exhausetd to climb there.
The coast at Mavrovouni View from our balcony, MavrovouniWe have been walking a lot of hours through Mystras but at the end of the afternoon we have seen enough and drive to the coast where we try to find our apartment. That turns out to be less easy than we thought, so we first find a terrace along the sea which provides wifi. But even then it is difficult to see where it exactly is situated. We are close to Mavrovouni and it really has to be somewhere around here. In many small towns street names are not really clear or completely absent and we do need some help from local residents to find it.
A boring balcony Mavrovouni at the bay of LakonikosIn the end it turns out that we have to be in a kind of tourist suburb just outside the village. It is not such a nice apartment as we had the past few days but it is alright, especially now that we are the only tourists. After a cool shower and some rest for our feet, we go into Mavrovouni in the evening. Besides tourism, the production of olive oil is also an important source of income, which can be seen from the many olive groves surrounding the town.

 


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