Exploring Byzantium 2

29 May 2019

Next morning we drove north to the modern town of Sparta, passing through small working towns with almost as many tractors and battered Toyota pick-ups as cars.

And through very pretty countryside, green and still with water in some of the rivers probably fed from the mountains where the snow is still melting. There were a few campers around of various sizes and ages and it was a nice relaxing drive.

At Sparta there was a hold up at a major junction where police were blowing whistles and stopping and starting traffic with chaotic and contradictory directions which some drivers obeyed and others ignored. An entertaining confusion and we guessed, correctly, a VIP. 

Despite huge security, when he finally passed through the silver-haired and expensively-dressed ‘target’ had his window down giving regal waves to all the people going about their business.

Just past Sparta a road winds up the hillsde to another ruined Byzantine city. Mystra is very different to Monemvasia though and sympathetic restoration has provided some fascinating buildings to explore. Built in 1249 it became an important and densely populated fortress-state with houses, mansions, churches and fortified monasteries behind 3 rings of defensive walls. A cultural and intellectual centre for Byzantium, it was closely linked to Constantinople and although largely destroyed in wars people were still living in parts of it until the 1950’s when its importance as a historic site was recognised and they were relocated.

At the lower gate the staff recommend you do the lower half then drive up to the upper gate. But we got sucked in to the place and despite the heat we ended up walking through the entire site to the citadel high above. We spent 3 hours exploring. The Metropolis with it’s small cathedral, spectacular frescoes and, set into the floor, a marble slab of the double-headed eagle of Byzantium. Oh, and a little owl in the bell tower.

The small museum. Churches small and large scattered throughout the site – Evangelistria, Agio Theodori, the Hodgestria, Ayia Sofia and the fortified Perviveptos – with more beautiful frescoes, marble floors and gold-covered icons. 

A long, hot climb through the Monemevasia Gate into the upper level and the large Despot’s Palace, roped off and sadly closed but well restored and givng a great sense of the past. After the Upper Gate the long climb to the citadel begins and you eventually pass through an archway to find something both more and less than you were expecting. Just low ruins but on a summit with stunning 360 degree views. And even better, we knew everything was now down hill!

Down through the Pandanassa convent with more stunning frescoes, still home to 5 nuns whose love for gardening has filled the courtyard with flowers – roses, geraniums, bougainvillea and many more.

Inside Pandanassa Convent

We were really glad we had done it all but were definitely ready for a rest so we drove down to the coast, to the top of the Mani penisula and a campsite on the beach with a beautiful pool. This time we were intending to sit still for a whole week!