Mystras, Sparta, & the Castro

Day V:  Today was a busy day – at least until about 3:00, because the Greeks don’t do much of anything after 3:00.  We woke up early to go to Mystras, an impressive Byzantine fortress built on a steep hill about three kilometers outside of Sparta.  (In fact, the fortress was constructed in large part from stones obtained by knocking down a whole bunch of the buildings of ancient Sparta.)  Mystras was a full walled city at one point, a secular and ecclesiastical ruling seat that spent a lot of its time trying not to get taken over by the Turks (they failed, in the end).

We first went up to the central fort at the very top and walked around the battlements.  You can really get a sense of what it would’ve been like to defend an ancient town – the wall still has arrow slits, murder holes, watchtowers, and sentry posts.  It was especially fun to wander around this monument because there were almost no “don’t go here, it’s dangerous, you’ll fall down or ruin something” signs – so you could walk on the walls and poke around at will.

Mystras also has multiple Byzantine churches that still have frescos from the 1300s.  I’m not a fan of Byzantine art (and Prescott’s not a fan of long visits to old churches), but it was pretty amazing to see paintings on every wall that have lasted this long.  We went to at least four churches, two of which are still in operation today, and one of which is attached to a working convent.  I got my first view of a nun’s room!  There were framed icons all over the wall, but otherwise, it was as small and simple as one might expect (I didn’t take a photo – it didn’t seem respectful).  There was also a donkey tied up outside one of the churches, which was a little mysterious, but I liked having my own small petting zoo (if you count the cats and kittens at the convent).

George also found us an almond tree, and we all bashed the almond fruits with rocks and ate fresh almonds.  So cool!

After about three hours at Mystras (at which point one of us was tired of churches, one of us really needed to find a WC, and both of us were pretty hot), we drove down through some pretty villages to the Museum of the Olive and Olive Oil in Sparta.  It’s a really nice museum, new, manageable, and with signage in both Greek and English.  We now know about all of the different ways to press olive oil.  Thank goodness for technology – many Greek farmers were still using ancient technology (using rocks or homemade hand- or animal-driven presses) to do their pressing all the way up till the 1970s.

Lunch was at a basement restaurant in Sparta, at a place that I would describe as a working-man’s cafeteria on a very small scale.  I was dubious when we walked in, but the food was excellent – my okra in red sauce and eggplant stuffed with rice were outstanding.  We then walked around Sparta briefly (making our way through the few stalls of a farmers market that was just closing).  The new city of Sparta was designed in the mid-1800s, so it has wide boulevards on a square plan.  The architecture is mostly boxy, four-story buildings with no character.  But the streets were lively with people, and there are lots of shops, so it was a fun walk.

Our last stop was the statue of Leonidas (leader of Ancient Sparta and hero of the Battle of Thermopylae and the ruins of ancient Sparta.

The ruins are mostly of the ancient Roman variety, the best of which is a theater framed by a backdrop of olive trees and the cityscape of Sparta (which is pretty if you squint).  I like that when you go see ruins here, there are centuries-old marble columns and plinths and blocks just strewn about randomly – the sorts of things that, were you in the US, would be swept off to a museum (or at least labeled with some kind of explanatory signage).  But they seem to have so many ancient bits and pieces here that they just lie about.

We returned to the house just in time to see thunder clouds rolling over the hills – thunder clouds that have now turned into a real thunderstorm, with lightning sparking over the olive trees and thunder reverberating back down the valley. This storm doesn’t have the heavy rain and wind we have in Baltimore, but the hillsides make for some great sound effects.  And I suspect everyone here is thankful for the steady rain – we’ve been told it’s been a very dry summer.

This evening we had a tour of the top part of the village of Koumani courtesy of Lizta, our local translator.  I wish we spoke more Greek – George is an amazing font of knowledge, and I know we’re missing a lot in not being able to communicate more fully.  George walked us up (through scraggly brush) to the local “castro,” or fortress, on the hill above the village.  So beautiful – the sun setting over the mountains behind us, the moon rising over the sea, acres and acres of olive groves in between.  I could’ve stayed there for hours.

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