Today my plan is ambitious – to travel about 200 km southwest to the next city – Gytheio – where we will spend two nights and on the way to visit Mystras and Monemvasia, two locations with rich history from the Byzantine period. The main road passes through Sparta, where we have to deviate for about 10 kilometers to reach Mystras.
Like Mycenae, today’s Sparta (Sparti) is very different from its ancient predecessor. The modern city was built with materials stolen from the ruins of Mystras, which in turn was built with materials stolen from the ruins of ancient Sparta (what an irony). The statue of Leonid, which quite overrated on the Internet and the ruins of the ancient city, which are not very well preserved, can not justify stopping for more than 10 minutes in modern Sparta.
I take in the direction of Mystras without further ado. The ancient city is located on the slopes of a very impressive rock, behind which rise the even higher mountain peaks of Taygetos Mountain. Exactly how steep the rock in question is, becomes clear when you start crawling up between the ruins. And since apparently most tourists can not cope with the climb to the top, 2 parking lots are cleverly designed – upper and lower, with a distance between them of about 2 km, so that more people can physically visit both the low and high part of one of the ancient capitals of Byzantium. Even with this facilitation, in my opinion, only a few climb to the highest point – the fortification at the top of the hill, especially when it is 14:00 at noon and the air temperature is about 42 degrees.
Mystras was built in 1248-49 by the Frenchman Guillaume II Villardouin, prince of the Principality of Morea, who represented the Latin Empire in this part of the world. However, he failed to enjoy his creation for long, because he was captured in 1262 by the Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Palaeologus and in order to redeem his freedom, was forced to hand over Mystras together with Monemvasia in Byzantine possession. During the Byzantine rule Mystras experienced a great architectural and cultural rise. Most of the churches here are from this exact period and they are extremely well preserved.
On May 30, 1460, the troops of Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror captured the fortress. It was briefly again under Christian rule from 1687 to 1715, when it was conquered by Francesco Morosini’s Venetians. Yes, the same Morosini who blew up the Parthenon in 1687. In 1715, the Ottomans recaptured the Peloponnese and Mystras. In 1835 the city was captured by the Greek rebels and destroyed by Egyptian troops, and 4 years later it was finally liberated.
Despite the devastation of hostilities and the removal of material back to Sparta for the construction of the modern city by King Otto (Otton), Mystras is extremely well preserved and in 1989 was declared a UNESCO site.
I photograph at will the ruins, the churches, the beautiful panorama of Sparta and the surrounding agricultural lands. The only enthusiasts in the heat who crawl up the slopes are curious French families and several elderly couples. Only at 17:00, when we are at the end of the tour of the upper town, a large tourist group with a guide appears. They know very well when to bring people here I take one last panoramic photo from the road, framing the hill with the inaccessible citadel at the top, make an unsuccessful attempt for a drone flight and go back in the car, because Monemvasia is waiting for us.
The distance from Mystras to Monemvasia is only 85 km, but driving Tiny takes me 2 hours and 21 minutes. Of course, the road has its own peculiarities and limitations, which do not help us to move faster.
From te preliminary research, I know that it is pointless to try to get to the city gate by car, so I leave the vehicle in the public parking lot, next to the marina just after the bridge, that connects the piece of rock, perched in the middle of the sea, to the mainland. I pack my backpack with the photo equipment and we continue on foot.
The distance from the car park to the entrance of the Lower Town (here there is also the division of Lower and Upper Town) is about 1 km and with normal walking takes for about 10-15 minutes, as one constantly has to make way for cars that are desperately trying to find a parking space in this strip of road. It is almost 20:00 and many people have targeted coming by car for dinner in the Old Town, with minimal walking, but the demand is much more than the supply. As I make my way to the city walls, I can’t take my eyes off the huge rock, bathed in the setting sun and framed like a halo by the remains of the fortress walls.
I’m in a hurry to catch the best light for both photos and drone footage, so I head straight for the Upper Town. I wouldn’t say that there are a lot of signposts, so rather with intuition and luck I guess the right combination of turns left and right on the narrow streets to take me to the stairs, leading to the plateau. The climb is not that long, nor very tiring, but from time to time I stop shooting the panorama to the Lower city and the open sea, so it takes me about 15 minutes.
Groups of tourists, apparently also determined to catch the sunset at the top of the cliff, confidently walk up the polished stone paths. The ones I meet who are already going back to the Lower Town, definitely step quite cautiously, most of them wearing their summer flip flops and sandals, which are not the most suitable shoes for walking through the stony ruins above.
After I pass a series of gates and low vaulted rooms (probably designed to protect the city from attacks) I emerge on a of platform with a view of the open sea and the Lower Town, hidden among the rocks. I take a few quick pictures and head to the center of the plateau, with the idea to find a spot with the best possible signal for a panoramic tour around the rock with the drone. I find a place relatively sheltered from the wind among the low succulents, and the gusts of wind are already quite strong (after all, we are in the middle of the sea) and this time I finally managed to take off with the drone.
I take panoramic photos, fly from end to end several times, but I get warnings of strong winds on my RC and honestly I don’t feel like taking it deep enough into the sea to catch a good panorama of the rock and the land behind it. I’m not happy with the result at all, but this is the situation, I don’t have the gits to risk it. Also I am quite aware that if a seagull decides that the drone is bothering it a lot, it will have no problem takinh it down and dropping it into the water. I land with slight difficulty due to the strong wind, which generates powerful gusts even close to the ground, and a family of French tourists passing by look at me with interest.
The plateau is dotted with ruins, but I prefer to stick to the paths, because in the chapter on Monemvasia Rick Steves explicitly warns of the danger of falling into an ancient cistern or just falling through the weathered rocks on the periphery of the plateau, which can be quite unpleasant and with fatal consequences. The sun has already set very low and bathes the ruins of the Upper Town in perfect light for photos. The well-preserved church “St. Sofia ”, built in the XNUMXth century, which literally landed on the edge of the rock is also bathed in brilliant reddish light and I take my shots.
The history of Monemvasia is extremely rich and the city has changed many masters over its long history. The first settlers were Byzantine fugitives from the invasions of Avars and Slavs in the VI-VII centuries. The settlement was formed around 583 during the reign of Emperor Maurice Tiberius. The city was at the center of numerous attacks by the Arabs and for this purpose was further fortified in 878, and in 1147 was besieged by the Sicilian Normans, but managed to repel this attack. Guillaume II Villardouin (already known to us from the history of Mystras) besieged it for 3 years and in 1248 managed to capture it, but in 1262 he returned it to Byzantium together with Mystras.
Monemvasia outlived Constantinople during the Ottoman invasion and unlike Mystras did not fall under Turkish rule in 1460, but became part of the Venetian Empire. The Italians lost the city in 1540, and in 1690 regained it. For most of the 1821th century, Monemvasia was within the borders of the Ottoman Empire, and in 1821, after a three-month siege, the city was liberated and passed into Greek hands.
With the last rays of the sun, all tourists, with few exceptions, have left the Upper Town. I indulge in undisturbed photoshoot of the ruins reddened by the sunset, and the tufts of dry-loving weeds and thorns create a unique atmosphere of something ancient and long forgotten.
The lower town is already bathed in street lighting and crowded with tourists, looking for a free table for dinner. Passing with difficulty with the crowds that fill the narrow medieval streets and restaurants with a modern ambience, I head to the city gate and the one-kilometer walk to the car. The traffic on the narrow tarmac road has by no means decreased, and as I make my way to the headlights gleaming in front of me and behind me, I say goodbye to the darkened sea and the overhanging cliffs.
Already in the dark and quite tired from the day full of ancient history, we drive to our next stop for 2 nights – Gytheio, and the distance of 65 km takes us 1 hour 30 minutes night driving. Gytheio is a small port town that proved to be extremely popular at this time of year, probably due to its proximity to the Mani Peninsula, making it a convenient base camp for day trips around the peninsula. Aktaion City Hotel, in which we booked a room, is located on the promenade opposite the port.
Despite the late hour, there is a lot of traffic. The receptionist theatrically shrugs at my question about where it’s most convenient to park around and advises me, with a mixture of irony and pride that she works in such a popular destination, to drive around until I find a place: “It’s not easy these days.” On the other hand, she provides us with a long list of options for what our breakfast could consist of (and she advices us to check all the options if we want) and where we like to have breakfast, with the options of: first floor, the garden on the second floor or in the hotel room, all of this included in the price of the room.
The room itself has a nice small terrace with a table, two chairs and a view of the harbor and the alley below, but except in the evening and early morning, the temperatures on the open facade without awnings, exactly in this time of the year do not predispose to long stay on the terrace.
I manage to find a parking spot in the far corner of the port, a 7-8 minute walk from the hotel. Apparently in small port towns in Peloponnese this is the only possible solution in response to the influx of tourists. At least parking is free.
It’s almost 23pm, but according to the receptionist, if we don’t loose too much time wandering around, we have a chance to have dinner at one of the taverns in the harbor. We choose the only free table in Nautilia, where we eat decently, watering dinner with homemade wine and once again we have to explain that we are not Italians.