The route from Kalamata to Sparti zig zags down one breathtaking, limestone gorge, up the foothills of the Taygetos on a road that has cracked and collapsed in many places after a winter of snow and heavy rain, through dark forests and past a deserted cafe at the crest, then cuts down through the even more dramatic Langarda gorge, where great plane trees at the base look insignificant beneath the towering cliffs. There are constant views of mountain summits to the south, snow-capped and forbidding.
On exiting the gorge, the side road from Tripi hugs the hillside and Mystras suddenly appears around a bend as layers of crumbling fortifications, churches and great red-roofed buildings on a small conical hill above a plain where the modern city sprawl of Sparti shines white in the sun and the smoke of tens of bonfires made from olive prunings hangs heavy in the air. As the road meanders on past villages and houses on the hillside that look out across the plain, it is clear that a home grown, tourism industry has evolved with advertisements for cherished views across the valley to the old city, car parking and refreshments. The small village of Mystras beneath the ancient city is totally devoted to the many summer visitors with hotels, restaurants and widened roads to bring in the coaches.
The rise and fall of Mystras tells of a history ‘in the middle’; like the rest of Greece and the Balkans, the Peloponnese lies between Christian west and Muslim east. The hilltop location was required for defence but the perfect topography did not prevent a succession of takeovers and episodes of occupation; the citadel at the summit was built by the Franks in 1249, then quickly lost to the Byzantine Empire to become the capital of the Despotate of Morea (Peloponnese) for 200 years. This was Mystras’ golden age; a period of construction, of palaces, monasteries and further fortifications lower down the slopes, coupled with cultural freedoms that enabled many achievements, most notably through the presence of the philosopher Plethon and his students. The writings of Plethon at Mystras, formed a principal foundation for the Italian Renaissance.
In the mid 15th Century after the fall of Constantinople, the Ottomans first conquered the Balkans then Greece. The Peloponnese was absorbed and Mystras became nothing more than a provincial capital. The Ottoman Empire fought bloody wars with the Republic of Venice for control of the region during much of the the 17th century and it was held by the Venetians from 1687 but only for 30 years. The Ottomans finally relinquished control in 1821 to the newly established kingdom of Greece. After which, during the relative peace of the rest of the 19th century, the first king, Otto (a Bavarian prince installed by the Great Powers) reestablished the town of Sparti on the plain below, which was no more than a village, and from 1834 Mystras was gradually abandoned leaving just one convent of nuns. Today it’s complex of empty medieval buildings is preserved, restored and admired; it is tranquil and spectacular; and the turbulent and at times brilliant past speaks eloquently of the future.