Saturday, 29 December 2012

'This is Spartaaaaaa!': Exploring the ruins of Mycenae, Mystras and Sparta

It was remarkably difficult to plan our trip to Greece. For most countries, we have a few 'must-see' places, and leave the rest to chance. But for Greece, the number of 'must-sees' just kept rising and rising the more I thought about it. I could have spent months slowly ambling from site to site and still only scraped the surface of this historically rich country. With only 10 days, however, we had to formulate a plan. We picked seven key archaeological sites, roughly sketched out a driving route, booked a hire car, and decided to stop off at places in between that took our fancy. It will come of no surprise then that after touching down in Athens late on the first day, we got a good night's sleep and set off bright and extremely early the following morning to hit the road.

Our first stop was Mycenae, arguably one of the greatest kingdoms in Greek history. An imposing influence for over 400 years, the city is also wrapped up in legend, founded by the great mythological hero Perseus. Perfectly situated in a dramatic landscape, the thick walls of the citadel look out over the surrounding high rolling hills. Still early morning, we arrived well before the tour groups, and had the site almost to ourselves. Entering beneath the Lion Gate, towering majestically above me, was an amazing moment, the city opening out in front of us as we passed through.

Although the citadel lies heavily in ruins, individual rooms are identifiable and the location and high walls give a sense of the power once held there. Upon reaching the far end, we descended into the secret cistern - a series of wet, slippery stairs leading underground, an excursion that would have been a lot easier if we'd have thought to bring along a torch, rather than stumbling and sliding around in the dark.

After Mycenae, we travelled onwards to ancient Sparta, stopping off at Larissa Fortress on the way. I was surprised at how little attention is paid to this famous city - on arrival in modern Sparta we located the Leonidas statue without difficulty, but there was only one small sign directing us through an olive grove to the ruins of the city. Tumbled columns lay scattered next to inscribed blocks of stone, pale vines wrapped around their bulk as nature gradually reclaims the area. The theatre was the most discernible feature, still mostly standing if littered with cracks. Although a sense of abandonment hangs low over Sparta, I loved the whole site, and we spent much longer there than originally intended. With no-one else around, and no barriers or entrance gates in sight, it felt lost and ready to be explored. Clambering over stones, we ran our hands over deeply carved lettering, compared column styles and sat listening to the wind gently brushing through the olive trees. It was peaceful and very atmospheric (F was particularly pleased that we had the place to ourselves as I couldn't embarrass him with my near continuous shouts of 'Spartaaaaaa'). But the sun crept lower, and we had one final stop on our list.

Leaving ancient Greece temporarily behind, we moved forward into the Byzantine era at the fortress of Mystras, just south of Sparta. I wasn't sure what to expect from this collection of churches and palaces winding steeply up the side of a mountain, but was very impressed with what we found.

Numerous richly decorated buildings surround the path, their interiors an explosion of reds, greens, blues and golds, lavish with religious symbolism. The hike through the area was strenuous and seemingly never-ending - there were just too many churches, libraries and houses to do justice to. Towards the top, courtyards afforded incredible views back down the mountain, and scores of cats lay curled up in the late afternoon sun. It was the perfect end to a fabulous first day.  


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