Mystras is breathtaking. The small Greek village is filled with beautiful stone houses, and perched high above the town is the Byzantine castle Mystras is famous for. It’s just a five minute drive from the town of Sparta, which is a lovely town in itself with a well-known history. Mystras is well-hidden in the Peloponnese, and quite a journey to reach by KTEL bus from Athens, a four hour bus ride away. On my first visit to Mystras, I went to see the beautiful Byzantine Castle.
The Castle is actually an old town that is famous for its Byzantine churches, and is protected by Byzantine walls. The palace is perched on top of the hill, affording the visitor 360 degree views of the surrounding area, mountains and valleys. Misty clouds cover the peaks of the nearby mountains, and snow is visible at their highest peaks.
The Byzantine churches on site are very impressive and the frescoes that remain inside are remarkable. The faded paint, applied directly onto the church roofs and walls, is well-preserved, as are the buildings themselves. They may be ruins but the ancient stones, the brickwork, the fact that some buildings still stand somewhat intact, is simply a testament to the importance of this historic site.
There were few visitors, with just a few others wandering around the site. One man sat atop the highest point of the castle, seemingly reading. I imagined that he was a historian, here to study the surroundings and read about the history of the area.
Alternatively occupied by Turks, Venetians, Byzantines, and then Greeks, Mystras has had a colourful history.
The ruins have plants growing across paths and within cracks. It’s a stark contrast to the grey stones of the buildings and ruins. The majority are little yellow flowers dotted amongst green grass and foliage, but other colours are present also, such as pinks, whites, and purples. It’s still a natural environment with the local flora making itself known amongst the ruins. The paths are over-grown but it simply adds to the authenticity. The ruins have been there for centuries, it’s only natural that the environment surrounding them will have made itself at home there also.
Like many places in Greece, Mystras also has a past bathed in battle and destruction. Alternatively occupied by Turks, Venetians, Byzantines, and then Greeks, it has had a colourful history and was built as a fortress in 1248-49. From 1262, Mystras was ruled by the Byzantines and enjoyed a period of great prosperity. The hill on which Mystras is built started to fill with stately mansions, palaces, houses, churches, and monasteries. In the 14th century, two families associated with Constantinople (present day Istanbul) ruled Mystras and it became an area proud of its culture. Arts, literature, and writing flourished. It then endured a number of attacks as battles came ever closer to its fortified walls, before being burned by the Albanians in 1770, which led to the abandonment of Mystras.
The modern village of Mystras is a lovely collection of houses with traditional architecture of stone and wood. They are a reminder of the old Mystras. The Metropolis, called Saint Dimitrios, remains, as does the Monastery of Vrontochion, Saint Sophia, Peribleptos, Evangelistria, Pantanassa, and the Despots’ palaces. There is also a museum that displays artistic works along with artefacts from the daily lives of the residents of Mystras. The castle and churches remain, and visitors are delighted with not just the preserved buildings, ancient architecture, remnants of frescoes, and churches which have withstood the test of time, but of the stunning view atop the 620 metre hill overlooking Sparta.
Mystras was a happy discovery, a discovery I am richer for having made. I fell in love with it from the first few minutes of being there. Hours of exploring the Byzantine castle later, my initial love had been cemented. If I had to choose one highlight it was ascending to one of the highest accessible points of the castle. The mountain scenery and views of Sparta and beyond are simply magical. You can see how far you have come from the castle entrance and feel the sense of history exuded from the site.