Pantanassa Monastery, Mystras
From my hotel window this morning
I have missed two days’ swimming to come to Mystras . . . and it has been worth the sacrifice. Yesterday I had a tremendous bus ride over the Langada Pass to Sparta, and this morning I had an early breakfast to get to Mystras soon after opening time and spent more than three hours there. (It’s a BIG site.)
It’s also absolutely wonderful (apart from the fear of tripping or twisting my ankle as I roamed). The buildings that have survived/been restored are mostly churches, the palace and the castle walls: houses and shops are mere outlines of rubble. But the frescoes . . . it’s like going into the Arena Chapel each time! Ottoman whitewash may have saved them for us.
Founded in 1249 by the Frank, Villehardouin, Mystras fell to the Byzantines in 1262. From then until its capture by the Ottomans in 1460, seven years after the fall of Constantinople, it was an important centre of Byzantine influence and culture. It’s a fortified city: the castle at the top as the last line of defence, with the upper and lower towns as buffers. Before its capture it was the seat of the Despotate of the Morea (i.e. the Peloponnese), and it flourished culturally and intellectually at the Constantinople/Europe intersection. Even after it fell to the Ottomans it was inhabited until the nineteenth century.
My first stop was the Metropolis which, in addition to its surviving frescoes, has a beautifully decorative floor:
The Hodegetria – part of one of a number of oddly “urban” fortified monasteries – made me see the nave as bubble-wrapped inside the many side chapels which enveloped it. Quite cosy – almost womb-like.
Next came Aghios Nikolaos, which was built and decorated during the Ottoman years. Its frescoes were less colourful and more rigid than the other churches’. Aghia Sophia, further up, was more impressive – AND had a great view:
At this point I was at the upper gate and joined a large group of elderly Greek tourists on the trek up to the castle. A few complained of dodgy knees . . . but most of them skipped up and down faster than my cautious, ponderous pace, despite some “unsuitable” footwear.
The temporary highlight of the morning was the Pantanassa (i.e. Virgin Mary) Monastery, which is still lived in by nuns. The courtyard below the church was a riot of flowers, and the church itself was a riot of frescoes that had cast off the stiffness of traditional Byzantine painting.
I say “temporary” because it’s a dead heat between Pantanassa and the church of the Peribleptos Monastery (painted second half of the fourteenth century) which is built into the rock. That was just astonishing (if reminiscent of a full body tattoo). The Virgin Mary looms large again, and the nativity scene is definitely my favourite: a flowing dark blue line at the heart of the painting.
If you are tired of frescoes, there’s always the view of the Sparta plain and the Parnonas mountains:
I returned to Sparta in the afternoon. After a morning of high culture, I feel I should mention that this is the square where, in 1992, I learned of the death of Benny Hill; we were dining in a restaurant where the television was showing clips of his shows, and we puzzled over the significance of this until we bought The Guardian (a day after publication as usual in those slow-news days).
Modern Sparta is very workaday – although I was pleased to see that its streets are still lined with orange trees. A little more of ancient Sparta has been uncovered since my last visit, and enclosed within a perimeter fence. The amphitheatre (20BC?) takes a little imagination
but it works. The agora is a reminder (it’s awfully easy to forget) just how deeply bustling towns get buried after a millennium or so:
From the site of ancient Sparta you have a good view of the old and the new:
and the new Sparta traffic is definitely going to keep me awake for much of tonight!