Kalamata: visiting Sparta, Mystras & Messene
We are still in Kalamata having taken the opportunity to hire a car for 2 days to see some of the ancient ruins and fabulous scenery that this area has in abundance. On Friday we drove the 60 km or so from here to Sparta, a route which goes through the Taygetos Mountains and the Langada Gorge and our guidebook describes as “one of the most stunning routes in Greece”. The views were terrific although it was sad to see much of the mountainsides covered in dead trees from the devastating forest fires they had over a decade ago. We got lost in the busy streets of modern Sparta but eventually found the remains of the ancient city in lovely peaceful countryside just outside the town. The ancient theatre was very atmospheric with lots of inscriptions on the stones and an acropolis higher up. We loved the spot and the fact that we had it to ourselves, even though the guidebook described the ruins as “meagre”.
Ancient Sparta: Acropolis & theatre with Taygetos mountains behind.
From Sparta we drove on to the remains of the famed Byzantine city of Mystras which is now a World Heritage site and tumbles down the mountainside from a castle on the peak. The town represented a late flowering of Byzantine splendour in the 13th-15th centuries and has several amazing churches covered in frescoes. In one church they depicted the grizzly deaths of martyrs so graphically and clearly still, that it almost made us feel queasy. It made for quite a challenging day climbing up and down the mountainside in very high temperatures and we were very glad to get back in the air-conditioned car.
Mystras: pictures of ancient & haunting beauty
After a night back on the boat, we set off again yesterday in the other direction and toured the remains of ancient Messini. This city was built in the 4th century BC as one of several defensive positions designed to keep watch over the defeated Spartans. It had a huge outer wall which stretched for 9km around the ridges enclosing the town and reminded us a little of a section of the Great Wall of China! One of the gates in the wall is still pretty impressive with enormous stone blocks at its base and other blocks teetering on top of each other and looking close to collapse. The remains of the city itself are quite extensive and include a magnificent stadium, two theatres and several temples. The Romans had inherited the site and adapted it to their requirements and there were some good mosaics too.
On route back we made use of the car to do a big stock up at a couple of out of town supermarkets. We usually have to tramp the streets with our rucksacks bulging for shopping needs, so it is a treat to bulk buy the essentials – wine and beer figure prominently as you might expect. Later in the day we also explored some distance down the west side of the Mani peninsular (Kalamata stands at its northern end). We stopped for an ice-cream in the pretty little town of Kardamyli after driving through another spectacular gorge and ended up at the village of Stoupa which is where Kazantzakis, author of “Zorba the Greek” lived for a while.
We have also walked the length of this city and enjoyed the views of the mountains from the waterfront. It’s a likeable and properly Greek town and not full of tourists which is a bonus. The place was devastated by an earthquake in 1986 and before that was neglected by the state for decades, so it has only recently begun to blossom a bit. The large port is now no longer in use except for a few fishing boats but there is plenty of bustle in the streets, along the beach front and in the evenings around the harbourside tavernas. Tomorrow we hope to move on down the coast and we are looking forward to leaving the airless conditions of the marina in the present heat. It is always cooler to be at anchor, but these occasional marina stops are necessary for provisioning etc. Plus it’s the only time the clothes get ironed (yes first mate does like to do a bit of ironing when she can), as we have shore power!