Mysteries of Mystras

Mystras is an ancient Byzantine city located about eight kilometers from the town of Sparti and Ancient Sparta. While not as well known as Sparta, what remains is far more impressive. Located on the top of a mountain for defensive purposes, it served as the capital of the Byzantine holdings in the area during the 14th and 15th centuries. After that it passed through a few hands, notably the Venetians (from 1687-1715) and the Ottoman Empire. According to Lonely Planet, it is “one of the most important historical sites in the Peloponnese.”

Ruins from the top of the castle at Mystras
Ruins from the top of the castle at Mystras

The town is split into three main sections: the lower town, the upper town and the fortress (castle). If you visit, I would recommend starting at the Fortress Gate at the top and walking (or driving) down to the lower part to avoid having to walk back up. Even from the Fortress Gate, the hike to the top of the mountain where the remains of the castle are is brief but steep. The view from the castle ruins is amazing – not only can you see the ruins from the other parts of the town, you can also look out over the rows and rows of olive and orange trees, to modern Sparti and Ancient Sparta, and the mountains that shield the settlement on the other side.

Wandering down the hill, we came across a number of beautiful buildings and lots of remains of what were surely beautiful buildings a mere 700 years ago. A majority of the ruins have been restored and many are still in good shape. There are several churches, a palace (currently closed for restoration), as well as a number of walls and built terraces to keep everything (and everyone) in their place. The museum is small but worth a quick look.

View from the castle at Mystras, looking out towards Sparta
View from the castle at Mystras, looking out towards Sparta

Restoration work has been underway since the 1950s. The ruins were named a World Heritage Site in 1989, including the castle, the palace, the churches and the monasteries. One of the monasteries, the Monastery of Pantanassa is still functioning. When we visited, we mostly saw cats but we did see one nun (who then tried to sell us some dish towels). The modern town of Mystras caters heavily to visitors, with many tavernas and small shops and is located just down the hill about two kilometers.

This site is well worth a visit if you are in the Peloponnese. While it might not have the name recognition of Sparta, the ruins are in much better shape and there are great signs explaining the city and the buildings, as well as about life in the Byzantine Era in general. Mystras is well worth the 5 Euro entrance fee.

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