Mystras

The secrets of the castle

One of the most debated issues of our childhood was the existence of a time machine and of course the query about where we would like to go if there was one. If your answer was <in Byzantium>, you may not have known it back then, but especially for you a time machine existed, and there is. It is Mystras.

This wonderful Byzantine fortress, 5 kilometers outside of Sparta, has been preserved unchanged over the centuries. Where the last emperor was crowned, Constantine "who lost it", Constantine Palaeologos, on the same carved, double-headed eagle that was the emblem of his family, you will stand too. There, where residents and rulers of the Despotate of Morea gazed at the Evrotas Valley, you will also climb to admire the panoramic view. On the same cobblestone streets that people walked about 700 years ago, you would also walk yourself.

Historic background

The castle of Mystras was built in 1249 by Willem II Villehardouin, son of Geoffrey, French leader of one of the Crusades (the fourth, specifically) and later the first Prince of Achaia. Willem fought the Byzantines and lost, he was captured by Michael Palaeologus, and in order to be liberated he gave the emperor three castles: Maine, Monemvasia and Mystras. The Byzantines made Mystras headquarter of the “Sevastocrator”, the general who governed the Peloponnese, in 1262. And so the fortress city you see today was the capital of the entire Peloponnese.

A small geographic guide of the fortress city

The hill on which the castle was built (you would call it rock if there was not so green) is one of the mountain slopes of Taygetos. It rises at 634 meters, and it is so strange that some researchers say that its original name, “Mizithras”, refers to the irregular shape of a Greek cheese that we call “mizithra”. The natural plateaus at its top, where the castle was built, and the north side, where the palaces exist even today, make the place look like it was made for someone to come here and build such a castle.



Mystras is today an entire archaeological site, not inhabited like Monemvasia
There are two entrances, which is very convenient for those who do not have the required strength to climb the steep uphill road from the lower city to the top where the palaces are located. The main entrance leads to the southern part of the castle, from which the upper entrance, known as the Castle Gate, is just a few minutes driving - the same ticket is valid for multiple entrances, from both gates throughout the day.
The lower city and its churches

Before touring the stone-built creeks of Mystras, let's say that from the buildings of the castle-fortress that are maintained still today, the overwhelming majority are churches - although there are also houses and mansions, the most impressive of which are Laskaris and Frangopoulos Houses. The Byzantines, as you will probably know, were deeply religious, and their architecture nowhere finds better expression than in their churches. There’s no wonder, therefore, that the most popular attraction of the fortress is its Cathedral. This depends, of course, not only on the architecture but also in history: Here the emperor was crowned on 12th  March 1449 by Constantine Palaeologus, who would become the last emperor four years later and second Constantine as the well-known legend follows (Constantine built it, Constantine lost it, etc.).

Other churches of the lower city worth visiting are: Virgin Hodegetria, the frescoes of which were created in 1312. The Peribleptos Monastery, which was built by the first bishop of Mystras, Manuel Kantakouzenos. Pantanasa Monastery which is the last church constructed in Mystras. The church of Pantanasa is still operating nowadays as a monastery for women. The Church of Agioi Theodoroi which is the biggest and the oldest church of the fortress and in its frescoes is included the portrait of Michael Palaeologus. Finally, the little church of Evangelistria that is famous for its impressive inner sculptural decoration.

Right next to the Cathedral, the small museum of Mystras is one of the most well-designed museums in Peloponnese, with the purple and fuchsia shades that the Byzantines loved to dominate the explanatory inscriptions that accompany the exhibits and describe everyday life, arts that have made life interesting in fortress. Among the exhibits are found jewels, traditional costumes and a pony tail of a lady’s hair (!) living during that era that is preserved, the handmade Gospels with calligraphic lyrics and the reproduction of a dress of the era and the accompanying shoes.

The rest of the archaeological site is fully signed, with signs that analyze the layout of the fortress, the everyday life of its inhabitants, the religious ceremonies that they loved so much, the battles that threatened them, the trade that made them rich, and the close ties they kept with Istanbul.

Walking around the castle

It is strange to talk about a castle when Mystras, in most people’s mind, is a whole castle. In other words, the archaeological site as a whole is a castle city, and the castle is just ... the castle that crowns it, in its highest part. You can reach the place, as we have said, in two ways: Either walking from the lower town, whether you are a sportsman or driving to the top parking lot, and then passing the Castle Gate, which functions as the second entrance of the archaeological site.

This second route sounds much easier than it really is, as it even requires ten minutes climbing up the walls of the castle. The route, however, on the stone-built path that flows between dense vegetation and the magnificent view from the top of the hill to the plain of Sparta will be totally rewarding.

In the upper part of the hill lies, besides the castle, the impressive church of Agia Sophia, built around 1350 by Manuel Kantakouzenos, as well as the magnificent palaces of the despotates. It is really worth staying up here to the sunset time, to admire the Castle and the surrounding area bathed in the golden-red sunlight that the Byzantines loved so much.

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