The Rambling Writer’s Greek Travels, Part 13: The Byzantine City of Mystras

This series started on Oct. 15 and continues every other Saturday. I’m taking a trip back in time to my 4-month backpacking rambles around Greece in the early 1980s, which planted the seed for my recent novel The Ariadne Connection. Now, as I work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect, I’m reflecting on the ways a writer’s experience can be transformed into fiction. I hope you find the journey illuminating, or at least entertaining. Sadly, most of my photos from the trip were lost; these below are borrowed.

 When I emerged from the shadowy spell of the flooded caverns of Pyrgos Dirou in the Peloponnese, I blinked in the shock of afternoon sunlight like Persephone released from the underground into the upper world once more. Jim and I then hiked to Pyrgos town to catch the last bus to Githio and a budget hotel. Nightfall brought another thunderstorm with barrels of rain (emphasis from my journal, which also notes that we tore the thin packaging film off the bottom of our mattress to make “fashionable” rain ponchos in order to dash through the streets in search of a restaurant for dinner).

The next morning we caught an early bus to Sparti, the rather ugly modern town in the valley of ancient Sparta. We then set out for the Byzantine city of Mystras on the highlands overlooking the valley. From my journal:

Mystras climbs a steep mountainside above the lush plain of Sparti, walls and crumbling churches and palaces topped by a fortress on the peak. The foliage is the closest to a jungle we’ve seen in Greece. Everywhere, graceful maple-like trees spread broad limbs, and vines and flowers climb or tumble over the tops of jagged walls. Across the bright green hills and valley, the dark accents of narrow cypresses stand out like exclamation points.

 

Mystras was the last capital of the Roman Empire, which was split into Western and Eastern halves around 400 AD as it was weakening.  The Eastern capital was Constantinople (now Istanbul), where the Byzantine Empire flourished and gave rise to its influential style of building and art, while maintaining the Orthodox Church.  Byzantium retained its power until the Fourth Crusade in 1204, when Constantinople fell to the Crusaders, who built a castle fortress on the summit overlooking ancient Sparta. As those power struggles continued, the new Byzantine emperor recaptured Constantinople and lands west, including the new Crusader fortress of Mystras, which became the capital of the Morea (the region now called the Peloponnese).

The Byzantium culture continued to flourish until the Ottoman Turks captured and destroyed much of Constantinople in 1460. The remaining artists, writers, scientists, and builders of Mystras soon fled to Italy, bringing with them libraries and a wealth of their knowledge and cultural heritage that had a profound influence in the rise of the Renaissance. The city was occupied by the Turks, then the Venetians, until it was abandoned in 1832 in favor of the current Sparti settlement in the valley. Mystras is now uninhabited except for a nunnery, and has been declared a Unesco World Heritage site.

Like the magical medieval city of Monemvasia that I wrote about earlier, Mystras casts a lovely spell on the wanderer through its cobbled lanes.

The views from the walls made me want to launch off with the swallows rising and dipping in the mild breezes.

The Orthodox churches still guard elaborate embellishments and frescoes.

Greece is a country so teeming with historical riches of many eras, it’s impossible to grasp the layers even with several months to wander. I can hardly wait for my return trip this fall to explore further wonders. Chairete! Rejoice!

*****

You will find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here on alternate Saturdays. Sara’s newest novel from Book View Cafe was recently released in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction and recently a second Cygnus for Science Fiction.

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