© Dr D. James Sahlas
A Greek revival
A family vacation to the Laconia region lets an Ontario MD revisit his roots
The Laconia region in the southern Peloponnese is a crucible of human drama. Rugged mountainsides cradle a broad, fertile river valley, birthplace to Helen of Troy and centuries later, the warrior culture of ancient Sparta. Remnants of bygone empires —Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman — lie scattered everywhere, stacked one atop the other. My family is from here, and my siblings and I have kept returning since the summers of our youth, nowadays with our own young families in tow.
This is a corner of Greece well worth visiting, not only during the summer months, but also in spring or the warm afterglow of a Mediterranean autumn. Last October witnessed a record-breaking spike in tourists, welcoming the highest numbers for that month ever as Greek tourism continues to rebound.
Ancient Sparta was comprised of a cluster of settlements. Its kings didn’t construct any monumental architecture, so little evidence remains of its past glory. By the late Roman era, the city of Lacedaemonia had emerged at the centre of the Spartan plain, although it fell beneath the onslaught of barbarian invasions after the collapse of the Roman Empire. The ruined city was repopulated during the Middle Ages, but diminished in importance when the nearby settlement of Mystras became the new capital of the Peloponnese during subsequent periods of Byzantine and Ottoman rule.
The modern town of Sparti was founded in 1834, following the Greek War of Independence. Today, its population numbers around 20,000 and it serves as the economic hub of the Laconian plain. There is a weekly farmer’s market on Wednesdays, but in the summertime everything shuts down by midafternoon for the requisite siesta. This is followed hours later by a surprisingly active nightlife, as families emerge for an after-dinner stroll, and young people from the surrounding villages converge upon the trendy bars and dance clubs.
Driving in Sparti can be a hair-raising experience: there are two frenetic roundabouts in place of any traffic lights. My wife is from Boston and even she has never seen anything like it. But, despite the madness, there’s a sleepy charm in its broad central square surrounded by coffeehouses. This is the place we come to enjoy a frappé — Greek iced coffee, whipped up like a milkshake and best enjoyed glyco me gala with milk and sugar — while lounging under the shady umbrella of a cushioned patio chair.
The Archeological Museum of Sparta (71 Osiou Nikonos Street; admission €2) is one of the oldest museums in modern Greece. Established in 1876, most of the exhibits date from the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Its tranquil grounds are the perfect escape from the noise and confusion of the busy town, and are a favourite spot for an ice cream break.
If you can survive the traffic, head for the small hillside covered in olive trees behind the impressive statue of King Leonidas. This is the acropolis of the ancient Roman city, where you’ll likely find yourself wandering alone among the half-excavated ruins. From here, one is better able to appreciate the grandeur of the surrounding mountains, dominated by the summit Taygetus to the southwest, lumbering 2407 metres into the heavens. Squint and you can make out a distant foothill covered with ruins. This is Mystras.
High on Mystras
For years now, I’ve been fascinated with the story of the Frankish noblemen who briefly ruled in medieval Greece. Born in Kalamata, Guillaume de Villehardouin was the son of a crusader from the Champagne region in Northern France. His father became the ruler of the Peloponnese and established a short-lived Frankish dynasty. When Guillaume succeeded his older brother, he chose the craggy summit of Mystras for an impressive fortress to subdue the warlike Slavic tribes dwelling within the Taygetus range.
After the Byzantine Greeks won back the Peloponnese, they expanded the Frankish fortress, and constructed a palace and impressive churches, making Mystras the administrative centre of the region. It was here, at the dawn of the 15th century, that the final cultural flowering of Byzantium took place and where Constantine XI Palaiologos was hastily crowned as his millennium-old empire crumbled.
In Western Europe, the Byzantine diaspora contributed significantly to the Italian Renaissance. Back in the Peloponnese, four centuries of Ottoman rule followed. Mystras was one of the first towns to revolt in the Greek War of Independence of 1821. It was destroyed in the crushing reprisals that came after, rendering it a ghost town. Repopulation in the years that followed centred mainly in the newly established city of Sparti on the previous site of Roman Lacedaemonia.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989, Mystras is one of our favourite places to explore. Most visitors enter using the upper fortress gate, from where the strenuous hike to the Frankish castle is best completed prior to the intense heat of late morning.
The views of the Laconian plain from the summit are vertiginous, but exhilarating. My son and I made the ascent when he was only six-years-old and he has never forgotten it. There are numerous Byzantine-era churches to discover as one makes the circuitous descent, and a small monastic community of nuns welcome the penitent with refreshments. Bring enough water and a small picnic lunch, and it’s quite possible to spend much of the day among the sprawling, maze-like ruins.
My feisty nonagenarian grandmother still resides in the small, modern town of New Mystras located on the outskirts of the archeological site. One of my uncles converted an old guard tower that had been in the family for generations into a summer residence. It stands across the street from where the imposing statue of Constantine XI Palaiologos looms, brandishing a sword. On warm summer evenings, many of the locals sit around the little square near the statue, as the floodlit walls of the Frankish castle float serenely in the night sky, couched upon the blackness of the craggy summit. We often join them to discuss matters ranging far and wide, as bats swirl around the lamplights, drawn to their nightly feast of insects.
For those without relatives in the village, there’s Pyrgos Mystra (3 Manousaki; pyrgosmystra.gr; previous guests include British actor Ralph Fiennes. Alternatively, Guesthouse Mazaraki (Pikoulianika; xenonasmazaraki.gr; doubles from €85) in the nearby village of Pikoulianika is a truly memorable place to stay. The hotel is situated along a high ridge adjacent to the summit of the archeological site, the whole of the Spartan plain spread beneath it. The Veil Café Bistro and Chromata Restaurant are two of the finest nearby dining options.
Coasting through Laconia
As everyone knows, Greece is intimately linked to the sea. The southern coastal town of Gytheion served as the port of ancient Sparta, and likewise became an important Roman city in the centuries that followed. Today, the modern town of Gytheio features a broad promenade fronted by pastel-coloured neoclassical buildings. Rows of octopus hang drying in the sun, and the restaurants along the shore overlook the islet of Marathonisi, said to represent Homeric Cranae where Paris fled with Helen on their passage to Troy. There are several excellent beaches both north and south of town, and a variety of accommodations like Castello Antico Hotel (Mavrovouni Beach; castelloantico.com; April to October; doubles €80) along famed Mavrovouni Beach.
Gytheio is considered the gateway to the wild and remote Mani peninsula. Travelling westwards through a winding, hilly pass across the southern extension of the Taygetus range, you’ll reach the small mountain town of Areopoli on the other side. Continuing north is the stunning Bay of Itilo, where our favourite place to stay is Limeni Village (Limeni Areopolis; limenivillage.gr; doubles from €80). From there, one can travel north to Kalamata, even returning to Sparti eastward back across the mountains through the spectacular Langada Gorge.
To the south of Areopoli is a region called the Deep Mani, home to the half-submerged cave network of Diros. Gondoliers pole boatloads of visitors through the narrow, water-filled tunnels and subterranean chambers festooned with stalactites. One must eventually disembark and ascend back into the sunlight on foot. My wife and I have visited the caves before, but we experienced them anew on our trip last year with our son Ioannes, aged nine, and twin daughters Eleni and Sophia, aged seven, who were thoroughly fascinated. There is something otherworldly about floating upon the cool waters of an underground lake, and one cannot help but converse in hushed, reverential tones.
Far to the east, the Parnon mountain range descends towards another peninsula. Built on the seaward side of a monolithic rock, the well-preserved medieval town of Monemvasia lies ensconced, almost invisible from the mainland. Its rocky promontory was rendered an island after a huge earthquake in 375CE.
One’s first arrival to the town is always a magical experience. The single entrance does not permit automobiles on the narrow, sloping, cobblestone streets. My wife, Meg, learned on our last trip that wearing heels is not an option. Fortunately, we were able to find a pair of stylish Tsavalas sandals, handmade in Laconia, at one of the little shops a short distance from the main entrance. There are other places selling antiques, handmade jewellery and artwork, and there are quaint little restaurants, too.
There are accommodations in Monemvasia itself, but, on our last trip, we spent a couple of days at the remote yet luxurious Kinsterna Hotel (Agios Stefanos; kinsternahotel.gr; March to December; doubles from €135), a restored, centuries-old Ottoman mansion that opened just a few years ago. The Malea peninsula also boasts many first-rate beaches, like the white shores of Elafonisos, just over an hour away by car.
While there are many places worth visiting in Greece, Laconia beckons with its natural beauty and historical sites, not to mention the warmth and hospitality of its locals. In recent years, luxury accommodations and improved tourism infrastructure have emerged. Although this mountainous and remote southern region of the mainland is somewhat less accessible than the more famed Greek islands, there’s the promise of plenty new discoveries to entice to any discerning traveller.
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