Spurred on by our hassle and tourist free exploration of Monemvasia we wanted to take advantage of the opportunity and see the other ancient sites of Mystra , Sparta and Corinthos. Admittedly it was just me, Helen, who was enthused being the one who most enjoys looking at piles of stones!
Setting off from our serene, wild camping, place in Laconia early in the morning so that we were nearing the ancient site of Mystra before midday. As you near the contemporary town of Sparti it seems history has not left very much trace at all but once out of the town and into the hills you can pick out the ancient town of Mystra emerging from the trees on the hillside a continuation of the sandy coloured rock on which it sits.
As each switch back in the road brings you closer the scale becomes more apparent and you could see how 60,000 people could have lived here in the Byzantine hey day. As we turned one corner suddenly tens of cars and even a coach blocked our path as they shuffled into the car park, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. With relief we spotted the sign to the upper gate and an escape route through the waiting cars. Just a few more turns up the road another small car park was quieter and gave on to a wonderful vista over the roof tops of ancient Mystra below, across the vast plain covered in olive trees up to and beyond Sparti.
Entering here meant a short climb (about 15 minutes on large cobbled, stepped track through the pine trees) to the fort at the very top where it was refreshing to see that the ruined fort is left unrestricted by fences or rails for visitors to explore as they wish. We clambered up what remained of the stone steps onto the battlements to be rewarded with spectacular views. Retracing our steps back to explore the rest of the upper town, the outline of houses either side of the steep cobbled pathways and a couple of tumbling down churches with amazingly preserved frescos.
We explored for a few hours, as far as the main Palazzo, closed for restoration work which we could not rationalise at all not the fact that it was closed during the works but that the intention seems to be to restore it completely to its supposed former glory with new roof, windows and doors. We fear another Disney type ‘historical’ site will result preventing visitors from using literature and a little imagination to envisage what life could have been like and instead there will be one historian’s view permanently preserved.
Mystra is an amazing ancient site and certainly more than worthy of the 5€ entrance fee.
Onwards to find out if there was anything of ancient Sparta to see, having read that their philosophy was that it is ‘men not walls that make a kingdom’ we were not surprised to find very little indeed. The outline of a theatre and a handful of houses are being excavated at a tiny site north of town hidden behind the towns present day stadium with just one sign highlighting the site when we were within a few hundred metres. We wandered the edges of the ruins, just us and the archaeological team below slowly digging and scraping.
It was lunchtime but we were not hungry for the touristy looking restaurants at Mystra or for a potentially long search in sprawling, industrial feeling Sparti and so we carried on north towards Korinth and the next set of stones at the ancient site of Corinthos just an hour or so away. Adam could hardly contain his excitement!
As you approach the city of Corinth with the Aegean sea to its north and the Ionian sea to the east medieval Corinthos is quite difficult to spot at first. Its walls barely discernible from the rocky peak of the enormous tooth of rock that erupts sharply out of the plain. We followed the brown sign though following the track up and around the rock. Around the other side the ancient site of Corinthos reveals itself or at least its tall stone walls and enormous, intact gateway.
We parked in the empty patch of gravel below the gate and then saw the sign which told us that the site closed daily at 3pm, we’d missed it by half an hour. I ran up the cobbled way to the grand gate to get a closer look and the interior looks amazing, even Adam was impressed by this ancient site so we’ll have to re-visit on another trip.
We stood and marvelled at the view in the baking heat, from this vantage point it is clear to see how the location of Corinth’s would have made it pivotal to trade between east and west, the link between Aegean and Ionian seas before the Corinth canal was built in the 1800s.
We were about to leave when a Spanish Ducati pulled up next to us and the rider took his helmet off, looked at our registration plate and said haltingly ‘Is Clozedd?’ Yes, at 3 we explained and only open again tomorrow. He looked very dejected and extremely hot as he told us that he had ridden from Athens, via Mystra, to see Corinth today. We chatted for a while to Roberto about his 16 day trip from Bilbao to Athens alone on his motorbike, about his and our previous two-wheeled adventures and exchanged contact details so that if Adam and I are ever in Santander or north of Spain we can meet again.
In strange contrast to the ancient site of Corinthos, close to Korinth on the Ionian coast a strange mix of oil refineries, expensive looking, large homes and hotels line the coast either side of the Corinth canal. We found a quiet and tired looking campsite with a nice beach and swam in the surprisingly clean and calm waters before heading out for a wonderful yet melancholy evening in the nearby, sadly quiet, taverna where the owners talked to us about their concern that no help from EU would mean their business will not survive.
Again we did our best to support them but our heads regretted it in the morning. We had been spell-bound by Greece not just the ancient sites of Mystra, Sparti and Corinthos but by the pride and strength of the modern nation and peoples. however, with the news warning of strikes and rallies as Tspiras continued his negotiations with the rest of Europe, we sadly planned our Grexit by ferry from Patra.