The Byzantine State of Things In Mystras

It feels good to be on the bike again. The road calls me often, but the business of the TV show kept me busy for the past year. Even now I am unsure what is happening with Travel or Cooking Channel. Seems merger chaos with Discovery Communications has tossed everyone for a loop. No decision, I guess, is good news.

Yet, I cannot wait. I gotta move.

The first ride out of Athens to Kiveri on Saturday was just over two hours. It was hot, and the toll road was uninspiring and fast. When I pulled off to grab a couple hits of water, which was near boiling from the sun, my hands felt as if they were buzzing with vibration. When I grabbed my phone, it felt like a low voltage vibrating hum. Weird. I touched the tip of my fingers together, more hum. The constant hum and whir of the bike at 70mph, leaning forward on the handlebars, must have sent waves of low-frequency vibes through my hands, and body. Dare not confuse this with good vibes, this was unsettling.

The ride out of Kiveri is narrow, two lanes and twists and turns over mountains, crosses a valley and twists over more mountains. The bike doesn’t feel as heavy as it did when I left Athens—but it is. At least, I feel no more of the hum and vibration.

I travel at a decent clip—not too fast, but with good rhythm. Though sometimes this isn’t fast enough for Greek drivers who speed up behind me. With no sense of courtesy or space, they hug the rear of my bike like a Nascar driver drafting the leader. It wracks my nerves, so I slow and pull to the side, waving the tailgater to pass.

It rains on and off as I make the nearly three-hour ride toward Mystras.

The road signs often show both roman alphabet translations and the equivalent Greek letters, but not always. I surmise that the Greeks are forgiving and flexible with Roman translations of words—at least the names of towns. Mistra is also Mystra, Mistras, and Mystras. So if I spell it several ways in this post, I’ll thank the Greeks for their flexibility and forgive myself for the mediocre editing and proofreading.

In the old town of Sparta, I meet Harry at the Silk Oil gas station who shows me his 1992 Honda street bike after I explain that my bike is very old—a 2005. He dropped his bike a few weeks ago, the gas tank is dented and there’s no instrument cluster or front headlight. “I fixing it,” he explains.

It pours rain just as I roll into the old town of Mystras, in the shadows of the old Byzantine town and fortress that brings travelers to this part of the Peloponnese.

A comfy small room works just fine at the Mystras Inn in Mystras.

I find comfortable accommodations at the Mystras Inn and when the rain clears, I ride to the castle. With only an hour before closing, the docent tells me it will take nearly three hours to see the site, and a ticket purchased today is not valid for entrance tomorrow. So I take advantage of the magic hour light and take pictures from outside, and plan to return in the morning.

Nearly 800 years ago the Byzantines fortified themselves on this mountain in Mystras

It’s hot, rugged, and steep, but exploring Mystras is a workout for the body and the brain—this place is ancient!

In 1249, the ruler of the Frankish Principate of Achaea, William II of Villehardouin built the medieval fortress on top of this hill. But when the Byzantines captured William II in 1259 at the Battle of Pelagonia, he ceded the fortress and the one at Monemvasia.

Mystras, like most Byzantine fortresses, sits high on a hill, giving it a natural fortification of sheer cliffs, and steep terrain. The entire community sits on three levels, with the first and lowest level surrounded by an ominous wall, includes homes, mansions, and churches, the second with palaces, monasteries, and more churches, and the final on top of the hill a massive castle with threatening lookout towers.

I hike the sprawling grounds, passing the worn foundations of homes, well-preserved churches, and make my way to the palace, which is under construction but sits on perhaps the biggest and most level terrain on this hillside. It’s before 9AM and already the heat and humidity soak my shirt in sweat.

The Palace at Mystras is currently under renovation.

I imagine the people who lived here nearly 800 years ago. Was it this hot? Walking up and down this hill, I know they were fit. Where is the quarry? How did they mill the stones?

The six sisters that live at Pantanassa here in Mystras bring life to what otherwise is ancient history.

Making my way back down the hill I wander into Pantanassa, an ongoing monastery where six sisters, nuns, live and maintain the property. It shows, with plants and flowers. I spot one nun and she invites me into one room, offers me a cold drink. Several cats wander in and out of the room. She shoos them out; I call them back in. We share no common language, save the “Kali Mera,” ‘good morning’ greeting that started this connection. What we do share are smiles and eye contact.

She offers me a sweet pastry, and I take out my phone and show her pictures of my cat, Dar, my motorcycle and through these photographs I share with her my love for cats and travel. With the religious pictures and icons on the walls, and the small table laid out with embroidered prayer cloths, crocheted doilies, and such, she shares with me her love of God and Lord Jesus Christ.

She shows me a small oil painting of the monastery, explaining that one of the other sisters loves to paint. The fabrics, clothes, and painting are for sale. I ask how much. She pulls out a card with numbers next to the Euro sign, pointing at the price. Clever. I’m not in the market, but before leaving, I give her a handful of change and thank her for her hospitality, folding my hands as if in prayer and bowing my head.

Down the hill further, I find the Peribleptos Church. Carved into rock in the hillside, it’s the most impressive church on this hillside. Well, preserved frescoes line the walls inside. They are noted for their color and the refined figures. As with all Greek Orthodox Churches, the numbers of Saints dotting the walls is staggering. How do they remember all of them?

It’s too early I suppose, when I get to the Monastery of Vrontochion and the Hodegetria, which are closed. Through the locked glass door, I spot one of the frescoes,  dating from 1312 to 1322, and linked with the art of Constantinople.

Peribleptos Church at Mystras

To get to the castle, I get back on the bike and travel up the hill about 2.5 km to the main gate, parking Doc and climbing up for about 20 minutes and gaze on the view toward Sparta, and down to the old town Mystra where the small inn I stayed in and the town square, are just tiny specks way down below, in the distance. It’s from up here that the Byzantines living here could sound the warning for impending attacks. Which they did for almost 200 years until surrendering to the Turks in 1460.

As I head back down the hill, dark clouds move in, subtle thunder and the threat of rain looms. I will not stay another night, it’s through Sparta and south to my next Byzantine fortress: Monemvasia, on the eastern coast.

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