Back to Mystra, the ghost city of the Byzantine Empire – World Meanderings (n°98)
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
If we all know Constantinople as the first largest city of the Byzantine Empire, few of us know about the second one, Mystra. And yet this site is quite formidable. Built on a steep hillside close to ancient Sparta in the Peloponnese Peninsula, the impressive ruins of Mystra are a true challenge for its visitors. Put on good walking shoes and enjoy!
Mystra’s highs and lows
Through the centuries Mystra changed hands several times going through ups and downs. Mystra is not an ancient city. It was founded in 1249 by a Frankish prince, William II of Villehardouin, in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade. But he was not able to enjoy his new fortress for long. In 1259 he was defeated by the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos and had to relinquish all his fortresses including Mystra.
The Byzantine era was Mystra’s golden age during which the city attracted artists, scholars, philosophers and famous architects of the time. The town expanded and a cathedral, libraries, monasteries, churches and palaces were built on the hillside at the foot of the fortress. But everything has an end, and in 1460 the city was surrendered to the Ottoman Emperor Mehmed II. The city still flourished under Ottoman rule thanks to silk trade and its population reached 40,000.
Over the following decades Mystra was occupied by Venetians and Russians before being recaptured by Ottomans in 1770. That led to appalling repression and the population dropped to 8,000. The city was freed in 1822 during the Greek Revolution but in 1825 a last Turkish attack ended with the city being razed to the ground. This was the end of Mystra. At the end of the Greek War of Independence modern Sparta became the new capital of the region and Mystra was drained of its last inhabitants. Its last occupants left in 1950 and excavation works began. The site was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989.
No need to be a great archaeologist to realise that Mystra’s inhabitants had to be motivated to live there. They surely didn’t need to go to the gym, the streets going up and down the hillside are so steep that they got fit just attending to their affairs! But don’t be put off by the challenge the visit truly is worth it. Mystra is like an open-air museum dedicated to Byzantine architecture. Still today it well deserved its nickname of “Wonder of the Morea”. It is a living testimony of late Byzantine art with colourful frescoes, unique sculptures and distinctive architecture. One of the best-preserved and most beautiful medieval towns in Peloponnese set in an impressive mountainous surrounding.
The main entrance is located in the lower town. It’s a 2,5km-long “hike” with a 220 metre vertical drop to get to the fortress on top of the hill. You’ll need at least 3 hours to get up there and back down including the stops to visit the renovated churches, monasteries and other monuments. But if you don’t feel like hiking you can first walk to and from the lower town, get back to your car and drive up-hill to visit the fortress or Kastro. (Your ticket is valid 24 hours and you can use it at both entrances).
In the lower town you will mainly visit churches and monasteries. Metropolis is a vast architectural ensemble overlooked by the Agios Dimitrios Basilica that has a wonderful painted vault. The Peribleptos Monastery seems to be embedded into the rock and shelters a beautiful Christ Pantokrator surrounded by Virgin Mary and the Apostles. Next you’ll get to Pantanassas Monastery that still welcomes a community of sisters in a peaceful place. Vrontochion was the city cultural centre where you will see two beautiful churches with typical Byzantine octagonal bell tower. Medieval mansions and houses are not in good shape and not so easy to find but if you look carefully you will get to Laskaris, Frangopoulos or Palataki that belonged to wealthy local families.
The upper city will first allow you to get a panoramic view of the surrounding mountainous countryside and Mystra lower town. The citadel is the highest monument of the city, 620 metres high. Mind your step going down to the church of Hagia Sophia and to the Despot’s palace, a huge place gathering buildings of different periods. Mystra is like no other city in Greece far from the classic ancient sites that we are more familiar with. Don’t miss to discover this must-see link between Antiquity and modern times.
Euphoria Retreat, a one of a kind Hotel close to Mystra
It took a lifetime to Marina Efraimoglou to make her dream come true: create a special place blending ancient Hellenic and Chinese healing philosophies and practices. After surviving cancer in her late twenty’s and a successful but exhausting professional life Marina was looking for a much-needed balance in her life. Her quest led her to build Euphoria Retreat “a Holistic Wellbeing Destination Spa” in the close vicinity of Mystra ruins.
The hotel-and-spa is set in lush greenery on the mountainside of Mount Taygetus. The whole place has been thought to create a sense of peace and wellbeing. The 45 rooms and suites combine soothing colours, inviting curves and modern luxury. You feel at once relaxed and energised.
Of course, food is very important at Euphoria Retreat and you will be proposed a personalised dietary meal plan or the “à la carte” gourmet menus all made with wholesome seasonal ingredients.
The spa proposes a wide range of programs to choose from. From an immunity reset to a balance restart, from wellbeing detox to balance recovery, from weight loss to fitness… each guest will find the right program to recharge his or her batteries. An address for insiders!
More information on spa packages and special offers at www.euphoriaretreat.com/en/
Mystra and Euphoria Retreat are easily reached and only a 2h.30m-drive from Athens or one hour from Kalamata airport.
For the very first time, we show you an hotel where we have not stay or even not visited. When we went to Mystra we had only enough time to visit the ancient city before going back to Athens to board our flight to get back home. But we have absolute confidence in Christos Panaretou, the founder and owner of Yalos Tours, one of the best Greek travel agencies. When he told us about the qualities of the spa treatments proposed by Euporia Retreat, we thought that we have to present you such a high tourism product.
Yalos Tours, which greatly helped us in the realisation of this long reportage we have done through Greek Peloponnese (see below the links to our various articles) is a well-known, maybe the best, Greek Travel agency that can provide accommodation, hotels, flights, ferries, rented cars, guides, throughout Greece, main land or any island. They love to answer any request you can have.
For travel agents: www.yalostours.net/en (BtoB platform available in English)
To directly contact them, send an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny & Annick Dournes (Euphoria Retreat photos are courtesy of Euphoria)
Here are the links to read our previous “Back to Greece” articles:
To discover Athens and iconic Hotel de Grande Bretagne: https://b-c-ing-u.com/architecture/back-to-greece-at-last-world-meanderings-n90/
To discover Mani Peninsula read our lat week article: https://b-c-ing-u.com/architecture/back-to-greece-the-mani-peninsula-to-the-end-of-the-world-world-meanderings-n94/
To discover the beautiful Zakynthos Island: https://b-c-ing-u.com/countries/back-to-greece-zakynthos-island-could-boast-being-greece-paradise-island/
To discover the exclusive island of Spetses : https://b-c-ing-u.com/architecture/back-to-greece-spetses-a-one-of-a-kind-gem-island-world-meanderings-n92/
To learn more about Volos and Pelion : https://b-c-ing-u.com/architecture/back-to-greece-de-stress-on-volos-enchanting-seashore-world-meanderings-n91/
To discover a bit more of Athens and the luxury Grand Hyatt Hotel: https://b-c-ing-u.com/architecture/athens-looks-towards-modern-art-world-meanderings-n96/