Sunday, July 25, 2010

2010 Travel Notes #5: Among the Palaeologi

Leaving Evvia, I headed south towards the Peloponnese. I gave Athens a wide berth, skipping the Greek ruins (and crowds) there, just as I was to bypass these sites at Delphi, Thebes, Corinth, Mycenae and Sparta. I have seen my fair share of Greco-Roman ruins (Ephesus, Aphrodisias, the Parthenon, Heriopolis, Ipamea, Baalbek and Jerash,) and now have little interest in seeing yet another broken Corinthian column. What interests me, however, is what came after--the Byzantine Empire, from late antiquity to the late Middle Ages. My fascination goes far beyond the very obvious association with the Orthodox faith. The incredibly rich tapestry of this East Roman civilization remains largely unappreciated and misunderstood, even as recent generations of scholars have sought to correct the mischief done by Gibbon and others. For those travelers similarly possessed, there is one place that will be at the top of our list--the ruins of Mistra, capital of the old Despotate of Morea, deep in the Peloponnese. (I have written earlier of Mistra, as well as the best book on the subject, here.)

Mistra is located in Laconia, and one must first traverse Arcadia. I was curious to see the latter region, as the very word itself has come to signify a simple, pastoral existence in our language. And I had romanticized it a bit--imagining Arcadia to be as Poussin depicted. In my mind, however, I had conflated my small print of his Burial of Phocian," with the better-known Et in Arcadia Ego, and had somehow envisioned Arcadia thusly. I was not disappointed, for the region did look like a Poussin painting--rolling mountains bracketing wide valleys with slender cedars, fields and orchards.

Old Sparta lies on a rolling plain, and the land slopes off to the southeast towards the Aegean. My destination, however, lay 8 kilometers west, where the gentle countryside abruptly ends at a wall of mountains. And is there--improbably, incredibly, wonderfully--that the ruins of Mistra cling to an outlying crag of Mount Taygotes. Though strategically located, the terrain itself would be a limiting factor to its long term growth and viability. And yet for 200 years, roughly from 1260 to 1460, Mistra trailed only Constantinople itself as a center of art, learning and scholarship. And it is here--not Istanbul, Athens or Thessaloniki--that one finds the most substantial witness to the Byzantine world, and where one can most readily envision that society.

The modern village of Mystras, surrounded by orange groves, nestles at the foot of the mountains. I stayed in the appropriately named Hotel Byzantinos--a 3-story establishment in the center of things, with a cafe across the street, the village square to the left, air-conditioning, balcony overlooking the ruins, full buffet breakfast and a real swimming pool in the rear walled-in garden--all for 35 euros a night ($43.40.) This hotel, a souvenir shop, 3 or 4 cafes and a few other establishments cater to the Byzantine-seeking traveler. And they play up the the royal Palaeologus connection. The last emperor, Constantine XI Palaeologus, who died defending Constantinople in 1453, was actually crowned in Mistra. There's a nicely-done statue of him near the center of town, just up from the Cafe Palaeologi. My medical problems were beginning to compound, so I spent the morning of my last day there in the doctor's office. (She was a nice young American lady of Greek extraction, graduate of Rutgers, who returned to Greece so that, as she said, "she could do real medicine," which she could not afford to do in the U.S.) Behind her desk was a very westernized picture of Constantine XI, with portraits of other Byzantine emperors or noblemen flanking each side. Like I say, the Byzantine is still big here.

I started out early for the ruins, before the heat set in. I was a bit discouraged to see that a tour bus had arrived before me. But I discovered that the site is large enough that there is plenty of room to move about and separate yourself from the vicinity of a tour if need be. The lower gates (the Monemvasia Gates) lay 2 kilometers up the mountain from the village. Upon arrival, I stopped for awhile, surveying the lay of the land, and attempting to visualize how the city must have appeared 600 years earlier. The reconstructed Kastro still dominates the peak of the crag. Lower, and to the right, is the palace, currently undergoing reconstruction. Ruins of villas and more ordinary houses, streets, passageways, churches and monasteries tumbled down the hillside. Below the walls, the mountain abruptly drops away to rolling plains. Dotted with orange groves and spread out like a tapestry, this undulating landscape stretches southeasterly, towards Monemvasia and the sea.

More than a few devotees of Tolkein and Lord of the Rings have noted the similarities between his fictional Minas Tirith and Constantinople of old. I would tentatively agree, though I would not push the comparison too far. But as to the specific topography of Tolkein's city, it is nothing at all like the sprawling metropolis on the Bosphorus. Mistra, however, is another matter, being in some ways almost a dead-ringer for Minas Tirith. The site is probably as close to Tolkein's imaginative creation as any place you would find on Earth.

I was particularly interested to see how people lived on this mountain. Houses in Mistra were generally built perpendicular to the hillside, jutting-out, as it were. The lower floor was always for storage, the living quarters always in the upper floors. The outside of the lower floor usually consisted of an open archway. But this was much more than just a porch looking out over the valley below. Space was at a premium on the mountain, and this area served as the very street itself. These "streets" were little more than passageways, and much too steep and narrow for wagons or carts. Many of the homes were relatively spacious, despite the limitations imposed by the topography. Most residences had cisterns for water, and a sophisticated sewage disposal system serviced the in-house facilities of the wealthy as well as those for the public. I enjoyed poking around the ruins of the old houses as much as anything. As often as not, there was a mulberry tree close-by, providing ready-made snacks.

Of course, the main attraction to Mistra is its churches and monasteries--St. Demetrius, St. Theodore, the Church of the Evangelistria, the Church of Hodigitria, the Church of the Pantanassa, the Church of the Peribleptos, St. Nicholas and Haghia Sophia, as well as a few private family chapels. The most impressive is the metropolitan church, St. Demetrius, which along with the Church of the Pantanassa are the only two functioning churches on the site. The tour group was at the church when I arrived--a group of college students who looked as though they had rather be at the beach. I waited for them to move on, and then I had the church to myself. I lit some candles and prayed before the icons. This church is one of the earliest built in Mistra, a 3-aisled basilica transformed into a cross-in-square, with balconies above the side aisles and narthex. The church is approximately 30 ft. wide by 50 long (not counting the altar area.) But it is a soaring sanctuary, which gives the impression of an edifice much larger. In the center of the church, is an inlaid Byzantine double-eagle, marking the spot where Constantine XI Palaeologus was crowned emperor in 1448.

The other churches are not without interest, either. The Church of St. Theodore contains the tomb of a Manuel Palaeologus who died in 1428. Haghia Sophia is believed to contain the tombs of both the Emperor-monk John V Cantacuzenas, as well as that of Cleofa Malatesta, despeona of Theodore II Palaeologus (for more on the beautiful Cleofa, follow the links at the end of post, here.) And finally, the Church of the Pantanassa and its adjoining convent is incredibly beautiful with sublime iconography. From all accounts, the view from the Kastro is something to see. I will have to take every one's word for it. But the time I had explored the upper town, I was completely exhausted and decided not to make the trek to the final summit.

That afternoon--after a swim--I drove down to the Mani, the southernmost extremity of the Peloponnese. This is the most remote region of Greece, and in the past, the isolated Maniots had a reputation for blood feuds and vendettas. They are also noted for their unique defensive stone towers. I was curious to see how theirs compared with those of Svaneti. Patrick Leigh Fermor has written of the region, and in fact has lived there for many decades. Fermor is something of a hero of mine, and had I felt better I might have tried to locate him. But at age 95, his time is better spent finishing-up the long-awaited last third of his trilogy describing his 1933 trek from London to Constantinople, rather than entertaining unannounced visitors. The lower Mani peninsula is supposedly dotted with 11th and 12th-century churches containing quite exceptional frescoes. I set out to find a few.

The Mani is a region of wide vistas. The mountains are barren and towering, with scattered villages huddled at their base. A wide, flat shelf stretches west to the Adriatic. The bluff gives way here and there to allow for the occasional harbor, but by and large, the coastline is ringed with high cliffs. The Maniots live on the shelf of land between the mountains and the sea. The peninsula has traditionally been poor and undeveloped. Some signs of gentrification--summer homes and condos--are beginning to dot the landscape. And I suspect tourism is on the rise. I was not particularly impressed with the stone towers, but then the towers of the Svans, deep in the Caucasus Mountains, had set the bar pretty high. I was able to locate several of the historic churches. They were all in the style that one would have seen in Constantinople or anywhere else in Greece during that time period--except that they were all quite small. The two I remember in particular were the old church in the village of Gardenitza, and then the Church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, far-removed from any settlement. Both were securely locked, so their treasures remained hidden from me. But that is fine. I was satisfied just being there. By the time, I had worked my way back to Mystras, it was 8:00 PM or so. I stepped across to the Castle Cafe and got a table where I could watch the World Cup on the screen they had set up under the arbor. The baked spaghetti, the Amstel, and Paraguay's defeat of Italy capped off a good day.

Before I left Mystras, I checked out the souvenir shop, Porfyra,around the corner. Maria Tsiboka is the personable owner of the shop. She carried much of the usual tourist fare (such as the guide books I am always collecting,) but interestingly, she carried a number of specialty items she had designed herself. She had some beautiful coffee mugs (clearly designed for the American traveler, as no one in Greece, or Europe, for that matter, drinks coffee from mugs as we do.) But no matter, there was no way I was walking out of there without the coffee mug emblazoned with the Byzantine double eagle she had designed. Then I noticed an artist's easel at the back of the shop, and on closer inspection, saw that it was a partially completed icon. Maria herself was the iconographer. She showed me an icon of St. Cosmas she had finished and was going to donate to her church. I am nearly rendered speechless when I encounter someone with this gift. But eventually, I found my voice, and we talked of church things. Counter intuitively, she did not seem particularly surprised to learn that there were non-Greek Orthodox Christians in the U.S. She told me she was going to get her son to work on her website this summer and make improvements there. In the meantime, check out her site. She does excellent work.

With the doctor's visit behind me, and antibiotics in hand, I left the pleasant little village of Mystras. My goal was Patras, on the Gulf of Corinth. There, I would cross the Rio-Andirio Bridge back onto the Greek mainland proper. The main road skirted the mountains, from Sparti to Tripoli, to Korinthios, and then down the south shore of the gulf to Patras. The map also showed a much more direct route, though the lines were squigglier. Anyone who knows me knows which path I took. Much of Greece is mountainous, but by far the most severe mountain driving I encountered was on this shortcut to Patras. Progress was slow all the way, either from the hairpin curves, or from being stuck behind an 18-wheeler. In a number of places, the road had to be cut-out underneath a rock overhang. At one such site, I passed two truck drivers measuring the height of the passageway to see if their semi would squeeze underneath. Other than letting air out of their tires, I have no idea what they could do if it would not fit. There was no backing up and no place to turn around. Although the mountain driving wears on one after a while, nearly each bend in the road offered up one more incredible vista.

I planned to stop in Dimitsana. Mother Nectaria McNees wrote of two monasteries there in Evlogeite! Dimitsana also receives notice in most detailed guidebooks of Greece. The town is picturesque, to be sure, but no more so than those on either side. I could not find the page I had copied from McNees' book detailing the directions to the monasteries. So, I attempted to find them from memory. I remembered that they were on either side of a gorge, south of the town. I took a road leading off the mountain and followed it as it twisted and hugged the side of the gorge. Pavement gave way to dirt track, which soon gave way to just 2 muddy ruts. I was beginning to doubt my wisdom in all this, when I abruptly came out on a paved road from the other direction. By this time, I wasn't sure where I was, but the pavement was a good sign. A few miles further on found me at the parking lot for the Monastery of Podromou. A new chapel clung to the face of the cliff nearby. The monastery itself was about 2,000 ft. down the gorge from this lot. A sign near the trail stated, however, that the monastery was closed to visitors in the afternoon. Perhaps this was just as well, as it was getting late in the day, and I was nowhere near out of the mountains. Attending to my medical situation had thrown me at least 3 or 4 hours late in leaving Mystra. I walked over to the chapel and looked back up the gorge towards Dimitsana. On a rock shelf, on the right side of the gorge, I could see the Monastery of Podromou. On a promontory, on the left side of the gorge, I could see the Monastery of Philosophou. This would have to do, and I was fine with that.

In due time, I eventually reached Patras. The only thing I planned to do there was visit the Cathedral of St. Andrew, and venerate the relics of the Apostle. Patras is a large, modern Greek city, and all that that implies. I knew the general vicinity of the cathedral, so I did not doubt I could find it. But the traffic was horrendous. I felt as if I was being sucked into some sort of vehicular vortex from which there could be no escape. With frustration mounting, I turned east, away from the cathedral, and determined to just get out of the city. This in and of itself was no easy matter. Nor was finding a place to stay. By dark, I had finally stumbled upon a hotel in the far eastern suburbs of the Patras. I bedded down for the night in a cheap room, resolved to get across the gulf as quickly as possible in the morning.

If I ever return to mainland Greece, the Peloponesse is one of two places I would definitely want to revisit (Thessaloniki being the other.) But just as assuredly, I would give Patras a pass.


Milton T. Burton said...

Fascinating post and gorgeous photos.

vakantiehuizen blanes said...

Mystras is wonderfull place in every aspects i just love to visit this place the real beauty of this place is always in my heart the beautiful places are the great wonder it self....thanks for sharing with us..the great information i just like this place in every aspects.....

elizabeth said...

nice to read as always; sounds like Patras you would need an experienced guide who drives... yikes...

CG said...

Thank you. This was worth waiting for. Now both Fermor's Mani and Runciman's Mystras are on my reading list.

Ranger said...

Yes, I can see Minas Tirith, but my kids saw Ba Sing Se.

saban_arslan21 said...


Nauplion said...

Patras is a wonderful city, but it takes walking -- especially before 9 in the morning -- and patience. If nothing else, there are Roman mosaics in the most remarkable places, an elegant Roman theatre, and fine examples of neo-classical architecture. The cathedral is the least of it all.