We’d fully intended to pack up our worldly belongings into the car then head to a campsite in Mystras near Sparta to explore the area, but Camping Gythion Bay was just too fucking lovely. Mystras was less than an hour’s drive away and if we stayed here it’d actually put us closer to our next destination than Mystras would. Fuck it. Day trip it would be. It was set to be another scorcher and it’d be nice knowing we’d have a pool and a carafe or two of wine waiting for us this evening.
When we were in Stemnitsa the bloke who ran the guesthouse told us we simply HAD to see Ancient Sparta. I assumed he meant the Archaeological Site of Mystras on account of the fact there’s fuck all left of Ancient Sparta.
“Pfft! No! That’s just Byzantine!” he told us with a dismissive wave of his hand, “You need to see Ancient Sparta!”
Yeah so no. The site at Mystras is fan-fucking-tastic. Yes, it’s Byzantine, but it’s a large, sprawling site that was built up a steep hillside. There’s a palace where the resident despot (this was just the Byzantine word for lord or master, he wasn’t an actual despot) lived and it goes all the way up to the ruins of a castle right at the top if you fancied really upsetting your knees that day.
Turned out we really, really fancied upsetting our entire lower bodies. When we entered we were told we could explore the bottom half, then drive up to the top entrance and explore that. We just ended up doing the whole fucking thing on foot. Not deliberately, we just kept on walking then suddenly realised we were so far up there was no point in fetching the car. To be fair, however you do it, there’s the same amount of hill involved, you just do it in a different order.
There are plenty of churches to put in your eyeholes because of course there are. It’s Byzantine. They know how to do churches. Some of them are in pretty good nick too. To be fair it wasn’t abandoned until the early 1800s having been occupied through Ottoman rule. The Egyptians apparently destroyed the area and massacred a lot of people during the Greek struggle for independence, prompting the city to be abandoned and rebuilt as Sparti.
It was declared a UNESCO heritage site in 1989. The palace looks like it’s bring restored but we couldn’t get close to it, it was roped off. You can go inside the churches though. Some are ruined, others look to be restored. I don’t know if they were never actually destroyed in the first place as one of them has some pretty old looking frescoes.
We dragged ourselves up the hill and through the ruins, stopping every now and then to admire the view, and also to question all of our life choices. In a monumental rookie error we’d failed to bring any water with us so it wasn’t the most comfortable climb. I felt like all of my inside tubes were sticking together. But it’s very much worth every dehydrated, tortured footstep.
We even made it all the way to to the castle after looking at it and thinking, fuck that shit! It was good though, I’m glad we did it. Getting down was obviously less hideous but does make your knees and ankles wonder what they’ve done to upset you. We got to the car which was no longer in the shade and headed into Sparti, trying to steer with my fingertips so my hands didn’t weld onto the steering wheel which had obviously been forged in the fiery pits of Hell.
So there’s an olive and olive oil museum in Sparti and I’m quite the fan of all of the above so we headed there. It’s very intersection but it’s really quite a lot of information that you read on large boards. I’m not sure what I was expecting to be honest. They did have replicas of all manner of olive presses through the ages. It was cool, I’d recommend a visit if you’re at a loose end but I wouldn’t make a special trip for it.
We meandered back through Sparti via a pile of stones that was meant to be the tomb of Leonidas, that famous Spartan king, but there was no information on it. The Internet reckons that there’s no evidence he was ever buried there, it’s just an excavated part of Ancient Sparta and no one really knows what it was for. There are other excavations on the outskirts but again, there’s nothing really left. I guess Sparta was well and truly flattened.
So I would say in response to our host in Stemnitsa, you really don’t even need to bother with Sparti unless you’re basing yourself there. There’s really nothing of interest, even for history nerds like us. Mystras however, I’d say it was an essential stop on your Peloponnese adventure. The views from the hillside are absolutely brilliant and the ruins themselves will look great on your Instagram feed.
Archaeological Site of Mystras & Sparta, Peloponnese, Greece / Αρχαιολογικός χώρος του Μύστρα και της Σπάρτης, Πελοπόννησος, Ελλάδα
Stayed at: Camping Gythion Bay, Mavrovouni
Useful shit to know…
- The Archaeological Site of Mystras cost €12 each.
- There are two ticket offices and your ticket will get you access to both. You can explore the bottom section, exit and drive up to the upper section then re-enter and explore that. Or just explore the whole thing on foot.
- Ancient Sparta is free but there’s really not much there.
- The Olive Museum was only €4 each.