For me, holidaying in Greece had always meant the same thing; a flight into Athens and then island-hopping on local ferries. Yes, I might spend a night or two in the capital because how can you go to Greece and not make a pilgrimage to the Acropolis and the Parthenon? But essentially, my Greek holidays were about visiting a pattern of sun-dried islands, spread out like unique gem-stones set in an azure-blue Aegean.
Was I missing something though? My opportunity to find out what that was came when my young American Peace Corps friend James, invited me to join his family on holiday at a villa they had rented in Filiatra, on the Peloponnese.
Flying in from France where I had been house-hunting, I got to the chaotic bus-station in the city suburbs in the early-evening; keeping my fingers crossed that I could continue my journey onwards. An hour later, I was aboard a smart air-conditioned bus heading West then South along excellent Euro-funded motorways that cut through the coastal mountains while the setting sun illuminated the placid coastal waters.
I missed the Corinth canal; the seven-kilometre cut that has turned the Peloponnese peninsula into an island as we zipped along the road, finally arriving at the small town of Filiatra on the Western coast of the Peloponnese at midnight. James’s family were not due to arrive until the following afternoon so I was hoping that I could find a reasonably priced hotel, that would have a vacancy or I would be sleeping on the beach!
As it turned out, the town was still thankfully still awake when I arrived and with a choice of one hotel, the decision of where I would lay my head was taken for me.
James, his parents Cindy and Dave plus his Uncle Gary and partner Marsha met up me the following afternoon and together we drove the short distance to the smart villa right by the sea where we made ourselves comfortable, created a simple meal and opened a couple of bottles of the very cheap but excellent local rosé wine. We felt at home immediately…
The Peloponnese is a region steeped in myth and history. It was here that ancient king Agamemnon held court at Mycenae, where the God Pan cavorted with his nymphs in the rugged uplands of Arcadia, where mythic King Nestor lived. Subsequently Romans, Franks, Venetians and Ottoman Turks invaded and lived for a few centuries, before withdrawing or were repulsed by nationalistic locals. Today the region is peaceful, surprisingly green, with plentiful olive trees in the valleys and pine forests that clothe the hillsides in shades of dusty silver-green.
During the heat-wave of 2008, dozens of forest fires devastated large areas of pine forests within Greece and the Peloponnese was no exception. You can still see the blackened stumps of trees poking up through a covering of new growth but the overall impression is one of regeneration. Thankfully however, firefighters managed to preserve to ancient sites like Olympia and the Frankish city of Mystras, our first port of call…
The medieval city of Mystras was built by the Franks, an alliance of west Germanic Christian tribes who during the 4th Crusade in the 13th Century overran large chunks of the equally Christian Byzantine empire and conquered it in the name of the Pope and the Catholic church. In 1249, Mystras became the seat of the Latin Principality of Achaea, established in 1205 after the conquest of Constantinople. Today, the city is a picturesque ruin that cover a steep hillside, topped by a fortress. From the craggy battlements you can look down of the modern city of Sparta in the valley far below.
The last inhabitants only left the old city in the 1950’s but several churches remain in varied states of repair. Inside the church of Agios Nickolas an ancient mural of Christ still beckons from the apse at the eastern end of the decaying building while outside, cobbled street wind upwards to the castro or castle.
The site looks romantic in the slanting rays of the late afternoon and perhaps for this reason, Western European and American travelers of the 19th century believed the city to be ancient Sparta, home of King Leonides who led the three-hundred Spartans against the might of the Persian empire. Unfortunately, ancient Sparta was never much more than a collection of small vilages of which very little remains today. Even in classical times, the historian Thucydides was able to write:
“Suppose the city of Sparta to be deserted, and nothing left but the temples and the ground-plan, distant ages would be very unwilling to believe that the power of the Lacedaemonians was at all equal to their fame. Their city is not built continuously, and has no splendid temples or other edifices; it rather resembles a group of villages, like the ancient towns of Hellas, and would therefore make a poor show”. Thucydides, i. 10
James is a modern day Spartan and lapped up the atmosphere, reveling in the steep climb to the top of the site. From the summit we looked down on the white modern city of Sparta and remembered the harsh training of the the hoplites and their heroic battle at Thermopylae in 480 BC. While doing this, we remembered that we had somehow mislaid Cindy on the way up to the summit and as soon as we had taken a few commemorative photos began our descent.
Thankfully, she found her way back to the hire car at about the same time as we did and with heads full of images of muscular Greeks, gnarled olive trees and decaying ancient buildings, we drove off into the the gathering gloom of a Hellenistic twilight…