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Lakonia 1989

Map of Lakonia

5/10/89 - I couldn't imagine a more memorable day of bike riding than the breath taking ride from Kalamata to Sparta through the Langadha Pass with its snakelike series of hairpin bends and tunnels. The Langadha Pass, a sixty kilometer route over the Taigetos from Kalamata to Sparta, was the second ancient crossing after the Kaki Skala (literally "Bad Staircase" on Mt. Olympus) and is still the only paved road across the mountain. Remote and barren, with long uninhabited sections, it unveils a constant drama of peaks, magnificent at all times, but startling during the early morning hours. At every breath and awe stop, I think of how it must have been for the Spartan army as it made its way along this treacherous route to subdue the people of Messene and reduce them to slavish helots for doing the dirty work of the Spartan society hile the Spartans trained for war. This route was also taken by Telemachus in the Odyssey on his way from Nestor's palace at Pylos to that of Menelaus at Sparta. It took him a day by chariot - good going by any standards, since today's buses take three hours.

From Kalamata I made a zigzagging ascent of 37 kilometers through the Nedhondas Gorge to the town of Artemisia where I rested at the town fountain and watched some old men chatting in the taverna across the street. It was all a terrifying downhill run for the remaining descent through the Langadha pass to the north of which, at the rock of Keadhas, the Spartans used to leave their sick and puny babies to die from exposure. The first town that I reached at the bottom of the gorge was called Trypi and I stopped there to get my wits about me with some ouzo before continuing to Mystras where I found a B&B overlooking the ruins of the old city.

Langadha Hairpins The Langadha Gorge Easy Does It The Spartans Had it Rough

5/11/89 - In the morning I sat on my balcony and chatted with my proprietress while I enjoyed a breakfast of bread, cheese, and an orange. As the sun rose over the foothills of Taigetos it revealed first the buildings on the very crest of the hill and then slowly painted its way downward to reveal Mystas like a replica in miniature of the majestic form of Mt. Tarygetos rising above the verdant valley of the Eurotas. One theory holds that the name comes from the shape of the mountain, reminiscent of the Greek myzethra cheese. Another has it that a myzethra merchant owned the area. Mystras, the 'wonder of the Morea', was built as an amphitheatre around the fortress erected in 1249 by the prince of Achaia, William of Villehardouin and his mail-coated Frankish knights with watch-towers on this 'strange hill', from which they could defend fertile Lacedaemon and control the unruly mountain dwellers of Taygetos. But they were unable to retain their hold on 'beautiful Mystra' for long. A Byzantine regained his throne at Constantinople in 1261 and henceforth Mystra became a center of culture and civilization destined to illuminate the art and spirit of the Byzantine age for the last time.

Mystra's achievement is a very important one; but it is in the sphere of art that the modern visitor is most impressed. Early characteristics of fresco-work are found in the painted decoration of the Metropolis (13th -14th centuries) which already foreshadows the final flowering of the Palaelogue period. Some of the most important works of the 14th century will be found at the Aphendiko. In the Peribleptos a synthesis of rare aesthetic quality and deep theological significance will be observed, whereas at the Pantanassa the visitor is struck by the lengths to which the Byzantine painting can go in respect of color range. Here also will be found every type of Byzantine church as well as specific examples of decorative architecture pertaining to palaces, mansions and ordinary houses.

As soon as the gate opened in the morning, I set out to quickly climb to the highest point on the fortification walls so that I could escape the mass of tourists as they engaged in their odd banter about old things.and about how it was a shame that they let these place go downhill so far without properly repairing them. After scaring myself a little by attempting to circumnavigate the broken upper reaches of the walls, I began to descend through the ruins perusing my trusty guidebook until I reached the Cathedral of St. Demetrios. This orthodox church was founded in 1270; the narthex was added in 1291. The 13C and 14C frescoes inside the church are pretty amazing.. The most characteristic, on the south apse vault, evokes the theme of the Preparation (Hetoimasía); it shows an empty throne surmounted by the Byzantine cross symbolizing the expectation of the second coming of Christ for the Last Judgement: the angels grouped on either side of the throne have ecstatic expressions on their faces. In Ancient Greece the empty throne represented Zeus, chief of the gods, and in early Buddhist art it represented the Buddha. In Early Christian art and Early Medieval art it is found in both the East and Western churches, and represents either Christ, or sometimes God the Father as part of the Trinity. In the Middle Byzantine period, from about 1000, it came to represent more specifically the throne prepared for the Second Coming of Christ, a meaning it has retained in Eastern Orthodox art to the present. The motif consists of an empty throne and various other symbolic objects, in later depictions surrounded when space allows by angels paying homage. It is usually placed centrally in schemes of composition, very often in a roundel, but typically is not the largest element in a scheme of decoration.

Next I picked my path through the rubble to the Church of Saints Theodore built between 1290 and 1295 by the monks Daniel and Pachomios. It is of the octagonal type, with lateral chapels, and is decorated with wall paintings dating from the end of the 13th century. Next I visited the church of our Lady Hodegetria, meaning the ‘Leader of the Way’, built in 1310. It belongs to the mixed architectural type with a narthex and lateral chapels and is decorated with excellent wall paintings, dated to 1312-1322, some of which are connected to the Constantinopolitan art. The wall paintings represent the healing of the blind man, the wedding in Cana and other scenes from the Bible. The grave of Emmanuel Paleologos is in the chapel. By the time I reached the Church of Aghia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) I was starting to encounter the mass of tourists who were slowly making their way up the hill from where I had seen them at the starting gate below. They were warmed by their climb and were beginning to hope that some of the ruins might be air conditioned. Aghis Sophia is a handsomely domed, cross-in-square, two-column church, built in the middle of the 14th century. It has side chapels and a bell-tower. Fine wall paintings are preserved in the sanctuary and the chapels.

Mystras Morning Mystras Morning Mystras Fortification Wall Mystras from the Walls
Cathedral of St. Demetrios Church of Saints Theodore Church of Our Lady Hodegetria Aghia Sophia

After a lunch of bread and cheese, I ambled on to look at the dome of the cathlicon in the Monastery of Our Lady Peribleptos. This church is also a two-column, cross-in-square church with chapels. The church is decorated with wall paintings of exceptional artistic quality, made by various artists of the third quarter of the 14th century. Then on to another monastery dedicated to Our Lady Pantanassa (the Queen of all). The catholicon belongs to the mixed architectural type and has exterior porticoes and a bell tower. Fine wall paintings dated to 1430 are preserved on the upper floor and in the sanctuary, while the wall paintings on the ground floor date from the 18th century.

This was about all that I could take of religion for the day so I made my way to the complex built by the Kantakouzenoi with a chapel upstairs -- bits of frescos remaining -- and a magnificent loggia looking out over the valley of the Eurotas. From there I worked my way around into the third, great wing built under the Palaiologoi and paid a visit to the Palitaki before departing exhaused to return to my B$B for another night's stay.

Aghia Sophia Interior Dome Monastery of Our Lady Peribleptos Chapel of Our Lady Peribleptos Monastery of Our Lady Pantanassa
Mystas Composition Kantakouzenoi Palace Palaiologoi Palace Paladi

5/12/89 - Finding the scant remains of once proud Sparta was to be my objective for this day. Today's Sparta (Sparti) is the capital of the prefecture and is quite a simple town built in the Evrotas (Eurotas) river valley, in the same site where the ancient city stood. Some ruins remain of the ancient acropolis, the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia (6th c. BC), the tomb of Leonidas (5th c. BC) and the Menelaion. The museum with finds from the area is housed in a neoclassical building in the centre of town. The plain of Lakonia spreads out around Sparta, green and cool. A few kilometers to the south I found the trailhead for the ascent of Taigetos. I had planned to climb the peaks and precipitous rock of the mountain, but my bike accident had induced in me a need for greater caution and I had read that it was considered dangerous to climb Taigetos alone. For years Ihad longed for my first view of the fabled Eurotas but found it to be no much more than a troutstream bordered by poplars, willows and plane trees. I rode through a series of villages, some drenched in chestnut trees (Anavrito) or enormous plane trees (Karies) or perched in precarious spots – real eagles’ nests (Georgitsi). Some boasted castles and Byzantine churches (Geraki, Vresthena, Vrondamas) and others were simply bucolic.

Afte leaving the Taigetos trailhead, I rode a short distance to the ruins at Amykles. In the second century AD, the traveller Pausanias was informed that the archaic site of Amyklai had its ancient origin as an Achaian stronghold that predated the "Dorian invasion", and modern archaeology has supported that view. The Bronze Age settlement lay on the slopes above the modern village of Amykles. It was conquered by the Spartans as the fifth of the surrounding settlements whose subjection initiated the history of Sparta, in the eighth century BC; the inhabitants of Amykai took their places among the perioikoi, members of autonomous groups of free but non-citizen inhabitants of Sparta. About the same time, there was erected at Amyklai the Sanctuary of Apollo, enclosing within its temenos the tumulus of Hyakinthos, a pre-Hellene divinity whose cult was conflated with that of Apollo, in the annual festival of the Hyakinthia.

After the Spartan conquest, Amyklai continued to hold the Gymnopaideia and the Hyakinthia, now celebrated in honor of Apollo Amyklaios, given an even later political interpretation, as celebrating "the political reconciliation of Doric Sparta (Apollo) with the Achaian population of Amyklai (Hyakinthos)". In the seventh or early sixth century, a colossal archaic helmeted effigy was made of bronze, taking the semi-aniconic form of a stout column with arms, holding a spear as well as the more familiar bow: "ancient and made without artistry," Pausanias thought. "Except for the face and the tips of its feet and hands it looks like a bronze pillar. It has a helmet on its head, and a spear and a bow in its hands. The base of the statue is shaped like an altar, and Hyakinthos is said to be buried in it.. In the mid-sixth century the face of Apollo had been veneered with gold from Lydia, the gift of Croesus. Later in the sixth century, Bathycles of Magnesia designed the Doric-Ionic temple complex later known as the "throne of Apollo". The archaic cult statue, set on the podium that was constructed to enclose the chthonic altar dedicated to Hyakinthos, was surrounded by a virtual encyclopedia of Greek mythology, to judge from Pausanias' enumeration of the subjects of the reliefs. The podium contained the altar to Hyakinthos and was faced with bas-reliefs and there were more bas-reliefs on the stoa-like building that surrounded on three sides the colossal column-shaped statue of the god. The analemma and peribolos of the sanctuary have been excavated. Architectural fragments show that the architecture combined Doric and Ionic architectural orders: some are exhibited in the Sparta Museum.

Beside the cult of Apollo, the people of Amyklai also worshipped Dionysus, as Dionysos Psilax. Pausanias noted that psila was Doric for wings— "wine uplifts men and lightens their spirit no less than wings do birds" he added by way of gloss: apparently it was hard for him to imagine an archaic winged Dionysus. Traditionally Amyklai was associated with the residence of Tyndarus and his sons, the Dioscures.

Eurotas and Modern Sparta Ruins of Spartan Theater (Roman) Rainbow Over Laconia Very Spartan Acropolis
Amykles Entrance Reused Lion Foot from Altar Base of Apollo Altar Wall Around Temple Precinct

5/13/89 - Rising early I pedaled across the Eurotas and followed the road taken annually by the Spartan army as it marched its way across the isthmus of Corinth to plague the Athenians during the Peloponnesian War. I wanted to feel this road as nearly as possible to the way that they had felt it so my pace was almost that of the quick marching men of Sparta. My other objective was to visit the ruins of the ancient city of Tegea. Ancient Tegea was an important religious center of ancient Greece, containing the Temple of Athena Alea. The temenos was founded by Aleus, Pausanias was informed. Votive bronzes at the site from the Geometric and Archaic periods take the forms of horses and deer; there are sealstones and fibulae. In the Archaic period the nine villages that underlie Tegea banded together in a synoecism to form one city. Tegea was listed in Homer's Catalogue of Ships as one of the cities that contributed ships and men for the Achaean assault on Troy.

Tegea struggled against Spartan hegemony in Arcadia and was finally conquered in 560 BCE. In the fourth century Tegea joined the Arcadian League and struggled to free itself from Sparta. The Temple of Athena Alea burned in 394 BC and was magnificently rebuilt, to designs by Scopas of Paros, with reliefs of the Calydonian boar hunt in the main pediment. The city retained civic life under the Roman Empire; it was sacked in 395 by the Goths. Pausanias visited the city in the second century CE. The "tombs" he saw there were shrines to the chthonic founding daemones: "There are also tombs of Tegeates, the son of Lykaon, and of Maira, the wife of Tegeates. They say Maira was a daughter of Atlas, and Homer makes mention of her in the passage where Odysseus tells to Alkinous his journey to Hades, and of those whose ghosts he beheld there." Leaving Tegea early in the afternoon, I rode on to Tripoli where I arrived in time to catch the 2:00 PM train to Olympia.

Temple of Athena Alea Temple of Athena Alea Temple of Athena Alea Tripoli Train Station

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