Sunday, 30 September 2018

Greece: Messene

Messene wasn't on our radar when we planned our trip to the Peloponnese, but we saw a lovely photo of a what seemed to be a small temple on the site and decided to visit it on our way back to Athens. Ancient Messene turned out to be about 20 km north of modern Messini on the edge of a village called Mavromati. Messene was founded in the 3rd century BC at the foot of Mount Ithomi and continued into Roman times, being abandoned around 360 AD. As I am writing this I have just discovered that we failed to see a section of the city walls and an ancient gateway. That is really annoying, but there was still a great deal to enjoy.

Our first view revealed a large area with numerous ruined and partly restored structures.

The first main sight was the large, partly restored, Theatre.

The row of columns further down the slope is part of a Stoa along the side of the market place.

At the back of this and elsewhere on the site there are some lovely Roman mosaics.

Then there is the Sanctuary of Asclepius, the god of healing.

We realised that we hadn't seen our small temple and headed downhill to search for it. We quickly found it at the far end of an astonishing area containing a splendid stadium and gymnasium, nicely restored, surrounded on three sides by a Stoa.

On the right was a totally restored wrestling area.

And a rather lovely restored tomb, in use between the 3rd century BC and the 1st AD.

Now finally we got close to our temple – which we had seen of course as soon as we spotted the stadium. It turns out to be the Mausoleum of the eminent Saithidae family and was in use between the 1st  and 3rd centuries AD. It was still a delight to see it in the flesh in a beautiful position with the valley stretching away behind.  

 Closer inspection revealed that it sits on an astonishingly thick base.

We retraced our steps to the car park and got into the car for the long drive to Athens airport. Our visit to Messene provided a nice note to end our holiday on.

Conditions: greyish, but mild. The rain of the previous couple of days had finally departed.

Rating: five stars.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Greece: Mystra (or Mystras)

Mystra castle and upper town

Mystra was once an important Byzantine city, but became sidelined after its capture by the Turks in 1460. When Greece gained independence from the Turks in 1831 it was finally abandoned after a long period of decline and a new (but totally undistinguished) city of Sparti (near to ancient Sparta) was built nearby. Mystra is now a World Heritage site.

There are two entrances to Mystra, which was built up a steep hillside: the lower town entrance and the castle entrance. We decided to start at the top where it was quieter - which worked very well - and were pleased to discover that we could then go to the lower entrance on the same ticket.

We headed uphill from the castle entrance along a rocky track and soon enjoyed a fine view down the hillside to the Palace (of which more later).

 Up close, the battlements of the castle (founded in 1249) were impressive ...

... but it soon became clear that it was a total ruin. There was a deep ravine on the rear side of the castle, making it pretty much impregnable from that direction.

We retraced our steps past the ticket office to reach the church of Santa Sophia (1350-65). It is taller inside than it looks in the photo and had one especially attractive fresco in the sanctuary.

Now we came to the strikingly named Palace of the Despots.  The modern meaning of despot is clear enough, but in the Byzantine period a Despot was simply the person in charge of an administrative area, a Despotate. The Palace has been under restoration for the last 20 years. In the 14th and 15th centuries, it was the centre of government of the whole of the Peloponnese, known at that time as the Morea.

We continued our descent as far as the Monemvasia Gate which marks the entrance to the Upper town.

We were surprised to find that the road which led direct to Monemvasia started here (we were in Monemvasia only yesterday - about 74 km or 46 miles away).

We returned to the castle gate and drove down to the bottom gate from which we soon reached the wonderful Metropolis (1291) - designed as the city's cathedral. It is a small, but very beautiful building. Here is a view from higher up the hillside. The fantastic domes were added in the 15th century.

The three-sided cloister was lovely ...

... and the rather battered frescoes above the crossing were a delight.

We came next to the strangely named Hodegetria church (1322), once the church of a monastery. It is an imposing structure with a hidden clock tower to the rear at the right.

 Inside it was covered with beautiful frescoes.

The third great church of the lower town was the Monastery of the Pantanassa (1428).

Our guide book describes it as one of the last Byzantine churches. Partly this is because of the fall of Byzantium not many years later, but one should also note the gothic arches on the left indicating a change in architectural style.

It is still in use as a monastery, although apparently with not many nuns.  At this point we realised that the climbs and descents had worn us out and it was time to stop. There were still a good few buildings to explore.

Conditions: cloudy and quite cool - rather a shock after recent hot days.

Rating: five stars.  

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Greece: Monemvasia


Monemvasia is a vast rock a kilometre long long and about 300 m high. It is connected to the mainland by a narrow 200m causeway - its name means "single entrance". The town is at the furthest (right) end away from the mainland and high above it on top of the rock was a castle long famous for its impregnability: it only fell to invaders who could wait around long enough to starve out its defenders.

The town and castle were founded in 580 AD by Greeks seeking safety from invaders. By the 10th  century it was an important castle, administrative centre and seaport (for example as a source of Malvasia wine [Malmsey] for England). The whole Byzantine period in the Peloponnese from the fall of Rome to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks (1453) was marked by frequent invasions (actual or attempted) by a great variety of forces: Franks, Normans, Arabs, Slavs, Bulgarians, mercenaries such as the Catalan Company, and others). After 1453 it was briefly owned by the Papacy and then the Venetians, before becoming a Turkish possession from 1502 until 1821 when it became part of Greece during the War of Independence.

We could see that cars were parked all along the road on the right side of the island and we decided to leave our hire car on the mainland and walk across the causeway along the road. Once we got across, dodging the spray from a wild sea, we soon spotted a sign for a footpath parallel with the road and part-way up the hillside. This was much more pleasant.

The great bonus to be gained from this route was that we approached the town midway between the gate to the lower town on the right and that leading to the upper town on the left.

We decided to head upwards and once through the gate, we had our first views of the lower town from above ...

 ... quickly followed by looking up to the substantial defenses of the upper town.

We climb up and entered the upper town via a narrow entrance tunnel.

The buildings of the upper town are in pretty poor shape, although there was a curiously atmospheric nave of a church which had been somewhat restored. Further up a very lovely, substantially restored 12th century church.

Inside there was some nice terracotta work and some fragmentary frescoes.

We decided we might as well compete the job by heading across the high plateau to the ruins of the castle at the far (landward) end.

There was really not a lot to see when we got there, but the view down over the causeway to the village of Gefyra was very satisfying.

We retraced our steps and descended through the upper town to the more gentrified lower one. The main square was very picturesque.

We enjoyed a drink in a bar and then got slightly lost in the maze of small streets, eventually emerging though the lower gate and returning across the causeway.

Conditions: hot and sunny (again).

Distance: maybe three miles, but lots of climbing.

Rating: five stars. A wonderful place and mercifully not crowded.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Greece: Nafplio

 Bourtzi Castle

Nafplio has an interesting history. Allegedly founded by Nauplios, son of Poseidon, the sea god, it changed hands many times until it was bought by the Venetians in 1388 for its large and calm harbour. It fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1540, but when Greece succeeded in obtaining independence from them in 1828 it was briefly the seat of government (although this moved to Athens in 1834).

We started our walk at the western end which looks out over Bourtzi Castle, built by the Venetians in 1471 to defend the harbour. It looks rather like a miniature castle made of sand when seen from the shore. Apparently it was at some point the home of the town Executioner (it kept him safe from vengeance) and later a hotel

Out of sight on the rocky hill overlooking the town is the second castle, Akronafplia, now a hotel. From sea level all that can be seen is a number of defensive fortifications.

We headed along from our hotel to pass the first of several Greek Orthodox churches. 

We have been told that 95% of Greeks are Greek Orthodox and that there are no Muslims. The road leads into Iatrou Square, by the harbour, and graced by a rather lovely monument.

There is also a splendid view of the third castle, Palamedes, named for the son of Nauplios. There is a path up to the castle which is said to be 999 steps. It's certainly a lot! And although we were tempted, it was very hot and we resisted.

From  there we headed to Syntagma Square where the main sight is the former Venetian Arsenal now the Archaeological Museum.

At the opposite end of the square a tower belonging to the Akronafplion castle dominates the skyline above a former Orthodox church.

At right angles there is a rather lovely building which reminded me of one in the Cours Saleya in Nice. Looking at that picture again, I see that similarity isn't all that strong, but both do have four bays and are yellow.

We headed along the delightful Konstantinou street admiring the flowers …

… and these lovely first floor details.

Emerging into a small square there was a clearer view of the 999 steps leading up to the Palamedes castle.

This led to another small square with the Orthodox cathedral of Agios Giorgios and the  castle behind it. We didn't go in the Cathedral: I always feel that it would be intrusive and almost invasive, perhaps because religion seems more intensely felt here. It is illogical I suppose as I would happily wander into any Catholic church in western Europe.

We followed a parallel path back to the harbourside.  All very pleasant, but nothing outstanding. I did like this early 19th century doorway though.

Distance: a couple of miles.

Conditions: still hot and sunny.

Rating: four and half stars. A delightful town.