Gillian Bouras
An Australian
Writer
Living in Greece

June 2014

Late again. More excuses. But it’s a really good one this time. I’m just back from a four day excursion, and am so glad I went.  Organised by the Friends of the Australian Archaeological Institute of Athens, the trip involved visiting Sparta, Mystras, and Monemvasia., so that both Ancient and Byzantine Greece received due attention. And we had expert commentary from an American archaeologist who clearly knows certain parts of Greece like the back of his hand.

The group was a mixed bunch, as such groups usually are. There was a number of foreign wives and husbands, and also some Greek Australians and Greek Americans. I had four T-shirts with me: three were distinctively Australian, and one was for the Greeks, in that it bears the opening lines of The Odyssey. (I was very impressed when a museum employee read the whole lot off very easily: Ancient Greek does not resemble Modern Greek much.)  There were at least four people present who had grown up in Melbourne, so I felt pleased that I had brought my I Love Melbourne shirt with me. But whatever our origin, we were all philhellenes, and in the area in order to learn.

I joined the group in Sparta, which is a mere 60km or so from where I live. Famed Greek novelist and poet, Nikos Kazantzakis, once wrote  that ‘the face of Greece is a palimpsest bearing twelve successive inscriptions: Contemporary; the period of 1821; the Turkish yoke; the Frankish sway; the Byzantine; the Roman; the Hellenistic epoch; the Classic; the Dorian middle ages; the Mycenaean; the Aegean; and the Stone Age.’ Sparta and its province of Laconia (remember the blankets?) bear most of these inscriptions: it is thought that the people we think of as Spartans were descended from the Dorians, who overran most of southern Greece  between 1200 and 1000 BC.

Of ancient Sparta there is little left to see, mainly because building was not a Spartan thing. Sparta was a military state, so that the town apparently resembled a very large army camp more than anything else. In this respect, as well as in many others, Sparta was very unlike Athens, which gloried, as we know, in building monuments and temples. There are some ruins in the area of the Spartan acropolis, but most people were more impressed by the view from a certain point overlooking the remains of the theatre. I suppose it is a cliché to speak of magical moments, but there is certainly enchantment in the panorama: you stand among ancient ruins and see the modern town, which dates from 1834, spread out and backed by the stern and forbidding Taygetus Mountains.

The road from Kalamata passes through the Taygetus, and at some stages runs through the rock itself. The engineers certainly had their work cut out for them, as it were: that same work must have involved very skilled use of dynamite. It’s a dramatic bus ride: you try not to think about earth tremors. At the same time you understand that death by exposure on these mountainsides must have come quite quickly. But in contrast the plain of Sparta is a tribute to life: even in early summer there are oranges on the trees, and the gardens provide, as my Granny would have said, ‘a glorious show.’

Mystras is only 6km west of Sparta, and there more enchantment awaits. Patrick Leigh Fermor described it as ‘this airy casket of a city,’ and the description is apt. The ruins of the settlement spread down a mountainside, and often seem suspended in space, an effect that occurs very readily when one looks upwards. Once this place had a population of some 40,000 people, and was a great centre of culture. The frescoes in churches remain, and so do some fine examples of architecture, but Mystras itself is inhabited by only a few nuns.

In the delightful Pantanassa convent, a bower of flowers and trailing vines, and home to a vast number of cats, the nuns sell linen and embroideries. One nun has a sister who lives in Sydney. Had she been there? No, never: her place is here. This was said with a quiet air of contentment. (Kazantzakis had been moved to tears by this convent: ‘How calm and fragrant it had all seemed to me, so far beyond our satanic, complex life.’) The sister from complex Sydney comes to visit the convent. And so do many others. Even in early June the Pullman coaches are in serried ranks in the car park outside the walls of the old city. Kazantzakis would be amazed. And perhaps displeased.

William Villehardouin, the Frankish prince who was born in Kalamata and spoke Greek as his first language, held both Mystras and Monemvasia at one stage of his life. But I think I’ll leave William and Monemvasia for another time.

 

Gillian Bouras

 

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