Lakonia

Lakonia, home of the ancient Spartans, is the most untouched and isolated part of the region. Hidden under the bulk of Mt. Taygetos, the mysterious society of the Mani peninsula warded off pirates (while simultaneously acquiring their own pirating skills) in stone-built towers that can still be seen today.

With the mountains of Taygetos and Parnonas to the west and east, the prefecture is fertile and abundant with citrus and olive groves. King Menelaus and his beautiful wife Helen (of a thousand ships fame) held court here, until Paris of Troy kidnapped her. This dastardly dead started the Trojan Wars of Homers “Iliad”. The ancient city lies now beneath the modern town and makes exploration difficult.

Most anyone who drives along the coastal roads of Mani, and ventures inland to visit the villages, will proclaim this to be among the most wild and beautiful coastlines in the country. For those interested in the Byzantine period, there are several of incredible beauty and fascination: among them, Mystras, the so-called “Florence of the East”, and Monemvasia, which means “Only one way in” – both are towns which flourished in the Medieval period, and which attract many visitors due to their historical importance.

Visiting Lakonia is the closest you will probably ever come to a trip in a time machine to the Medieval period. Between Monemvasia, Geraki, Mystras, and Mani, this is a land absolutely overwhelming in Byzantine and Medieval history and architecture. Although most people would probably first think of Ancient Sparta, Lakonia is more about Medieval Greece. Sparta was one of the most important Ancient Greek cities, but the city did not consider monument building to be a high priority. From the site of Ancient Sparta, very little remains – a theater, a stoa, some inscriptions, some bits of a temple to Artemis. But venture out of the modern city of Sparta, and explore the perhaps lesser-known parts of Lakonia.

 

Mystras

Once a fortress of the Byzantine Empire , the ruins of Mistras lies 6km from Sparta , and consists of palaces, monasteries and churches from the 13 th century Frankish occupation of the Peloponnese . Founded in 1249 by the Franks, it soon became an important town under the rule of the Byzantines. In the 14 th century, the Despots of Morea controlled the town, and it became a major cultural centre in the region, attracting scholars and artists from other countries. The whole area gives the visitor some idea of the glorious past that once thrived here. Mistras consists of two towns, the upper and the lower. Mitropolis, in the lower town is the oldest church in the town. The 14 th century Moni Perivleptou, clinging to the rock face also decorated with frescoes, as is the monastery of Moni Pantanassas. The Despots Palace is under reconstruction, after years of neglect. The Kastro in the upper town is flanked by massive ravines, built in 1249 the Kastro was altered during the Byzantine and Turks

Mystras was often called the “Florence of the East” because of its reputation as an intellectual center; a walking-tour through the ruins of this city will take several hours as you ponder the churches, monasteries, walls, and walkways of this medieval hillside city. You can climb up to the citadel atop the hill as well. Visit the Archaeological Museum while you are there.

Geraki

Geraki is a smaller Mystras, built in the same period, and similarly overflowing with crumbling medieval buildings and churches. In the village of Geraki, there are several beautiful Byzantine churches, including my favorite, the church of St. John Chrysostome, into the walls of which was built an inscription from Diocletian’s decree on prices.

Monemvasia

This massive rock soaring 350m out of the sea locally known as Greece’s answer to the rock of Gibraltar. This fortified town had a population of 50,000 in the 15 th century, and was a semi-independent city-state, with a large fleet that traded with other regions and the occasional acts of piracy. The town is in two parts, the lower and upper towns. The upper town is in ruins today, with only the small church of Agia Sofia taking pride of place, they are some frescoes in the church but they are badly faded. The remains of the fortress with its barracks and stores are visible. In the lower town, winding streets lined with tavernas and souvenir shops, weave there way between small houses and churches. With some small hotels and decent restaurants, the island makes a pleasant break, especially after the main tourist season is over and the crowds are less.

Monemvasia, a little piece of land that extrudes from the east coast of Lakonia, is a walled Medieval city which still functions today. No cars are allowed, and it is a perfect place for a day of walking and exploring. You can stay in one of the few hotels located inside the walls, or just across the way on the coast. Monemvasia is known as one of the most romantic destinations in all of Greece!

Mani

Mani is the name for the middle peninsula of the Peloponnese, but it has more than mere geographical significance. The society of the Mani was and continues to be one of the most fiercely independent societies in Greece. One of the last areas in Greece to become converted to Christianity, Mani remains one of the most Christian areas in the country.

This region is in two, the outer Mani and the inner Mani. The region was fiercely independent, and ruled by clans who fought over the less than fertile land. The clans built high tower’s from which they could fire and hurl rocks onto their rivals. These blood feuds could last for months and years, with only short breaks, so they could harvest their crops. The feuds ended when the rival clan submitted. The region been invaded by foreign powers, the Turks decided not to rule the region directly, but let them fight among themselves in the hope that later they could take over the region. They appointed overlords to try to control the clans and instigate feuds, but in 1821, the clans finally joined forces in the War of Independence against the Turks.

Isolation requires autonomy, and in Mani, autonomy meant vigilante justice, piracy, and family vendettas that went on (and go on) for generations. To protect their families, Maniats built towers, where their clan could go during times of trouble. These towers are very distinct in their architecture, and have a unique beauty. Several have been converted into inns, so you can even experience the Maniat tower-house for yourself! The coast of Mani is particularly beautiful and secluded, with many bays and beaches. Driving down to the very tip of Mani, you will go through the preserved town of Vatheia, where you can wander and admire the architecture, and continue on to find yourself at the Temple of Poseidon – turned – Church of the Bodiless Ones. In ancient times, this was thought to be an entrance to the Underworld. The mystery of the place survives now. You can spend the night at Porto Kayio or continue your drive up the eastern coast of the peninsula toward Gytheio. This drive will take you through numerous tiny villages enjoying a stunning view over the sea.

A visit to the Mani peninsula is not complete without a visit to the excellent Caves of Dirou. The attached museum deals with the Neolithic civilization that lived here.

Inner Mani

This region is barren with only pockets of fertile soil, where a few olive trees and fig trees grow. The landscape is dotted with the towers of the clans, some of which are under restoration. The churches in the region are good examples of the local architecture.

Outer Mani

This region is more fertile than inner Mani is, and is very popular with walkers, numerous trails in which one can explore the countryside and enjoy the views.

Gytheio

The town of Gytheio makes a good base for exploring the Mani, but Areopoli, Kardamyli, and Porto Kayio are nice options as well. In Gytheio, visit the Mani Museum, which has an exhibit on early European travelers to the area, and on the ethnography of Maniat society. The town also has a Classical theater, located near the army base. It is very small and not much remains. Gytheio also has an Archaeological Museum.

Gytheio is the ancient port and naval base of Sparta , and is reputed to be the site where Paris and Helen of Troy fled to Egypt . The town is an ideal base from which to explore the district, and the Caves of Diros. The Museum of Mani has on display finds from excavations in the region and items of local folklore. The Castle of Passava 12km southwest of the town, built in 1254 is the site of a terrible massacre, when the nephew of a man who was killed, sought revenge by killing 1,000 Muslim villagers inside the castle. The Caves of Diros, have wonderful formations of stalactites and stalagmites, a short guided tour takes in inside the cave.

Minor sites in Lakonia

Minor sites in Lakonia include the site of Amykles, located just outside Sparta, where there is not much remaining, although you can still see some ancient walls. In Sparta, the Archaeological Museum is not very impressive, but there are some interesting pieces on display, including a large Neolithic section. More interesting is the newly opened Olive Oil Museum in Sparta, which has interactive displays dealing with the cultivation of the olive and the production of oil. The site of Menelaion, the location of a Mycenean settlement, is located in a beautiful spot 5 km SE of Sparta, but there is little on the ground. Go for the views of the mountains instead.

Elafonissos

Elafonissos is a small island located just off the southern tip of the southeasternmost tip of the Peloponnese. A quiet and serene island, Elafonissos boasts excellent beaches and is particularly good for children.

Sparta

This modern town surrounded by lush orchards and olive groves, with a backdrop of mountains, has little again of ruins from its past, and do not reflect the importance of this once powerful city. The town’s small archaeological museum has on display artefacts from excavations around the region. Moreover, you are interested in the history of the olive, then a visit to the Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil, where the history of the humble olive is on display, along with old olive presses and working models.

Itilo

This sleepy village once infamous for its slave trade is a shadow of its former self. Above the village is the Castle of Kelefa , from here the Turks tried to subdue the inhabitants of the region. Nearby is the Monastery of Dekoulou, with some fine frescoes inside.

Stoupa

This former fishing village is a popular resort with good beaches for the tourist seeking a less hectic destination and looking for the true feeling of Greece . The author of the celebrated book and film, Zorba the Greek lived here for a while and a local coalmine worker called Alexis Zorbas was the blueprint for the main character in the film and book.

Kardamyli

This village along the coast with a backdrop of the Taygetos Mountains and overlooking the Gulf of Messina is charming and makes a good base to start walking in the mountains.

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