Sparta, Mystras & Gythio

Posted on / by Alex Berger

You’ve no doubt heard the name. You may have seen the movies and hopefully you know about it’s reputation. That said, Sparta was incredible. Not because the city was brimming with fierce-hearted ancient warriors, beautiful ruins or well preserved fortifications. In fact it had none of the above. Modern Sparta is a medium-sized, modern Greek city. Beyond a small museum there really isn’t much there historically. The party scene is pretty nonexistent and the closest thing to fierce warriors are the 1,000 or so soldiers that come into the city at night from the local military base to sit around drinking coffee. Despite that, Sparta was wonderful for all the opposite reasons.

When Lander and I got off the bus at the bus station near the edge of town and started toward the town center we made it about 100 paces before a kindly elderly man stopped us and asked where we were going…what hotel…and if we needed help. Ordinarily the Greeks are incredibly friendly, but above and beyond that the Spartans are warm and gracious. Later, after finding our hotel, the owner was sitting peeling an apple and watching TV as we were leaving to find food. We asked if he had a recommendation for somewhere to eat, and along with directions to a good Gyro shop, he sent us off with two slices of apple. The next day as we returned from wandering he pulled us aside again and offered us a delicious local desert. At the gyro shop we frequented for dinner during our 3 day stay the owner, who was constantly working, offered us advice on where to go. He filled us in about what was happening within the city, its demographics and other good destinations to visit in Greece. When we stopped at a bakery-candy store and ordered two odd candies which were a bit like solid red jello with a rosebud like taste and covered in powdered sugar, the guy working waved us off – twice.

As I mentioned, the city itself was fairly unremarkable. Though we ended up spending 3 nights there, it was largely because Mystras, the main attraction, located 6km North of the city was closed 1 day and had a horrible bus schedule which we missed the other. We spent our time in Sparta wandering the streets, drinking coffee, eating and sleeping. It was a beautiful recovery spot.

The last day we woke up early, left our gear at the hotel and caught the bus to Mystras. The tiny city and impressive ruins of Mystras are phenomenal. A powerful city for hundreds of years, it only fell to ruin several hundred years ago. With a large castle perched on top of the hill and the ruins of a large city spread across the steep hillside it’s easy to visualize a Minas-Tirith like city (there I go with the Lord of the Rings references again) . A Byzantine capitol, the city itself was limited to foot traffic with narrow winding streets. The hill it sits on is backed by large snow-capped mountains. The valley it looks over holds the modern city of Sparta and is covered with sprawling olive and orange groves. The ruins are for the most part just that…the occasional wall or street with decently preserved churches along the way. The palace has been reconstructed and the work is currently ongoing. The castle, though fairly ruined, has the feel of a mountaintop stronghold and posseses a sweeping view. Walking along the crumbling castle wall with a 20 foot drop to the ground, then a steep hillside was an experience…Like walking on the top of the world.

After climbing to the top…no small feat given the crumbling stone trails and the castle’s impressive height…Lander and I paused to read a bit looking up from our books to take in the vista that stretched out 360 degrees around us. The air was clean, the valley floor was bathed in a fog-like smoke from various farm rubbish fires and the sky was crystal blue. In our t-shirts it seemed hard to believe it was late November, until you turned around and looked at the snow capped peaks a few thousand feet above us.

From Mystras we returned to Sparta, grabbed our bags and caught a bus south to Gythio which was the small port city closest to Crete. There we would later catch a ferry to Kissamos, Crete. The bus ride was beautiful, through mountain passes, beautiful orchards and open countryside. Eventually, tired and sore from the hike and bus ride, we arrived in Gythio, located a cheap hotel and then set out to explore the city. For some odd reason, it was one of the smelliest cities we’ve found so far. From sewage to harbor stench it seemed to have them all. Despite the smell, the city was a fun, simple town that wrapped along the water sandwiched between a small hill and the ocean. Most of the town was closed up when we arrived but before long we found some food at a local restaurant where we negotiated the price down and ended up eating delicious, tender, fried calimari with taters (me) and a delicious thick fish soup (Lander). I wish I had more to write, unfortunatly it was just a quick layover without much to it. As a result dinner was the most exciting thing to happen beyond a few games of pool Lander and I played.

This morning (that’s right – I’m finally caught up!) we woke up late, made our way to an internet cafe where we checked a few things quickly, then grabbed some souvlaki (chopped pork on a shishkabob stick) and caught our 7 hour ferry to Kissamos. The ferry ride was unremarkable…just another stretch with nothing to do but sit and read. The weather could have been better and as a result the boat was rocking fairly heavily, which left Lander hurting a bit. The only real excitement came when we landed. After a horrible (and lengthy) parking job by the captain we disembarked and quickly noticed that the port was a good 3km from the town. The one taxi that bothered showing up was already claimed, it was 8:40 at night and we didn’t really feel like having them call another (or paying for it) so we decided the 3km walk along the water would be good for us. It’s 3km afterall – that’s only like a mile and a half or something…right? heh.

Hungry, stiff, sore and tired we made the walk along the two lane road that wrapped around the bay to the city dodging cars as they came buzzing by and wondering just how far it actually would be until we found a suitable hotel. Luckily, the air, while slightly chilled, was still pleasant, laden with the fresh scent of the ocean and a taste of the winter storm that had just passed. 30 minutes or so later we found ourselves on the outskirts of Kissamos and another 5 minutes or so beyond that we found the city square and a dirt cheap hotel. At 25 Euro total for the both of us, it’s going to end up cheaper than a hostel.

Tomorrow we will catch a bus to Chania and continue the adventure!

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