Thursday, April 23, 2009


The muscles of my legs are tender. I didn't realize how mountainous Greece was. For the last 4 days we have visited late Byzantine sites in Greece. Mystras in the Peloponnese and Meteora at the foot of the Pindhus Mountains were both built on mountaintops. In both places the only way up is on foot. Hundreds and hundreds of stairs allowed us to thread our way up and down the narrow roads and passageways of Mystras and scale the towering rocks of the Meteora. Stairs of weathered marble, worn and dark with age, stairs of brick hollowed by the feet of generations, stairs cut out of the rock face of the cliff, reconstructed stairs, stairs of earth and wood, you name it, we did it. Remember the scene in the James Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only" where the Bebe the ice skater and her lecherous patron (the bad guy) along with the blond haired thug who wants the nuclear triggering device are hiding out on top of one of the monasteries? We were there. It turns out that they won't bring you up in those little nets and I don't rock climb. So the stairs were it. I don't care if I ever see another stair.

Mystras, cleared of its last inhabitants in the middle of the 1950s, is now a World Heritage site. The mountainside once inhabited by kings and princes and 45,000 inhabitants is abandoned. Only the bricks and stones, stairs and empty buildings are left. Some are ruins, visible only by the outline of their foundation peeping out of the early summer (by our standards) grass. Some of the brick and stone buildings have been preserved or renovated, terra cotta tiles banding the building, their barrel vaults and domes creating an intricate skyline. Inside the churches, frescos and stone carving tell of a church closely allied with power, its angels clothed as soldiers, the , finial on the bishop's throne the family crest of the ruling Paliologos. Walking between the ruined walls and narrow cobbled streets overgrown with wildflowers and red poppies made me wonder what life must have been like for her inhabitants.

A fortified city, Mystras was the last capitol of the the Byzantine Empire. Built on a mountainside near Sparta, its 3 defensive city walls circled the hillside like curtains. The population, made up of skilled artisans and craftspeople came to Mystras to seek the patronage of the wealthy and the powerful. Although the frescos and stone workmanship, the architecture and artifacts tell the story of Mystras, they are at the same time a ghostly reminder. Walking the same streets that thrived with life 700 years ago called a culture to the imagination.

Unlike Mystras and 6 hours north by car, Meteora is a collection of monasteries built on top of towering islands of rock. Built about the same time as Mystras, many of the monasteries are close together, each one on top of its own rock island. Viewed from the road approaching the mountains, one monastery looks as if it is about to slide off its precarious perch into the valley below.

Unlike Mystras, the churches are still in use by the monks and sisters. The architecture is similar but adapted for the unforgiving environment. Meteora's frescos are beautiful, but most lack the surprising beauty of Mystras'. The tour buses have found Meteora, so it's kind of hard to feel like anything other than a tourist unless you watch for an opportunity when there are no tour groups in the churches. One thing about the tour groups, though -- as I watched other people huff and puff up the stairways, I didn't feel so bad for huffing and puffing myself. ...

1 comment:

mibi52 said...

My knees are creaking with the description of those stairs! Sounds like a good excuse for a nice massage, or a glass of wine!