Things To Do in Mystras, Greece (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

Visitar Mystras, na Grécia: Património Cultural da UNESCO.
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2024-01-25

Discover the Best Things to Do in Mystras, Greece, while immersing yourself in its rich UNESCO World Heritage site in the heart of the Peloponnese.

The archaeological site of Mystras, situated approximately 5 kilometers from Sparta, has held a place on UNESCO’s list of World Cultural Heritage monuments since 1989.

This site, renowned for its remarkable beauty, conceals Byzantine palaces, houses, churches, and hidden corners that invite exploration at a leisurely pace. At the pinnacle of the hill, Mystras Castle, known as the ‘Wonder of Morea,’ presides over the landscape.

Historically, the kingdom of Morea rivaled global powers like Constantinople, underscoring its significance as a fortress city on the world stage.

Mystras boasts an architectural and urban legacy that encompasses the Frankish castle and other Byzantine structures, rendering it invaluable for the study of medieval Byzantine and European culture.

Above all, wandering through the streets of Mystras is a delight, as at every turn, we encounter fragments of history.

In this article, we will delve into the history of Mystras, from the construction of the castle by the Franks in the 13th century to the eras of Byzantine and Ottoman rule, and ultimately, the decline of the fortress city in the 18th century.

Moreover, we will offer practical tips to streamline your trip planning and address any pertinent questions you may have.

Are you ready for this journey through history? Let’s embark on it!

The Byzantine Era of Mystras

Castelo de Mystras, em Esparta.
Best Things To Do and See in Mystras: visit the Mystras Castle.

Mystras Castle, the initial structure built in Mystras, dates back approximately 800 years, with its construction attributed to Guillaume de Villehardouin in 1249.

While originally constructed by the Franks, Mystras Castle came under Byzantine control in 1262 following the Battle of Pelagonia.

It was during this period that the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Paleologos ordered the establishment of the city surrounding the castle.

Porta da Castelo de Mystras.
Castle Gate, in the Mystras citadel (Best Things To Do and See in Mystras).

The Byzantines typically established their cities, villages, fortresses, and monasteries near fountains, rivers, or lakes to ensure access to a reliable water source. In contrast, Mystras primarily relied on a cistern within the castle to collect rainwater.

The underground clay canals, which are still visible in certain streets of the fortified city of Mystras, played a crucial role in the city’s water supply system.

However, the full extent and exact route of these canals remain shrouded in mystery.

Additionally, the castle was equipped with food storage facilities designed to sustain the city’s inhabitants in case of an attack.

Mystras eventually expanded beyond the castle walls, developing into a sizable city with an estimated population of 40,000 residents.

The Growth of the Fortified City

Cidade Bizantina de Mystras.
Byzantine city of Mystras.

Mystras is a quintessential example of a Byzantine fortified city, characterized by its three concentric rings of development.

The initial construction began at the highest point of the hill, where the castle was built.

Over time, the population expanded and settled on the hill’s slopes, leading to the formation of a larger residential area within the protective embrace of two curtain walls.

The inner curtain delineated the boundaries of the Upper City, housing the citadel, palaces, homes, and the administrative center.

This district primarily served as the aristocratic residential zone.

Beneath the Upper City lay the Lower City, forming the second residential ring and enclosed by the city’s outer walls.

Here, one could find the Cathedral, numerous monasteries, the residences of prominent officials, and a multitude of houses.

Beyond the walls, the peasant population resided in the area known as the ‘City Outside the Walls.’ During times of peril, these individuals sought refuge within the fortified city.

The Byzantine acropolis functioned as the ultimate line of defense against enemy incursions.

It housed the guard command post, the residence of the head of the armed forces, and the garrison headquarters.

The Byzantine Markets

Vista para a cidade baixa de Mystras.
Best Things To Do and See in Mystras: View of the lower town.

In the great cities of late antiquity, trade typically occurred in the public markets (Agora) situated at the heart of the city. Additionally, stores in arcades, known as ‘dovetails,’ lined the main streets.

Under the rule of the Palaiologoi, Mystras emerged as a significant commercial center in the region.

Within the markets of the ‘City Outside the Walls,’ products from the Laconian lands, including olive oil, honey, citrus fruits, wheat, and, notably, silk, were gathered and traded in local markets as well as in the western markets.

To fulfill the needs of the despots and the local aristocracy, luxury items like fabrics, weapons, and paper were imported, primarily from Venice and Florence. This transformation turned the city into a pivotal international trade hub.

It is plausible that the arches at street level flanking the main street of the Lower City of Mystras served as the designated spaces for the city’s commerce.

The Organization of Mystras

Uma das entradas para Mystras, na parte inferior do monte Taigeto.
One of the entrances to Mystras, at the bottom of Mount Taigeto.

As mentioned earlier, the layout of Byzantine fortified cities typically adhered to a fundamental plan comprising three distinct sections.

At the summit of the hill, forming a natural fortress, stood the acropolis. Descending the hill, one encountered two successive lines of defense: the Upper City and the Lower City.

Mystras featured two principal gates: the Monemvasia Gate, oriented towards the port city of Monemvasia, served as a vital link between the upper and lower town, while the Main Gate, positioned atop the hill, provided access to Mystras Castle.

The positioning of the main roads, determined by the gate locations, administrative and religious structures, delineated the layout of the residential neighborhoods.

Caminhar entre a Cidade Alta e a Cidade Baixa de Mystras.
Walking between the Upper Town and the Lower Town of Mystras.

Every space within the city walls was occupied by houses, creating an overall sense of urban harmony and preventing urban chaos.

Adherence to building regulations and practices contributed to the city’s functionality and logical organization.

However, it’s worth noting that the architecture of temples and palaces varied, with some of the latter constructed by the Ottomans during their occupation.

The epicenter of political life in Mystras revolved around the palaces.

Typically, these palaces had three floors: the first floor for servants and animals, the second floor for the noble family, and the top floor for royal functions, including the throne room and audience areas where the king received visitors.

The king of Mystras was typically the emperor’s second son, as the first son would ascend to the position of the new emperor.

In summary, Mystras represented a robust state, underscoring the significance of this small kingdom known as the Kingdom of Morias, which encompassed the entire Peloponnese.

Mystras and the Ottoman Period

Igreja de Agia Sofia Cidade Alta Mystras
Church of Hagia Sophia in the Upper City of Mystras, transformed into a mosque during the Ottoman occupation.

Even after the last Byzantine ruler, Demetrios Palaiologos, ceded control to the Turks in 1460, Mystras retained its significance as one of the region’s most vital cities and became the seat of an Ottoman administrative district, known as a ‘sanjaki.’

According to a 17th-century traveler, the Greek population continued to inhabit the city’s interior, while Muslim, Jewish, and Greek communities established themselves beyond the city walls.

The locals devoted themselves to silk production and the cultivation of olive trees, vines, citrus fruits, figs, and tobacco. However, much of this produce was destined for export to Western Europe.

Following the Ottoman conquest, the production of Byzantine religious art ceased, although some churches were constructed to serve the subjugated Christian population.

During this period, the Church of St. Nicholas in Mystras was built.

Under Turkish occupation, the city walls were repaired and expanded, as were older residences.

New houses, such as those in the ‘Palace district,’ were constructed within the city, while outside the walls, in the ‘Krevatadon district’ near the Peribleptos Monastery, and civic buildings were expanded to meet the administrative needs of the ‘sanjaki’ district.

The Churches of Mystras

Igreja de São Demétrio, na cidade baixa de Mystras.
Best Things To Do and See in Mystras: Church of St. Demetrius, in the lower town.

The history of the churches in Mystras, and the deep connection between its inhabitants and religion, is truly captivating. Surprisingly, there were 30 churches within the walled city, a significant number considering its size.

Some of these churches date back to the 14th century, but during the period of Ottoman occupation, many of them were converted into mosques.

All these churches were adorned with frescoes on both the walls and ceilings. Unfortunately, many of these frescoes collapsed after the city was abandoned.

Nevertheless, you can still appreciate a significant number of paintings adorning the church walls.

The level of detail and the vivid colors of these frescoes are truly impressive, as are the supporting columns.

Notably, one of the most remarkable examples depicts the birth of the Virgin Mary, a subject that is relatively rare when compared to depictions of the birth of Jesus.

Fresco que retrata o nascimento da Virgem Maria, em Mystras, Grécia.
This fresco, found in Mystras, Greece, portrays the birth of the Virgin Mary.

Each church in Mystras was organized into three distinct sections.

The first area, was reserved for the unbaptized, as they were not permitted to enter the central part of the church, the central area was designated for baptized believers, while the space surrounding the altar was accessible only to the priests.

Among the notable churches is the Church of Agia Sophia, named after the Hagia Sophia mosque in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). This name was chosen by the Ottoman ruler of the time, forging a symbolic connection.

Another significant church is the Church of St. Demetrius, designed as a basilica with five cross-shaped domes.

It was at this church, on January 6, 1449, that Konstantine Paleologus, the last Byzantine emperor, was crowned.

Helpful Tips for Planning Your Trip

Cúpula de Igreja em Mystras.
Best Things To Do and See in Mystras: Church dome in Mystras.
  • Choose the right day to visit Mystras, as the hill is highly exposed to the sun, and shaded areas are limited.
  • Wear comfortable shoes suitable for walking over loose stones and navigating numerous steps.
  • Note that there is only one restroom facility in Mystras, so it’s advisable to bring water and snacks to keep your energy up.
  • You’ll find two ticket offices in Mystras, one at the top of the hill and one at the bottom, providing the flexibility to choose your ascent or descent.
  • Free parking lots are available near both entrances to the Mystras archaeological site

Mystras é conhecido por quê?

Frescos nas Igrejas de Mystras.
Frescos in the Mystras churches. Best Things To Do and See in Mystras.

Mystras is renowned for several remarkable features.

The archaeological site boasts a Frankish castle, Byzantine palaces, and a collection of Byzantine churches, each showcasing a unique historical and architectural significance.

Furthermore, Mystras holds the prestigious distinction of being a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, acknowledging its cultural and historical importance on a global scale.

Is the Archaeological Site of Mystras Worth Visiting?

Absolutely!

Mystras is a must-visit destination, offering a captivating blend of history and remarkably preserved churches and houses.

Moreover, from the summit of Mystras Hill, you’ll be treated to unobstructed views of the city of Sparta, adding to the allure of this remarkable site.

Why Was Mystras Abandoned?

The decline of Mystras began with the Orlov Revolution in 1770, and by 1832, its residents had permanently relocated closer to the city of Sparta, leaving the town deserted.

This shift was driven by a combination of factors, including regional conflicts, political instability, and the dwindling commercial activities that once thrived in Mystras.

Over time, the city’s economic and strategic significance also waned.

Kostantinos Paleologos, the last king of Mystras, presided over this transformative period.

Discover Nearby Restaurants in Mystras

Chef do Restaurante Chromata.
Chef at Chromata Restaurant.

Exploring Mystras is bound to work up your appetite, and you’re in luck because there’s an exceptional restaurant nearby!

Chromata Restaurant a Greek culinary gem, offering a mouthwatering array of delectable dishes.

While the pictures do tell a delicious story on their own, let’s dive into the enticing descriptions of their culinary creations (listed below).

  1. Traditional woodfired sourdough bread and homemade green olives in citrus brine;
  2. Chronomata salad, a colorful salad with mushrooms, herb cheese and orange vinaigrette;
  3. Messinian Talagani Cheese fried, coated in almond flakes with homemade bergamot spoon sweet
  4. Swiss chard & wild spring green sautée this local Feta cheese of Mt. Taygetus & poached organic home produced quail eggs;
  5. Baked Stuffed onions with fresh spinash, smoked pork pancetta and select local cheeses;
  6. Roumeliotiko finelly sliced pork on pita bread with grilled fresh tomato;
  7. Local beer: Sparta.
  8. Local homemade orzo pasta with chicken, butternut squash, leeks and local artisan Feta cheese;
  9. Vegetable risotto with Verbena pesto and soft Galotyri Cheese;
  10. Chicken fillet stuffed with local smoked pork, mushrooms and Graviera Cheese of Naxos on homemade sour Trahana pasta dressed in byzantine spices;
  11. Orange pie with vanila ice cream, the restaurant signature dessert.

When Is the Ideal Time to Explore Mystras?

Quando visitar Mystras?
Visit Mystras in the spring.

The best time to embark on a journey to Mystras is during the spring season, from March to May.

During this period, the weather is pleasantly mild, and the landscape flourishes with vibrant greenery.

Alternatively, early autumn offers another splendid opportunity.

The weather remains comfortable, but the scenery takes on a warm, golden hue, creating a picturesque atmosphere.

For a particularly enriching experience, consider visiting Mystras during the Paleology Festival, held on May 29.

This event not only commemorates the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 but also pays tribute to the Paleologos family, the Byzantine emperors.

It serves as a poignant reminder of Konstantinos Paleologos, the last Byzantine emperor and despot of Mystras, who valiantly defended Constantinople until his demise in 1453.

If your visit must occur during the summer, it’s advisable to plan your exploration for the early morning hours to escape the peak heat and make the most of your journey.

Where is Mystras, and How to Reach It?

Mystras is situated approximately 5 kilometers to the southeast of Sparta, and it’s about 218 kilometers to the southwest of Athens.

If you’re traveling from Kalamata, the journey covers a distance of 104 kilometers and typically takes just over an hour.

The route to Sparta involves well-maintained roads, but it’s crucial to remain attentive to the road conditions, especially as you approach Mystras, where the roads may become narrower.

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