Hidden beauties of Greece

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Mystras - The Byzantine fortress town.

Mystras is one of the most exciting cities in Peloponnese. Standing still in time, the dead city lies on the slope of the hill with the fortress at its top. The whole of Mystras is an open-air museum; A reminder of glorious era of power and culture. Its fortifications and churches, its palaces and mansions, its roads and fountains, charm thousands of visitors daily and offers them valuable insights in the evolution and culture of the Byzantines.
For two centuries Mystras had a brilliant history full of glory, splendour and political, social and cultural contributions. Its story begins in the mid-13th century when the Franks were dominant in the Peloponnese. In 1249 Villehardouin II built an impregnable fortress at the top of a hill called Mystras or Mizithras. Ten years later Villehardouin found himself to be a prisoner of the Byzantine Emperor Michael Paleologos and bought his freedom by handing over the fortresses of Mystras, Monemvasia and Mani. Mystras offered security, so that the inhabitants of neighbouring cities made their homes on the slopes surrounding the fortress. The settlement and the Hora (town) were protected by a wall, but these new houses were built outside the enclosure. Another wall protected the new settlement, Kato Hora. The "strategoi" (= generals) governed the town, and as of 1308, when the seat of the Diocese had been moved to Lacedaemonia, Mystras became the capital of the Peloponnese and the seat of the Seignioly (Despotate) of the Moreas, with a ruler or despot who enjoyed a tenure for life.

See the video on Mystras.

The Palaces of the despots of Morea dominate Mystras from their rocky foundations in the centre of Ano Hora. It is a complex of buildings built at different times. The first, the "mansion of the Katakouzenoi", was constructed in the first years, perhaps by the Franks. The second edifice dates from the same period (1250-1350). The third, a four-storey building, was erected between 1350 and 1400, as was the fourth, a two-storey mansion which was the residence of the despot. The fifth building (1400-1450) was the palace of the "Paleologoi" Family. Its length is 38 m. and its width 12 m. The first storey was intended for the departments of the Seigniory. The second was the throne hall. The abandoned palaces constitute an important attraction for the modern visitor. After their restoration, they are a vivid reminder of an era that has left an indelible mark on history. As is the grand square before them, the site of official displays during the days of Mystras' glory and a market in later years, when the town was a busy commercial centre.

The Fortress: At the top of the hill, at an altitude of 620 m., the fortress was built in 1249 by Villehardouin II. In later years many improvements and additions were made. It has two yards, with a gate for each. In the outer yard is a sturdy circular tower, a cistern and the ruins of buildings dating from the years of Turkish occupation. In the inner yard is the abandoned residence of the governor, a cistern, a circular tower and a small church, perhaps the oldest edifice in Mystras.

The Walls: There are two lines of fortification in Mystras. The inner wall, which was constructed to protect the first inhabitants, encloses the Palaces of the Despots. The outer wall was constructed later, to protect the inhabitants of Kato Hora. The fortifications are complemented by square-shaped towers.

The Gates: Mystras had three gates: the fortified Gate in the outer wall - today the main entrance for visitors - the Upper Gate (Fortress Gate) and the Gate of Nafplion, high up on the northern side of the inner wall, fortified with square and circular towers and with an iron portal that could be lowered and lifted. Internal communication between Kato and Ano Hora was through the Gate of Monemvasia, also known as Sideroporta ("Iron Gate").

The Mansions and Houses: History and daily life in Mystras emerge from the centuries-old winding alleys and its mansions and houses. Old or more recent, most have retained their initial form and constitute a valuable source of information regarding architecture, the manner of construction and daily life in the 13th century and later. The most significant - because better preserved - are the Laskaris mansion near Marmara, the Frangopoulos mansion between the Perivleptos and the Pantanassa, and the Palataki near Agios Nikolaos in Ano Hora; the various stages of its construction place it between the second half of the 13th and the first years of the 15th century.

The Churches: More than 25 churches contribute with their architecture and history to the special character Mystras. Agios Dimitrios, Evangelistria, Agioi Theodoroi, Panagia Odigitria, The Perivleptos, Pantanassa, Agia Sofia...

The Byzantine Museum: The museum of Mystras is housed in the two - storeys building at the north courtyard of the Cathedral of Agios Demetrios. It was founded in 1951 and since then its collections have been considerably enriched. It contains collections of Byzantine sculpture, jewellery, pottery, coins, fragments of wall paintings, portable post-Byzantine icons, and pieces of fabric. Tel: +30 27310 83377 (check always the working hours).

Every second Saturday a 2 day tour visiting Sparta - Mystras -Gythion - Monemvasia is organised (minimum group size, 5 persons).

Affiliated websites: astoria travel, astoria of Athens, Tours to Greece.