On a spur off the main road from Kalamata to Sparti lies the curious promontory on which sits the ruined city of Mystras, one of the last parts of the Byzantine empire to fall after Constantinople itself.
The city is split into three main parts: the lower town, the upper town and the castle. And it’s the castle that is the origin of the Byzantine town and that I want to focus on for this initial post.
It’s a hot, but slightly overcast September day as we enter the ruined city through the castle gate which is above the upper town. It is a hard climb up the zigzag path right to the castle at the top, among the shells of old stone buildings with the rotundas of red-tiled
Byzantine churches peering above them here and there.
As you get higher up you get better views over the city itself and over the plain of Laconia, home of the feared and terribly weird Spartans. The walls of the castle are well-built and remarkably still standing after over 760 years.
The castle was built in 1249 by Guillaume de Villehardouin, rule of the Frankish principate of Achaia, one of the small states that were set up following the sack of Byzantium by the Fourth Crusade in 1204. He established his castle here as the centre of his authority over the Peloponnese. However, following the battle of Pelagonia in 1249, he was forced to surrender it the Byzantine Emperor who made it the base of his regional governor of the Peloponnese.
It was not until 1348 though that the Emperor, John VI Cantacuzenos, realising the strategic importance of the area, sent his son, Manuel, to Mystras with the title Despot of Morea (Morea being another name for the Peloponnese). The town grew up around this fortified centre, attracting inhabitants from Laconia by the security it provided.
The castle was kept in good order by the Byzantines and then later by the Turks.
Here are some views from the inside of the castle:
Finally, looking back to the brooding peak of Mt Taygetos behind the castle: