Thursday, 22 March 2012

These Old Stones - Part Two

the old path beckons upward in the ruined fortress town of Mystra

The ancient stones of Olympia, Mycenae and Epidavros are joined in the middle ages by another set of fortress towns built by northern knights returning from the Crusades. One such was Geoffrey de Villehardouin, a Frenchman, who took a liking to the Peleponnese, set about conquering it and founded a dynasty which lasted from 1204 to 1460. Besides currying favour with the ladies, the Villehardouins were inveterate castle builders and three important ruins remain.

the ruined buildings of the town from the castle atop Mystra
The first is Mystra, built on a high hlll, a spur of the Taygetos, near the modern town of Sparti, just about an hour from our house. Here remains the ruins of an entire city, founded by Villehardouin and his son, William, and inhabited, in the lower regions until the 1950s. Although the site is now visited by many tour buses, it is large enough to get lost in and the steep slope up to the ruins of the fortress castle keep the hordes at bay.

a Byzantine church in Mystra
There is an entrance fee to the site to see the ruins, the museum and the still intact Byzantine churches of which they are a few. Even after the Villehardouins were ousted from the Peleponnese, Mystra continued to flourish in Byzantine times and was an important trading site for many centuries throughout Turkish and Venetian rule. In 1700, there were 40,000 people living on this mountain site.

Monemvasia, the second Villehardouin stronghold, is a great rock, rising up out of the sea at the south-eastern tip of the Peleponnese and joined to the mainland by a narrow, man-made causeway. The younger Villehardouin built the fortress castle at the very top but the site had been occupied since 580 AD. Unlike, Mystra, the lower area of Monemvasia is inhabited to this day.

the old Byzantine church in the ruins at the top of Monemvasia
an alley tempts you through its curves
feeding the cats - 57 of them

Monemvasia is so charming!  The small entrance into the walled town is a zig-zag configuration which allows the passage of a human or a horse but no cars or motorcycles. That makes the whole town very special - it is a "people only" place - unless you count the cats!

And Monemvasia is the ultimate in romantic villages. Its cobbled streets, its stone buildings, its planters and its shops are so well cared for. The little stone village draws you in: you love to linger and linger to love.

lingering in romantic Monemvasia

While the Villehardouin strongholds of yesteryear, Monemvasia and Mystra, attract many tourists, there is one more Byzantine town topped with another Villehardouin castle. This is Geraki, the poorer, smaller sister of Mystra and Monemvasia, but for me, all the more mysterious.

The ruined Frankish castle at the top of Geraki
Celtic knots in the wall of a church in Geraki
the crusaders have left their mark
There is no entrance fee in Geraki, there is no life in the ancient hill-top town, the small Byzantine churches are locked and who knows who has the keys; but in the ruins you find frescoes, paintings and carvings all braving the elements in this severe mountain place. In a way that is sad and you want to get the town of Geraki in the valley prodded into action to share this treasure and make a little money for themselves. On the other hand, the morning we spent climbing up to the top, enjoying the views, finding little treasures here and there, was pure magic.

a painting in a niche over the door of a locked church
frescoes of the crusaders exposed to the elements

I don't know if I should feel happy that crusader knights from the north were so arrogant that they felt justified in conquering a people just because they liked the land. Perhaps I should just be grateful that some vestiges of their presence remain and that I get to tell the story and witness the marks they left.

But why are these treasures not protected from the weather in some way?
the topmost Byzantine church in the ruins of Geraki
But still my favourite inspirational stones are those in the ruined buildings in so many Greek villages including our own. I like to look at them and think, "What if I bought it ... and renovated it..... and wrote about it? Could I be another Peter Mayle? So I always have a look when I see the For Sale sign.

For Sale

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