Greece – Kynuria – Sparta – Messene

WHATEVER other excursions a traveller may make in the Morea, he ought not to omit a trip to Sparta, which has so often been the centre of power, and is still one of the chief centres of attraction, in Greece. And yet many reasons conspire to make this famous place less visited than the rest of the country. It is distinctly out of the way from the present starting-point s of travel. To reach it from Athens, or even from Patras or Corinth, requires several days, and it is not remarkable for any of those remains of classical building which are more attractive to the modern inquirer than anything else in this historic country.

Of the various routes we chose (in 1884) that from Nauplia by Astros, as we had been the guests for some days of the hospitable Dr. Schliemann, who was prosecuting his researches at Tiryns. So we rose one morning with the indefatigable doctor before dawn, and took a boat to bring us down the coast to Astros. The morning was perfectly fair and calm. and the great mountain chains of the coast wen mirrored in the opal sea, as we passed the picturesque rocky fort, which stands close to Nauplia in the bay, the residence of the public executioner. The beauty of the Gulf of Argos never seemed more perfect than in the freshness of the morning, with the rising sun illuminating the lofty coasts. Our progress was at first by the slow labour of the oar, but as the morning advanced there came down a fresh west wind from the mountains, which at intervals filled our lateen sail almost too well, and sent us flying along upon our way. In three hours we rounded a headland, and found ourselves in the pretty little bay of Astros.

Of course the whole population came down to see us. They were apparently as idle, and as ready to be amused, as the inhabitants of an Irish village. But they are sadly wanting in fun. You seldom hear them make a joke or laugh, and their curiosity is itself curious from this aspect. After a good deal of bargaining we agreed for a set of mules and ponies to bring us all the way round the Morea, to Corinth if necessary, though ultimately we were glad to leave them at Kyparissia, at the opposite side of Peloponnesus, and pursue our way by sea. The bargain was eight drachmas per day for each animal ; a native, or very experienced traveller, could have got them for five to six drachmas.

Our way led us up a river-course, as usual, through fine olive-trees and fields of corn, studded with scarlet anemones, till after a mile or two we began to ascend from the level of the coast to the altitudes of the central plateau, or rather mountain system, of the Morea. Here the flora of the coast gave way to fields of sperge, hyacinths, irises, and star of Bethlehem. Every inch of ascent gave us a more splendid and extended view back over coasts and islands. The giant tops of the inner country showed themselves still covered with snow. We were in that district so little known in ancient history, which was long a bone of contention between Argos and Sparta, whose boundaries seem never to have been fixed by any national landmark. When we had reached the top of the rim of inland Alps, we ascended and descended various steeps, and rounded many glens, reaching in the end the village of Hagios Petros, which we had seen before us for a long time, while we descended one precipice and mounted another to attain our goal. It was amusing to see our agogiata or muleteers pulling out fragments of mirrors, and arranging their toilet, such as it was, before encountering the criticism of the Hagiopetrans. One of these men was indeed a handsome soldierly youth, who walked all day with us for a week over the roughest country, in miserable shoes, and yet without apparent fatigue.

Another, a great stout man with a beard, excused himself for not being married by saying he was too little and so we learned that as they are all expected to marry, and do marry, twenty-five is considered the earliest proper age. One would almost think they had preserved some echo of Aristotle’s views, which make thirty years the best age for marriage—thirty years ! when most of us are already so old as to have lost interest in these great pleasures.

At Hagios Petros we were hospitably received by the demarch, a venerable old man with a white beard, who was a physician, unfortunately also a politician, and who insisted on making a thousand inquiries about Mr. Gladstone and Prince Bismarck, while we were starving and longing for dinner. Some fish, which the muleteers had providently bought at Astros and brought with them, formed the best part of the entertainment, if we except the magnificent creature, adorned in all his petticoats and colours and knives, who came in to see us before dinner, and kissed our hands with wonderful dignity, but who turned out to be the waiter at the table. We asked the demarch how he had procured himself so stately a servant, and he said he was the clerk in his office. It occurred to us, when we watched the grace and dignity of every movement in this royal-looking person, how great an effect splendid costume seems to have on manners. It was but a few days since that I had gone to a very fashionable evening party at a handsome palace in Athens, and had been amused at the extraordinary awkwardness with which various very learned men—professors, archaeologists, men of independent means —had entered the room. The circle was, I may add, chiefly German. Here was a man, ignorant, acting as a servant and yet a king in demeanour. But how could you expect a German professor in his miserable Frankish dress to assume the dignity of a Greek in palicar costume, in forty yards of petticoat, his waist squeezed with female relentlessness, with his ruby jacket and gaiters, his daggers and pistols at his belt ? After all, stately manners are hardly attainable, as a rule, without stately costume.

We were accommodated as well as the worthy demarch could manage for the night. As a special favour I was put to sleep into his dispensary, a little chamber full of galley-pots, pestles, and labelled bottles of antiquated appearance, and dreamt in turns of the study of Faust and of the apothecary’s shop in Mantua, as we see them upon the stage.

Early in the morning we climbed a steep ascent to attain the high plateau, very bleak and bare, which is believed by the people to have been the scene of the conflict of Othryades and his men with the Argive 300. A particular spot is still called the place of the slain. The high plain, about 3500 feet above the sea, was all peopled with country-folk coming to a market at Hagios Petros, and we had ample opportunity of admiring both the fine manly appearance and the excellent manners of this hardy and free peasantry. The complex of mountains in which they live is the chain of Parnon, which extends from Thyreatis through Kynuria down to Cape Malea, but not without many breaks and crossings. The heights of Parnon (now called Malevo) still hid from us the farther Alps of the inner country.

After a ride of an hour or two we descended to the village of Arachova, much smaller and poorer than its namesake in Phocis (above, p. 229), and thence to the valley of a stream called Phonissa, the murderess, from its dangerous floods, but at the moment a pleasant and shallow brook. Down its narrow bed we went for hours, crossing and recrossing it, or riding along its banks, with all the verdure gradually increasing with the change of climate and comfort of shelter, till at last a turn in the river brought us suddenly in sight of the brilliant serrated crest of Taygetus, glittering with its snow in the sunshine. Then we knew our proper landmark, and felt that we were indeed approaching Sparta.

But we still had a long way to ride down our river till we reached its confluence with the Eurotas, near to which we stopped at a solitary khan, from which it is an easy ride to visit the remains of Sellasia. During the remaining three hours we descended the banks of the Eurotas, with the country gradually growing richer, and the stream so deep that it could no longer be forded. There is a quaint high mediæval bridge at the head of the vale. On a hot summer’s afternoon, about five o’clock, we rode, dusty and tired, into Sparta.

The town was on holiday, and athletic sports were going on in commemoration of the establishment of Greek liberty. Crowds of fine tall men were in the very wide regular streets, and in the evening this new town vindicated its ancient title. But the very first glance at the surroundings of the place was sufficient to correct in my mind a very wide-spread error, which we all obtain from reading the books of people who have never studied history on the spot. We imagine to ourselves the Spartans as hardy mountaineers, living in an alpine country with sterile soil, the rude nurse of liberty. They may have been such when they arrived in prehistoric times from the mountains of Phocis, but a very short residence in Laconia must have changed them. The vale of Sparta is the richest and most fertile in Peloponnesus. The bounding chains of mountains are separated by a stretch, some twenty miles wide, of undulating hills and slopes, all now covered with vineyards, orange and lemon orchards, and comfortable homesteads or villages. The great chain on the west limits the vale by a definite line, but towards the east the hills that run towards Malea rise very gradually and with many delays beyond the arable ground. The old Spartans therefore settled in the richest and best country avail-able, and must from the very outset of their career have had better food, better climate, and hence much more luxury than their neighbours.

We are led to the same conclusion by the art-remains which are now coming to light, and which are being collected in the well-built local museum of the town. They show us that there was an archaic school of sculpture, which produced votive and funeral reliefs, and therefore that the old Spartans were by no means so opposed to art as they have been represented in the histories. The poetry of Alkman, with its social and moral freedom, its suggestions of luxury and good living, shows what kind of literature the Spartan rulers thought fit to import and encourage in the city of Lycurgus. The whole sketch of Spartan society which we read in Plutarch’s Life and other late authorities seems rather to smack of imaginary reconstruction on abstract principles than of historical reality. Contrasts there were, no doubt, between Dorians and Ionians, nay, even between Spartan and Tarentine or Argive Dorians ; but still Sparta was a rich and luxurious society, as is confessed on all hands where there is any mention of the ladies and their homes. We might as well infer from the rudeness of the dormitories in the College at Winchester, or from the simplicity of an English man-of-war’s mess, that our nation consisted of rude mountaineers living in the sternest simplicity.

But if I continue to write in this way I shall have all the pedants down upon me. Let us return to the Sparta of to-day. We lodged at a very bad and dear inn, and our host’s candid excuse for his exorbitant prices was the fact that he very seldom had strangers to rob, and so must plunder those that came without stint. His formula was perhaps a little more decent, but he hardly sought to disguise the plain truth. When we sought our beds, we found that a very noisy party had established themselves below to celebrate the Feast of the Liberation, with supper, speeches, and midnight revelry.

So, as usual, there was little possibility of sleep. Moreover, I knew that we had a very long day’s journey before us to Kalamata, so I rose before the sun and before my companions, to make preparations and to rouse the muleteers.

On opening my window, I felt that I had attained one of the strange moments of life which can never be forgotten. The air was preternaturally clear and cold, and the sky beginning to glow faintly with the coming day. Straight before me, so close that it almost seemed within reach of voice, the giant Taygetus stood up into the sky, its black and purple gradually brightening into crimson, and the cold blue-white of its snow warming into rose. There was a great feeling of peace and silence, and yet a vast diffusion of sound. From the whole plain, with all its homesteads and villages, myriads of cocks were proclaiming the advent of the dawn. I had never thought there were so many cocks in all the world. The ever – succeeding voices of these countless thousands kept up one continual wave of sound, unlike anything I ever heard ; and yet for all that, there was a feeling of silence, a sense that no other living thing was abroad, an absolute stillness in the air, a deep sleep over the face of nature.

How long I stood there, and forgot my hurry, I know not, but starting up at last as the sun struck the mountain, I went down, and found below stairs another curious contrast. All over the coffee-room (if I may so dignify it) were the remains of a disorderly revel, ashes and stains and fragments in disgusting confusion ; and among them a solitary figure was mumbling prayers in the gloom to the image of a saint with a faint lamp burning before it. In the midst of the wrecks of dissipation was the earnestness of devotion, prayer in the place of ribaldry ; perhaps, too, dead formalism in the place of coarse but real enjoyment.

We left for Mistra before six in the morning, so escaping some of the parting inspection which , the whole town was ready to bestow upon us. The way led us past many orchards, where oranges and lemons were growing in the richest profusion on great trees, as large as the cherry-trees in the Alps. The branches were bending with their load, and there was fruit tumbled into the grass, and studding the ground in careless plenty with its ruddy and pale gold. In these orchards, with their deep-green masses of foliage, the nightingales sing all day, and we heard them outcarolling the homelier sounds of awakening husbandry. During all the many rides I have taken through Greece, no valley ever struck me with the sense of peace and wealth so much as that of Sparta.

After an hour we reached the picturesque town of Mistra, now nearly deserted, but all through the Middle Ages the capital of the district, nestled under the shelter of the great fortress of the Villehardouins, the family of the famous chronicler. Separated by a deep gorge (or langada) with its torrent from the loftier mountain, this picturesque rock with its fortress contains the most remarkable mediaeval remains, Latin, Greek, Venetian, Turkish, in all the Morea. Villehardouins and Paleologi made it their seat of power, and filled it with churches and palaces to which I shall return when we speak of mediaeval Greece. An earthquake about 1830 destroyed many of the houses, and the population then founded the new Sparta, with its wide, regular streets, on the site of the old classical city. This resettlement is not so serious a hindrance to archaeology as the rebuilding of Athens, for we know that in the days of its real greatness Sparta was a mere aggregate of villages, and the walls and theatre which are still visible must have been built in late Greek or Roman times. The so-called tomb of Leonidas, a square chamber built with huge blocks of ashlar masonry, of which three courses remain, appears like building of the best period, but its history is wholly unknown.

We reached in another hour the village of Trypi, at the very mouth of the great pass through Taygetus, —a beautiful site, with houses and forest trees standing one above the other on the precipitous steep ; and below, the torrent rushing into the plain to join the Eurotas. It is from this village that we ought to have started at dawn, and where we should have spent the previous night, for even from here it takes eleven full hours to reach Kalamata on the Gulf of Messene. The traveller should send on his ponies, or take them to Mistra and thence to Trypi on the previous after-noon. The lodging there is probably not much worse than at Sparta.

From this point we entered at once into the great Langada Pass, the most splendid defile in Greece—the only way from Sparta into Messene for a distance of thirty miles north and south. It is indeed possible to scale the mountain at a few other points, but only by regular alpine climbing, whereas this is a regular highway ; and along it strings of mules, not without trouble, make their passage daily, when the snow does not lie, from Sparta and from Kalamata.

Nothing can exceed the picturesqueness and beauty of this pass, and nothing was stranger than the contrast between its two steeps. That which faced south was covered with green and with spring flowers—pale anemones, irises, orchids, violets, and, where a stream trickled down, with primroses — a marsh plant in this country. All these were growing among great boulders and cliffs, whereas on the opposite side the whole face was bleak and barren, the rocks being striated with rich yellow and red veins. I suppose in hot summer these aspects are reversed. High above us, as it were, looking down from the summits, were great forests of fir-trees — a gloomy setting to a grandiose and savage landscape. The day was, as usual, calm and perfectly fine, with a few white clouds relieving the deep blue of the sky. As we were threading our way among the rocks of the river-course we were alarmed by large stones tumbling from above, and threatening to crush us. Our guides raised all the echoes with their shouts to warn any unconscious disturber of this solitude that there were human beings beneath, but on closer survey we found that our possible assassins were only goats clambering along the precipice in search of food, and disturbing loose boulders as they went.

Farther on we met other herds. of these quaint creatures, generally tended by a pair of solitary children, who seemed to belong to no human kin, but, like birds or flowers, to be the natural denizens of these wilds. They seemed not to talk or play ; we never heard them sing, but passed them sitting in a strange vague listlessness, with no wonder, no curiosity, in their deep solemn eyes. There, all the day long, they heard no sound but the falling water, the tinkling of their flocks, and the great whisper of the forest pines when the breeze touched them on its way down the pass. They took little heed of us as we passed, and seemed to have sunk from active beings into mere passive mirrors of the external nature around them. The men with us, on the other hand, were constantly singing and talking. They were all in a strange country which they had never seen ; a serious man with a gun slung round his shoulder was our guide from Trypi, and so at last we reached the top of the pass, about 4000 feet high, marked by a little chapel to S. Elias, and once by a stone pillar stating the boundary between Sparta and Messene. It was up this pass, and among these forests, that the young Spartans had steeled themselves by hunting the wolf and the bear in peace, and by raids and surprises in days of war.

The descent was longer and more varied ; sometimes through well-cultivated olive-yards, mulberries, and thriving villages, sometimes along giant slopes, where a high wind would have made our progress very difficult. Gradually the views opened and extended, and in the evening we could see down to the coast of Messene, and the sea far away. But we did not reach Kalamata till long after nightfall, and rested gladly in a less uncomfortable inn than we had yet found in the journey.

The town is a cheery and pleasant little place, with remains of a large medieval castle occupied by Franks, Venetians, Turks, which was the first seat of the Villehardouins, and from which they founded their second fort at Mistra. The river Nedon here runs into the sea, and there is a sort of open roadstead for ships, where steamers call almost daily, and a good deal of coasting trade (silk, currants, etc.) goes on. The only notable feature in the architecture is the pretty bell tower of the church, of a type which I afterwards saw in other parts of Messenia, but which is not usual in these late Byzantine buildings.

As there was nothing to delay us here, we left next morning for the convent of Vourkano, from which we were to visit Mount Ithome, and the famous ruins of Epaminondas’s second great foundation in Peloponnesus —the revived Messene. The plain (called Macaria or Felix from its fertility) through which we rode was indeed both rich and prosperous, but swampy in some places and very dusty in others. There seemed to be active cultivation of mulberries, figs, olives, lemons, almonds, currant-grapes, with cactus hedges and plenty of -cattle. There were numerous little pot-houses along the road, where mastic and lucumia were sold, as well as dried fruit and oranges. If the Nedon was broad and shallow, we found the Pamisos narrow and deep, so that it could only be crossed by a bridge. A few hours brought us to the ascent of Mount Ithome, on a high shoulder of which is situated the famous and hospitable convent of Vourkano (or Voulkano).

The building, very picturesquely situated high on the side of Mount Ithome, commands a long slope covered with brushwood and wild-flowers, the ideal spot for a botanist, as many rills of water run down the descent and produce an abundant and various vegetation. There is not a sod of soil which does not contain bulbs and roots of flowers. Below stretches the valley of Stenyclarus, so famous in the old annals of Messene. It was studded with groves of orange and lemon, olive and date, mulberry and fig. The whole of this country has an aspect far more southern and subtropical than any part of Laconia.

The monks treated us with great kindness, even pressing us to sit down to dinner before any ablutions had been thought of, and while we were still covered with the dust of a very hot and stormy journey along high roads. The plan of the building, which is not old, having been moved down from the summit in the eighteenth century, is that of a court closed with a gateway, with covered corridors above looking into the court, and a very tawdry chapel occupying its centre. It seemed a large and well-to-do establishment, a sort of Greek Monte Cassino in appearance; and with the same stir of country people and passing visitors about it. Far above us, on the summit of Mount Ithome—the site of human sacrifices to Zeus Ithomates in days of trouble—we saw a chapel on the highest top, 2500 feet over the sea. Here they told us that a solitary anchorite spent his life, praying and doing service at his altar, far above the sounds of human life. We made inquiry concerning the history of this saint, who was once a wealthy Athenian citizen, with a wife and family. His wife was dead, and his sons settled in the world, so he resolved to devote the rest of his years to the service of God apart from the ways of men. Once a fortnight only he descended to the convent, and brought up the necessary food. On his lonely watch he had no company but timid hares, travelling quail, and an occasional eagle, that came and sat by him without fear, perhaps in wonder at this curious and silent friend. The monks below had often urged him to catch these creatures for their benefit, but he refused to profane their lofty asylum. So he sits, looking out from his watch upon sunshine and rain, upon hot calm and wild storm, with the whole Peloponnesus extended beneath his eyes. He sees from afar the works and ways of men, and the world that he has left for ever. Is it not strange that still upon the same height men offer to God these human sacrifices, changed indeed in form, but in real substance the same ?

The main excursion from the monastery is over the saddle of the mountain westward, and through the ‘Laconian gate’ down into the valley beneath, to see the remains of Epaminondas’s great foundation, the new Messene. There are still faint traces of a small theatre and some other buildings, but of the walls and gates enough to tell us pretty clearly how men built fortifications in those days. The circuit of the walls included the fort on the summit, and enclosed a large tract of country, so much that it would be impossible for any garrison to defend it, and accordingly we hear of the city being taken by sudden assault more than once. The plan is very splendid, but seems to us rather ostentatious than serious for a new foundation liable to attacks from Sparta. The walls were, how-ever, beautifully built, with towers at intervals, and gates for sallies. The best extant gate is called the Arcadian, and consisted of an outer and inner pair of folding doors, enclosing a large round chamber for the watch. The size of the doorposts and lintels is gigantic, and shows that there was neither time nor labour spared to make Messene a stately settlement. There was almost enough land enclosed within the walls to feed the inhabitants of the houses, for their number never became very great. If Megalopolis, a far more successful foundation, was far too large for its population, how much more must this have been the case with Messene ? In military architecture, however, we have no other specimen of old Hellenic work equal to it, except perhaps Eleuthera, which resembles it in style strongly, though the enclosure is quite small in comparison.

We could have gone up from Messene by a very long day’s ride to Bassae, and so to Olympia, but we had had enough of riding and preferred to make a short day to the sea at Kyparissia, and thence by steamer to Katakolo, from which rail and road to Olympia are quite easy. So we left the convent in the morning and descended into the valley, to turn north and then north-east, along the river-courses which mark the mule-tracks through the wild country. We crossed a strange bridge over the junction of two rivers made of three arches meeting in the centre, and of which the substructures were certainly old Greek building. We then passed through bleak tracts of uncultivated land, perhaps the most signal case of insufficient population we had seen in Greece. All these waste fields were covered with great masses of asphodel, through which rare herds of swine were feeding, and the sight of these fields first suggested to me that by the ‘meadow of asphodel’ in Homer is not meant a pleasant garden, or desirable country, but merely a dull waste in which there is nothing done, and no sign of human labour or human happiness. Had there been night or gloom over this stony tract, with its tall straggling plants and pale flowers, one could easily imagine it the place which the dead hero inhabited when he told his friend that the vilest menial on earth was happier than he.

After some hours the mountains began to approach on either side, and we reached a country wonderful in its contrast. Great green slopes reached up from us far away into the hills, studded with great single forest trees, and among them huge shrubs of arbutus and mastich, trimmed and rounded as if for ornament. It was like a splendid park, kept by an English magnate. The regularity of shape in the shrubs arises, no doubt, from the constant cropping of • the young shoots all round by herds of goats, which we met here and there in this beautiful solitude. The river bank where we rode was clothed with oleander, prickly pear, and other flowering shrubs which I could not name.

At last woods of ancient olives, with great gnarled stems, told us that we were nearing some important settlement, and the pleasant town of Kyparissia came in view—now, alas ! a heap of ruins since the recent. earthquake. Here we took leave of our ponies, mules, and human followers ; but the pathos of parting with these intimate companions of many days was some-what marred by the divergence of their notions and ours as to their pay. Yet these differences, when settled, did not prevent them from giving us an affectionate farewell.