After rounding Cape Malia in the southern tip of the Greek Peloponnese we sailed north up the western side of Greece. Our journey had been to encircle the state the entre of which was which the classical city of Sparta. The yacht shearwater was safe in Kalamata after our summer of voyages all round Greece, a total of 400 miles.
The Spartan history is part of our culture, even though they did not build much. The head of Leonidas appears on this year’s Greek postage stamps.
In the late summer of 480 B.C., Leonidas led an army of 6,000 to 7,000 Greeks from many city-states, including 300 Spartans, trying to prevent the Persians from passing through Thermopylae, the narrow passage called the hot gates. ( thermo, hot, pylae, gates….Greek in our language again.) There where the 300 made their last stand is a quotation of his reply to Xerxes when invited to give up his weapons … “ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ” “molṑn labé“ (“Come and take them”), This is known as a Laconic reply – short and simple. It’s still handy after 2,500 years perhaps in in a Liverpool bar where I was a student….”is your mate looking at my mates….”
It is laconic because in Laconia the Spartan boys, taken from home to train with the fighting men, also had to pass verbal exams. Their life of tests included being able to answer in a concise clear way, no fluff. Hence our word “laconic”.
In classical times the kingdom of 50,000 Spartans subjugated the agricultural population in Laconia of 250,000 Helots. The ruling class micromanaged their main occupation of fighting, and of bringing up youngsters into the army. The ferocious attack of the formation called the phalanx was so formidable that some opponents had been known to simply run away. No outsiders could become a Spartiate, and over the years their numbers did not increase. A fear of uprising by the Hoplites was always present, and this was in the end how the Spartan state ended its days. Perhaps they were so busy fighting that they did not leave a legacy of buildings. Their city ruins are just a few foundations.
We explored other ancient ruins where there was more to see. Sometimes travelling by car up the winding canyons of the dramatic landscape above the famous olive groves around Kalamata.
The byzantine citadel of Ancient Mistra is a maze of narrow mule sized paths. We climbed up to the castle at the top, which looked impregnable. Yet the city was invaded in medieval times by the Ottomans. It was a hot August day and in the cool breeze up there we could look over the fertile plains with Sparta in the distance.
Mistra was of interest partly because of the commanding position up the steep rocky slopes. Here and there were restored byzantine churches partly hidden by trees which still invade the spaces. There are lanes between the walls of the houses. The guide notes at Ancient Mistra said that a two story home was permitted so long as the corners of the ground level alleyways were curved, “so as to be easier to go round….”
Er, Not quite…, They are curved or splayed so that you don’t get jumped on after dark as you go round. This is like coming round the corner out of a concrete underpass. Years ago as urban designers we trained classes of police in order to help others to design out the fear of crime for inner city alleys in Bristol. It takes three steps to jump on someone and sharp corners are bad places… “Ah yes,” said parrot, “ I remember at school being told that a roman road had to have a cleared space of three paces both sides.” That’s eleven feet in our language. Question to parrot: how many people remember junk like this from their childhood?
The most stunning ruin we spent another day to see was Ancient Messine. It was a classical city on the edge of the Spartan state – and the Spartans did not leave buildings we could imagine that this city was just like theirs. As the sun rose over the mountains one morning we arrived by car at the gateway to Ancient Messine. It was about an hour from Kalamata, and every mile on this gently sloping journey was covered in the olive trees. They are strangely random, not in rows. How do people keep track of which trees they own, for some might be a hundred years old.
This huge city wall had a surviving entrance lintol, some 30 feet long.
The surviving sections of city wall with towers was of huge dry bedded random stones, some 15 feet thick. The wall was nearly 6 miles long and encloses enough agricultural land together with spring waster for withstanding a siege. This huge engineering feat was built in 371 BC after the Spartans had given up the city. The work was justified almost immediately when they returned to try to re-take it, unsuccessfully.
The early rays of the sun kissed the mosaics nearby as we sat in the large arena – a perfect Greek theatre in a semi-circle, set in the hill side. We are taking care not to call these shapes an amphitheatre, for that is the full oval shape like the coliseum in Rome. At the classics course by Kings College London a student was expelled from a lecture after making that mistake.
I have never seen so many standing columns on one classical city site, there were hundreds around it, casting long shadows.. Two restoration teams were at work, restoring lovely floor mosaics. The city is backed by high mountains and looks over an agricultural plain.After the mighty wall was formed it has never been built over or razed again by invaders, it remained inhabited but gradually faded away into the dusts blown down from the hills. A privately funded restoration project was still in hand. This site was awarded a European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Award in 201. Like many old sites, the easiest parts to steal for building nearby were the paving slabs and walls, so these are largely missing after two thousand years of stones being removed. As a result the spaces between the buildings have a soft gravel or grassed finish, very soothing to walk round with quite a serene effect.
The most exciting part is the line of baths and market building. A water channel feeds them. At one end is a municipal market corner with measures for grain and olives. There is also a template in stone for copying the roof tiles. So that’s how different subcontractors could become suppliers. I imagined the missing buildings facing this corner to be the Agora market place with more shops, for this is how ancient Corinth was laid out. Ancient Messine was crowded with busy people getting on with being… civilised. More than 100 statues surrounded the inner temple yard. In the museum there I photographed the muscular torso of a man with long hair. Curly shoulder length locks on a greek statue…. I have not seen before. He was Podaleiros, and I am guessing the local people would know his story. It is a myth made almost real, for he was one of the Greeks hiding inside the Trojan horse. And like Odysseus he was one of those who did return. It reminds me that Helen of Troy was a Spartan from near this site. Our voyage this summer had started from an anchorage near the Tower of Achilles – one of those who did not return.
drew the site plan to show what survives, and then added what I think might be missing. In its prime the city was busy from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD. Much of it is therefore Roman. They too knew all about the Trojan war, for when Virgil re-wrote the story started by Homer, he added the parts where the surviving Trojan Aeneas voyaged up to Italy and founded Rome. “Shurely shome more fake news?” Asked Parrot.
Between city trips to ancient sites we celebrated with meals in Kalamata, eating the olives which grow all around for mile after mile. We met other crews in the friendly marina and got some of them to change from single use plastic bottled water and enjoy drinking jugs of Greek tap water – it’s perfectly safe ! Next year we will sail back towards the Ionians again and take a winter berth at Messalonghi. (battle of Lepanto – you heard it here first). Our journey has become a circle which now allows us to re-visit favourite places…which includes Ithaca where Odyseus finally returned to find his wife and proved his identity by stringing his bow….. ( continued on page 987).
Next summer we sail north to Messolonghi over the site of the battle of Lepanto- In the 16th century. It was the last of the great oar powered sea battles. Parrot says I can tell you all about that one next year.
In the Autumn we returned to Bristol by Easyjet from Athens after taking buses from Kalamata. We had to be tested negative for covid before departure and two days after arrival, at £50 each time.
On the Bristol harbour forum I have been asking for water bottle re-filling points. I have written about the need to ban single use water bottles – especially on boats, so on that theme I will continue soon.