Mystras is a fortified town near Sparta in Greece. The town of Mystras was a Byzantine stronghold that now sits virtually empty; the only inhabitants are a group of nuns and feral cats living in the Pantanassa Monastery. Mystras is unique in Greece, as it dates to around the Medieval period (rather than the Classical). Mystras is often called “The Wonder of Morea”, the Medieval term for the Peloponnese region. The site is incredibly tourist-friendly and offers phenomenal views of the southern Greek countryside.
Built on the foothills of Mt. Taygetos, Mystras was initially a small town. The location was strategic, as it overlooked Sparta and allowed for a stronghold against the Ottoman Turks. The Franks saw the value of Mystras and built a fortress there in 1249. In 1262, the Franks surrendered the city to the Byzantines and Mystras soon became the center of Byzantine power in southern Greece. The Byzantine stronghold quickly began luring in new citizens and institutions, particularly monasteries.
With these new citizens came new ideas, particularly artistically. The various artwork in buildings around the city combined Gothic, Roman, and Greek influences to create something that people would travel from all over to see. Both traditional Byzantine designs and the architecture of Constantinople influenced the designs of buildings in Mystras. Eventually, Mystras grew to be such a powerful city that the last king of the Byzantine Empire was crowned there!
The Turks captured Mystras in 1460 and later gave the city over to the Venetians. The citizens of Mystras began moving out en mass in the 1830s, relocating to the nearby village of Sparta. Now, all that remains are beautiful Medieval structures, artwork, and stunning views.
What You’ll See
Mystras is home to quite a few Medieval churches that are open to visitors. The oldest church in Mystras is the Church of Agia Theodoroi, a cemetery church. Next up is the 14th century Church of Agia Sofia, which served as the palace church. The most famous church is probably the Cathedral of Agios Demetrios. Built in 1292 CE, Agios Demetrios underwent a major expansion in the 1400s. Constantinos Paleologos (the last Byzantine Emperor) was crowned at the Cathedral in 1449 CE, putting Agios Demetrios on the map.
The first church to use the “Mystras-type” of architecture was the Church of Panagia Hodegetria, completed in 1322. Panagia Hodegetria is home to many frescos illustrating scenes from the Bible, including the healing of a blind man. Topped with a small dome, The Monastery of Panagia Perivleptos is decorated with frescos depicting the Virgin Mary.
Finally, head to the Pantanassa Monastery and speak with the nuns who live in Mystras! You can even make friends with the colony of cats that roam the mountainside. The Pantanassa Monastery’s decor includes beautifully preserved ornate paintings on nearly every wall.
There are two major attractions that aren’t churches. First up is the Palace of the Despots, a huge complex of buildings that would have housed the emperors’ second sons (the despots) and other nobles. The Palace of the Despots went through 4 different construction phases from the 1200s to 1400s CE. The Palace served as Mystras’ administration center and was a pretty significant part of daily life. The other major attraction is the Archaeology Museum of Mystras, found in the yard of the Cathedral of Agios Demetrios.
There are two main ways to get to Mystras: either take a taxi/car/bus to the top of the foothill or hike up from the bottom. Luckily, there’s a ticket office on both the upper and lower ends of the site! Entry costs €12 from April 1 to Oct 31 and only €6 from November 1 to March 31 (gotta love those “low” season savings!). If you’re a student, over 65, or with a school groups, you can also get the reduced ticket.
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