SPARTA'S PAST NOT TO BE MYTH-ED

JOY DODDS discovers a seamless blend of the ancient and modern in Historic Greece.

SPARTA – the very name epitomises Homeric daring, valour and resilience.

But what of today’s Sparta? Its setting is just as dramatic as its past, broodingly located among the high mountains and deep gorges of the Greek Peloponnesus.


Heading south from Patras and Corinth, today’s traveler hits seaside Nafplion, the perfect base for exploring Sparta, which was the most important Doric city state of Ancient Greece.

Not far from Kalamata – yes, of olive fame - in the south of the Peloponnesus, Sparta is the capital of the Prefecture of Lakonia and with its history that goes back at least 5000 years, there’s plenty to explore and fascinate, even for non-history buffs.

Sparta was founded in the 10th century BC when four villages – Pitane, Mesoa, Limnai and Konooura – united under a single government that demanded bravery and self-discipline of its citizens.

Don’t expect to see many relics of this great ancient superpower because Sparta was destroyed by the Goths in the 3rd century AD – and never had any city walls to speak of anyway. There are, however, small pockets of temples, theatres, mosaics and the like from the period when Sparta vied with Athens for supremacy among Greek states, as well as the odd piece of Mycenean history, just to add to the mix.

Those seeking more relics should head for Olympia, about 20kms from the coast on the confluence of the Kladios and Alfios rivers, where the ancient Olympic Games were staged.

Yet modern Sparta is most interesting and located on the Laconian plain, 40 kms inland from coastal Githion, near Mount Taygetus. It was from this high point that weak Spartan male babies were left overnight to test their endurance. After the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s, when the new king decreed that the [then] village be rebuilt to honour its past glory, Sparta became one of the most beautiful cities in Greece, with tree-lined boulevards and parks, sitting amid agricultural land dotted with orange and olive groves.

You get an amazing feeling in Sparta these days –and it’s fascinating to explore the Spartan acropolis, in the northern sector of the modern city, the baths and the remnants of mosaic floors and city walls that remain, and those exhibited in the museum.

The Tomb of Leonidas, a quadrangular building composed of huge stone blocks, houses the bones of the famed war hero of the Battle of Thermopylae. The museum houses archaeological finds including remnants of altars and temples from the 2nd century BC and earlier relics in bronze and lead. The Menelaion is an archaeological site outside Sparta and there are Byzantine ruins at Mystras on a steep foothill of Mount Taygetos, 6 kms to the north-east.

Once the whole Ancient Greek syndrome has been appeased, it’s time to move on to other Peloponnese sensations. The coastal town of Nafplion, once the capital of the fledgling Greek nation from 1821-1828, has an impressive neoclassical square, statues of revolutionary figures and a seaside promenade as well as two Venetian forts on its hilltops. Nearby is the 13th century castle on the island of Bourtzi.

Mycenae, near Argos, is now a maze of paths and crumbling walls while Olympia is an absolute must with its stadium and the ruins of the Temple of Zeus and Hera – entry is six euros and well worth it. The modern village of Olympia is a few minutes’ walk away.

To the north of Nafplion, towards Corinth, is the theatre of Epidaurus which dates from the 4th century BC and is the world’s best-preserved Greek theatre. The acoustics remain perfect today throughout all its 55 tiers. Nearby are the ruins of the Sanctuary of Asklepios.

By contrast, the barren and remote mountains and beaches of the southern Peloponnese peninsula, known as the Mani, are nevertheless spectacular, and dotted with cypress groves, olive trees and cacti. Off the beaten tourist track and remote, apart from the occasional medieval church and tower house built as defence structures against invaders from the sea, the beaches along the coast from Kardamili to Githio are beautiful in their isolation and perfect for overnight camping. Dinner in a taverna with local seafood, throbbing bouzouki music, dancing and attempted conversations with locals is a never-forgotten experience. I recommend an overnight stay on the beach at Kalamata, synonymous with the small black olives to be seen growing everywhere and near historic Messina.

Eat al fresco and late, as the locals do in summer, tucking into starters, called pikilia and the he ubiquitous retsina, to make all seem perfect and mythical in today’s Hellenic world.


WHAT TO EAT AND DRINK:

Freshly-caught seafood and squid, of course, and dishes featuring eggplant, zucchinis, stuffed tomatoes and artichokes abound

Kalamata tavernas serve oven-baked olive oil-flavoured husky bread, called paximadia, the perfect starter to a baked dish of spicy sausage and vegetables, called spetsofai.

Savouras on the Bouboulinas, near the promenade in Nafplion proved a real find, the piece de resistance being freshly-opened mussels in a tangy sauce – washed down with a local retsina, which the locals insist is made from pine needles.


HOW TO GET THERE:

Trains for Corinth depart Athens airport every two hours from 6am to 10pm, taking 80 minutes. From Corinth, public buses travel throughout the peninsula, including Sparta.

Many long-distance buses link central Athens with towns in the Peloponnese, including Kalamata, Corinth, Nafplion and Sparta.

For more details: International Rail Australasia on: www.internationalrail.com.au

or
call (03)9572 9500

Car hire options:

Economy Car Rentals: Collection point at Kalamata rail station. www.economycarrentals.com


WHERE
TO STAY:


Greek National Tourist Organisation:

Sydney (02) 9241 1663 or email hto@tpg.com.au

The
Amphitryon Hotel, Spiliadou St, Nafplion +30 27520 70700} offers stunning sea views including Bourtzi Island and chic décor.

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