On the Path of the Ancients: A Walking Trip in Greece

Mystras and Sparta
  |  Gorp.com
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Before my trip, images of ancient Greece filled my mind: the Greece of the Acropolis and Delphi, the Greece of constantly conniving gods and goddesses.

But Greece's history also encompasses the Byzantine Empire, which left behind churches filled with brilliant religious art. Our fourth day began with a walk through the World Heritage Site of Mystras, a ruined medieval fortress city dating from the 13th century. Built into a hill on the eastern slopes of the Taygetos Mountains, the ruins occupy a dramatic defensive position and offer a panoramic view over the Plain of Sparta.

Walking through the ruins, I could think of only a couple of places I've been to—Machu Picchu in Peru, Kilwa in Tanzania, and Gedi in Kenya—where I had seen ruins as extensive as these. Mystras comprises a fortress-like castle towering over palaces, churches, monasteries, convents, and a host of small buildings in various stages of excavation and restoration.

After spending the morning exploring the ruins, we drove to Sparta—called Sparti in Greek—to see its acropolis (the powerful heart of an ancient city, containing municipal and religious buildings), which includes an amphitheater dating from the second or third century B.C. The site is under excavation, but much of it is accessible to visitors. If you are so inclined, you can climb down to what was the stage 2,000 years ago and look out into the audience. As if to underscore the sense of time travel, on the way back to our hotel, we stopped in the prosperous and very modern town of Sparti to send emails from a cyber cafi.

The fifth and final day of hiking was the longest and most rugged. Starting near the village of Nea Mystras, a well-graded hike led us nearly 1,000 feet uphill to the picturesque mountain village of Anavriti. A number of hiking trails take off in various directions from here, including the E-4, one of the trans-European hiking routes. Jonathan said that the entire E-4 was in place in Greece, and my mind immediately started picturing what it might be like to hike from one end of the country to the other. But instead of climbing onto the E-4, our route took a level path for a while before descending back down along a switchbacked trail decorated with wildflowers.

And that was the end.

On the ride to Kalamata, where we spent our last night enjoying a convivial celebratory dinner, I had the opportunity to consider the misgivings I'd had about guided walking trips. Yes, I'd walked at a slower pace than normal, but somehow it didn't bother me in the least when one of my companions stopped to point out an orchid on the side of the trail. I hadn't hiked as many miles as I might have on my own. And I didn't experience the solitude that I find so rejuvenating on a backpacking trip. But in five days of walking, I'd seen ruins of temples, palaces, and churches from all periods of Greek history; picked spring wildflowers; and floated into a fairytale cave. I'd visited hidden mountain villages that rarely see tourists, and admired snowcapped peaks and the shimmering Mediterranean Sea.

The verdict: I'll go again the next chance I get.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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