Trip 2: Deep Peloponnese (part 2)

I now resume my narrative of Trip 2 to the Deep Peloponnese. I left off last time with our last full day in Pylos, the city with the famous Mycenaean Palace. In the morning we entered the Castro of Pylos—an Ottoman fort built on one of the entrances to the bay. We wandered through the cobblestoned fortress and stopped to listen to a lecture on the history of the site and how it related to the Greek War of Independence. The Greek naval victory in the Battle of Navarino on October 20, 1827 stated accidentally as there was an armistice between the combined Greek forces and the Ottomans. The resulting victory signaled the eventual success of the war and was forever memorialized by the monuments around the bay which I described in the last post. The Castro also had a small but interesting underwater archaeology exhibit. Once we wrapped up in Pylos we drove to the ancient polis of Messene. This was a brilliant site, and it is a shame that it is not more frequented that it seemed. The ancient Messenians had been enslaved by the Spartans for much of the Classical Period, but they eventually won their independence after revolting from the Spartans after their defeat at Leuctra in 371 BC. This city flourished into the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The city was the home of the famous Greek sculptor, Damophon, whose statues were on display in the Messene museum. Our group was supposed to have a guided tour by a well-known archaeologist, but he failed to appear at the site, so we ended up exploring the site on our own. Messene was a large city that had many of the accoutrements of a Greek polis: a theater, bouletarion (council chambers), sanctuaries to various Greek divinities like Artemis and Asclepius (and a neat one for Isis and Sarapis), a Roman villa, a running track, gymnasium, bath complex, and an agora. Of course, many of these buildings only remain as stone foundations, but perhaps the best thing for my interest was the stadium, nearly complete and easy to reimagine the excitement that once took place there. The entrance to the site begins up high and gradually descends to the stadium below. The stadium is oriented so the athletic contestants would have been struck by the view of Mt. Ithome above. After two and a half hours in the sun, we all ate our sack lunches in the shade of our bus. From there it was a quick drive to the Arcadian Gate, a massive fortification wall along the road from Messenia to Arcadia. Our bus was dwarfed by the monumental tower which we drove through as we continued onto a place called Agios Konstantinos. In this sleepy mountain town there is a church with two spoliated inscriptions built into its walls. These inscriptions contain a wealth of information about the Andanian mystery cult—oaths sworn, dress codes, procession and sacrifice instructions, ritual dictates, and punishments for crimes. This mystery cult was devoted to Demeter and her daughter Kore, and they were considered to be second only to the Eleusinian mysteries (Pausanias, Description of Greece, 4.33.5). This was our final stop for the day before we arrived in Sparta, our base for the next three days.

I have been to Sparta before. I remember it as a sort of dumpy place of sullen, dark-haired and dark-clothed Greeks. It was a savagely cold place in my memory—plainly; I practically froze to death on morning run once seven years ago. The late fifth-century Athenian historian Thucydides famously described Sparta as “having no temples or splendid edifices” and that “it rather resembles a group of villages like the ancient towns of Hellas, and would therefore make a poor show” (Histories, 1.10.2). This time visiting Sparta changed my opinion in the best way. This time I saw a bustling town with more color and liveliness than before. This time I stayed there in the peak of fall and not the dead of winter, so perhaps that is the difference. Nevertheless, the food was great, the sites were brilliant, and the doughnuts—I’ll have more to say about that in a moment. Our first morning we set out for a Byzantine town called Mystras on Mt. Taygetos overlooking the modern town of Sparta. This town contained many churches and monasteries, as well as a restored “Palace of the Despots.” The city was founded in 1249 and lasted until 1834 when King Otto of Greece refounded Sparta. Mystras still has an active monastery which we visited. A nice old nun gave us homemade candies and showed us her handmade clothes for sale. We saw her bring up a donkey through the cobblestone street, but she had to scold it for eating the nice flowers outside. There were several bizarre looking plants of all colors and shapes. We stopped by the museum on the way out which had interesting stone carvings of griffins, frescoes from various churches at Mystras, as well as fragmentary remains of a fine Byzantine dress. When we returned to Sparta we received a tour of the Sparta museum from Olga Palagia, an eminent Greek scholar (retired) who lives in Sparta. A famous statue of “Leonidas” dominates the south room surrounded by inscriptions and red walls. There are cultic clay masks from the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia that are truly bizarre, at least to this modern viewer. They have been variously described as “grotesque” and “heroic.” Another piece of interest is the personified head of Sparta—a fragmentary female head donning a crown of circuit walls. After a somewhat leisurely lunch break we had some time to visit the ancient remains of Sparta on our own. I spent my time examining Roman era lists of magistrates inscribed on the walls of the ancient theater. From there we headed to the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia—a rather site in a rather unimpressive state of condition. We then drove to our last site of the day, the Menelaion. After a fifteen minute hike up a windy trail, we arrived at the Archaic period building which was a site of worship for King Menelaus and his wife Helen of Trojan War fame. It is thought that some nearby buildings were the location of the Mycenaean settlement at Sparta. After the sun set, us guys headed out to a tavern to sample some local fare. We landed at a restaurant on the main Plateia (town square) and had some amazing loukaniko (sausage) and siglino (cured ham). It is a specialty in Sparta to make dishes with orange. This loukaniko was infused with orange peel, and the siglino was served with an orange sauce. These were easily the highlights of Spartan cuisine. After dinner, we went in search of a near-legendary… wait for it… doughnut shop. This purveyor of fine, fried dough topped and/or filled with sweet delicacies is called Mr. Donut. Despite the seemingly ridiculous name, the doughnuts are no joke. The Greeks have their own version of what they call doughnuts called loukoumades which are more like French beignets. Mr. Donut’s doughnuts, however, are on par with American-style ones. We ordered a dozen for us five sampling many of the varieties they had. After judiciously quartering the spoils, we devoured such varieties as goji berry-filled, cake with sprinkles, chocolate glazed, apple fritter, and cinnamon roll, among others. In a heroic act of modesty and restraint, we decided to share our spoils with the women in our group who were all together watching the musical Cats in one of the rooms. No need to worry though, we made sure to descend on Mr. Donut every night we were in Sparta, so we had our fill.

The next day was dedicated to exploring the near-mythical land of Mani, the middle of three peninsulas that form the southern Peloponnesian coastline. This place is famous for its inaccessibility, ferocious autonomy, and living blood feuds. The Mani were instrumental in the Greek War for Independance, and they were renowned for their fierceness. Even the women and old men of the Mani helped to ward off a Turkish invasion. In modern times, families are known to have intense rivalries and feuds that last generations. As we drove past the iconic sky-gray stone masonry of its modern buildings, I felt a sense of mystery. These isolated structures stood out on the hillsides with tall, dead grasses yellowed according to the season. Our first stop was definitely mysterious and magical. I heard rumors that we were going to a cave and that a boat was involved, but I did not imagine what was about to happen. At the entrance of the cave was a rack full of neon orange life-jackets near to several blue, fiberglass boats. In groups of eight we set off into the deep with our master Greek pilots who used their paddle to push off the rocky walls in order to navigate the boats through the narrow stretches and turns. This cave was lit by lights above and below the water to illuminate the splendid rock formations. I had to duck and bend myself a few times in order not to hit my head on the sometimes low-hanging stalactites. I did not bring my camera out of fear of it getting ruined by water, so be sure to search for pictures online, or just go there yourself because the pictures don’t do the cave justice. This was the best possible start to what turned out to be my favorite day of the trip. Next we stopped at a seaside town called Gerolimenas where we had some free time to enjoy the warm waters and get lunch. Naturally, I went out on a run along the coast. Needless to say, we all had a relaxing couple of hours in what was one of the last few days of the fall heat. From there we drove further south down the peninsula to Cape Teneron stopping along the way at a small temple of Apollo later turned into the Church of the Asomatoi (“Bodyless Saints,” whatever that means), a nearby entrance to the underworld, and finally a hike to the lighthouse at the cape. On the hike we encountered travelers from France, Switzerland, and even Minnesota. After returning to the bus at a fast pace, I started skipping rocks in the little cove and other joined in. It was a long bus ride back to Sparta, and a nap was the perfect prescription for that amazing day.

After our last night with Sparta as our home base, we took another day trip to explore the Malian peninsula. But along the way we stopped at two final sites in Sparta, the Amyklaion and the Vapheio Tholos tomb. The Amyklaion is on a small hill in the middle of an olive grove. It was the site of the Hyacynthia festival to Apollo. There was a partially reconstructed stepped-altar that is thought to have been for sacrificing to Apollo. About twenty meters away was a terrace wall that supported a large base that held the cult statue of Apollo. What this cult statue may have looked like has been variously debated, but there are coins that depict Apollo a tall, slender Apollo with arms outstretched holding a bow in one hand and a spear in the other. Off to the corner of the site was a collection of various inscriptions that I had some fun deciphering. The Vapheio Tholos was only a few turns away by bus. This tomb was where the famous Vapheio cups were discovered (on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens). While the tholos itself is not particularly interesting (at least to me), the cups provide a challenge to our understanding of Minoan-Mycenaean relations. The cups date to the Late Helladic IIA/B period, and have been argued to be of either Minoan or Mycenaean craftsmanship. In either case it would have major implications for exchange and elite networks in the 14th and 13th centuries BC. Finally we set out to the south eastern coast of the peninsula and arrived at Pavlopetri. This low-lying beach area was under heavy duress from winds that day. After marching across a marshy area and a sandy beach with grains of sand pelting our bodies, we arrived at one of the coolest sites. Pavlopetri is an entire Mycenaean city underwater, preserved by its watery covering. One the beach we could see the remains of many rock-cut graves, but this was only a small fraction of the larger city. From our vantage point, we could only make out a few stone blocks in the water. An aerial picture at the museum in Neapolis Voion (where we went to next) made clear the extent of the underwater city. A BBC documentary called “City Beneath the Waves: Pavlopetri” was produced in 2011 showcases the site. The most remarkable artifact at the museum was a clay model of a Roman quinquereme (a five-oared warship). After the museum we hop-skipped-and-jumped across to the eastern side of the peninsula to a curious rock formation turned Byzantine city called Monemvasia (it is sometimes called the “Gibraltar of the East”). This enormous rock was separated from the mainland in 375 AD because of an earthquake and is only now connected by a narrow isthmus. There are massive fortification walls and churches on the island. It is, unfortunately, a major tourist trap in my opinion. The narrow streets are lined with cheap gift-shops and expensive tavernas (no grab-and-go options). The views are stunning, though, so perhaps it is worth a quick visit. Our day ended in Tripoli in the middle of the Peloponnese where we stayed at a luxurious, if overly sexualized, hotel in the city center. It was the last night of the trip and we had our group dinner together. Just as the evening was winding down, our bus driver, Spyros, bought two liters of wine to the table. Someone had to stay there and help finish it…

The last day of the trip was spent making our way back toward Athens. But first we walked to the museum in Tripoli—a quaint little regional museum with lots to see. Then we visited ancient Tegea where we examined a large temple of Athena Alea. The Tegea museum was freshly remodeled and very interactive—the opposite of the Tripoli museum. Inside was a collection of statue fragments of the sculptor, Skopas, who also designed the Temple of Athena Alea. This museum took the dark-room with bright-lights approach to its layout which made the white marbles appear extra luminous. There was also a fine collection of inscriptions including sacred laws from the temple and the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s (r. 384-305) “Edict on Maximum Prices.” We stopped for lunch in tiny Arcadian Orchomenos after failing to reach the ancient acropolis due to the bus being unable to navigate steep turns (though we did see a few foundation blocks from a Doric temple). The final site of the trip was the ancient city of Mantinea, a city built in a plain and thus also the site of several battles in antiquity. Across the street from the site is a Frankenstein of a church called Agia Fontini. It combines a variety of different architectural styles into one building. It was apparently built by an eccentric multi-millionaire, and it was eventually deconsecrated by the Orthodox Church some time ago (for obvious reasons). We did not actually visit it (the view from the road was enough) because we saw what remains of the ancient city of Mantineia, which is not much, save for a theater and some “temple-like” structures. The most impressive feature of the city is the large circuit walls that had 128 towers and was nearly elliptical. The bus took us back to Athens and we arrived in the early evening. There is always a sense of relief when we get back to Athens. There was not too much time to relax since us Regulars had the responsibility of hosting the annual Halloween party at the American School the following Saturday. All of the foreign archaeological schools are invited to come in costume to Loring Hall and enjoy food, drink, music, and fun. This “Party Panda” had a great time—the next day, not so much.

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