Saturday, November 6, 2010

Mystras and Goethe, Together Again

A tiny bit of the medieval city Mystras
It’s Saturday morning and welcome to Greece!  I’ll be here every Saturday, god(s) willing.  How I got here (to Greece and MIE) was explained on Wednesday in a piece I did filling in for Yrsa, so if you’re interested in that sort of history please scroll down to “What’s in a Name.”  For a spot of more ancient history, please stay here.
Frescoes at Mystras
All my books in one way or another touch upon my home island of Mykonos, but Greece is a land with places of endless intrigues for the conjuring of thoughts mysterious and murderous. To some, the realities those venues have hosted far outstrip what most think believable, even in fiction.  But inspiration is out there, waiting to be discovered.

The Peloponnese
I’ve just returned from a few days in the southernmost part of mainland Greece, the Peloponnese, an area approximately the size of the American state of New Jersey. Originally a peninsula, it technically became an island when the Corinth canal was dug across its northern end in 1893.  The Peloponnese served as the setting for much of the true-life drama played out across ancient Greece.  In its southern, Laconia region stood Sparta, ancestral home to Spartan power that once rattled the ancient world much as its legend still dominates today’s.  That’s where I went searching for ideas for my new book.

Modern Sparta is a place decidedly different in locale and life from its antiquity namesake.  It sits on a plain along the Eurotas River between ribs of not so distant mountains running north and south.  The community is one based on agricultural, not war, and its groves of oranges and olive trees support twelve thousand souls still proud of their ancient heritage.
Modern Sparta Town Square
Mystras Castle Fortress
But to experience truly inspirational ancient insights you must travel northwest eight kilometers, to the mid-13th Century Byzantine fortress city of Mystras, and its looming castle atop a foothill of massive Mount Taygetos. 
The old city and castle are wonderfully restored and maintained, and Mystras’ history reflects that of much of the entire region.  Following the Fourth Crusade the Franks built the fortress to defend the southeast Peloponnese, but by the mid-13th Century Mystras was in Greek hands and remained so for 200 years until the Turkish conquest.  Let me put it simply: the goings on and battles during those years involving, emperors, knights, churchmen, and most other sorts would cross Dan Brown’s eyes. 

Hotel Pyrgos Mystra
In a Trip Advisor moment of digression, may I suggest you head on to relax in the adjacent more modern village of Mystras.  It has its own quaint charms and one of my new favorite inns of all time sits there.
From the mid-14th to mid-15th Centuries Mystras served as the heart and soul of the Peloponnese, so much so that at the end of that period some believed Mystras was the actual site of ancient Sparta, and by the 17th Century that was the generally held belief.  It was not until the very beginning of the 18th Century that Mystras regained its status as a separate and unique place, a source of mythical inspiration to travelers and artists’ souls.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Which brings me to Goethe.  In 1824, in his second part of Faust, he chose Mystras as the place for classic beauty “uniting” with romantic chivalry.  Trust me, I know that only because I read it in a guide book, BUT, Goethe’s words caught the essence of it’s time, at least that’s how it seemed to me as I sat amid it all reading these words:

So many years deserted stood the valley hills
That in the rear of Sparta northwards rise aloft
Behind Taygetos: whence as yet a nimble brook,
Eurotas downward rolls, and then along our vale
By reed beds broadly flowing, nourishes your swans.
Behind there in the mountain dwells a daring breed
Have settled, pressing forth from the Cimmerian Night,
And there have built a fortress inaccessible,
Whence land and people now they harry as they please.

The one catching my contemplative Goethe moment as that imperceptible dot on the wall below the site's upper parking lot is waving from the very top of the fortress. 
From Mystras it was on to Mani, a place the Turks could never conquer, and The Godfather would have called home had Mario Puzo been Mario Puzopoulos. But that’s for another week.

Jeff — Saturday


  1. We studied very little about Sparta. All I remember is the mother's admonition to her son "Come back carrying your shield or on it."

    Athens, of course, chose the better part - the life of the mind instead of a life of war. Course that didn't help the Athenians when the Romans came calling. On the other hand, Rome took everything from Athens They took their gods and gave them different names and they enslaved the learned men and handed over the Roman young to have their minds formed by the Greeks. The joke was on the Romans. The empire is gone but Greek drama, poetry, and philosophy lives on.

    We also learned about "the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome."

    I look forward to your Saturday posts. More for me to learn and, on that score, there can never be too much.


  2. Thanks once more, Beth.

    I always learn more from your posts than from those of anyone else I know, including that fellow in my shaving mirror.

    I only have two comments. I don't believe the Athenians fared much better when the Spartans came a callin' and I'm not at all sure who won the Greco-Roman cultural battle considering how inundated Greece is these days with pizza...

    As for the Spartan mother's admonition, add "and don't stay out late," and I can relate.:)


  3. WELCOME, JEFFREY!!!! You've already raised the tone here. And beautiful pictures, and how come you get to live on what I thought of for years as MY island of Mykonos? Went there in my late 20s and fell in love, not least because it was absolutely swarming with Danish college girls. It was, ummm, memorable.

    And thanks for giving me someplace I have to go -- Mystras. Whoooo.

  4. Thank you Tim, I'm honored beyond words to hear that from you! And a great piece you wrote today, it made me smile.

    By the way, I thought I recognized you from your photo, but if I recall correctly, your expression was somewhat different back in your 'umming from one memorable experience to another daze.

  5. Hi Jeff,

    Welcome to MIE!

    Thanks for this great story. It's been many years since I visited Greece and I feel the need to correct that, especially after your post!

    Looking forward to many more interesting tours with you.

    best wishes

  6. Thanks, Michael, and I with you!