After 48 hours of non-stop precipitation, I awake to blue skies and snow on the distant mountain peaks. I’ve been waiting in the coastal town of Nafplio for the weather to improve so I can climb up to the Palamidi Castle. Guidebooks and locals differ in their opinions of how many steps must be climbed from the town to the castle gate but it’s a lot and I’m determined to count them all. When I reach the top I’m at 813, 913 or 1013. After a while I lost track of the hundreds! Luckily, the lovely lady at the gatehouse, after getting over the shock of my appearance so early in the morning, confirms there are 913 which matches one of the predictions in my guidebook.
Once inside it seems that there are another 1000 or so steps within the sprawling complex. Much of it is in ruins but at the centre there is a small church dedicated to St Andrew. The previous day locals were celebrating the Saint’s Day, hence the lines of Greek flag bunting hung in the small square outside. Next to the church is the prison where Kolokotronis, hero of the War of Independence, was imprisoned. The entrance is barely 2 foot high but I manage to squeeze through into the dark, damp and very hot chamber.
I take one last look at the amazing views across the harbour to the mountains before I tackle the steps again. Of course, I could have driven up the circuitous access road, but where’s the fun in that? Plus, after two wet, miserable days, I need the exercise and the climb is better than any 1980s step aerobics class!
As a cool down, I follow a lovely coastal path around the headland where local men are fishing for octopus, casting their lines by hand out amongst the rocks.
The mountains are calling me so I leave the sea and head inland, climbing almost to the snowline to Tripoli and then heading south to Sparti. There’s not much traffic on the road but I do get buzzed by a low flying fighter jet.
The next day I drive to the upper gate of the ancient Byzantine site of Mystra. People still lived here until 1953 when they were moved out by the government to the new village down below. Now the old town is a World Heritage Site and, although some buildings are being restored, many are still in ruins.
I start early and climb even more steps up to the highest point where the citadel was located. I am alone with the views and a few blue tits which flit among the trees. Above me are the snow-dusted peaks while below are the plains, carpeted with olive groves, and in the distance is the large modern city of Sparti. The upper site features the restored Palace of the Despots. Work has been ongoing for over 20 years and it is still off limits to the public but it does look as if it’s almost completed. There are also two of the many Byzantine churches with fragments of ancient frescos and mosaic marble floors.
Down in the lower site my timing could not be more perfect as a Greek coach party are just departing. I complete a circuit of the museum and several more Byzantine churches before climbing up to the Pantanassa Convent where I find one of only five remaining nuns who still live there. The cells where they live seem very simple and I wonder how they coped during the recent rains, but I suppose part of their life choice is to endure the hardships of just such a place and there’s a lot to be said for the simplicity of their world. One of my favourite areas in the huge Mystra site is also one of the remotest where a church has been built into the rock face.
On the third day I have relocated back to the coast. The town of Monemvasia is located on the side of a high rock which juts out into the Myrtoon Sea and is joined to the mainland by a causeway. When I reach ‘The Rock’, as it is known by the locals, I find a footpath which runs along the base of the cliffs and passes through the upper gate into the town. Climbing up even further – more steps – I reach the fortified upper town. Again, most of it is in ruins but the church of Agia Sofia has been beautifully restored. Higher still are the remains of the castle with amazing views back to the mainland.
Descending into the lower town I get lost in a maze of narrow alleyways, eventually popping out at a huge square dotted with heavy cannonballs and flanked by the large white church of Panagia Chrysafiotissa which is annoyingly locked. Up in the smaller main square is the cathedral whose 14th century icon of The Crucifixion was stolen in 1979 and sadly broken into pieces to facilitate the theft. Fortunately it was recovered a year later and restored. After many years in the Athens Byzantine Museum, for reasons of security, it was finally returned to Monemvasia in 2011 and is now in a corner of the cathedral guarded by cameras, lasers and a thick iron grill.
When I first arrived in the Monemvasia, at 9.30 am, it felt as though it had been abandoned and not a sound could be heard in the streets down below. Even once I’m in the heart of the lower town I find very few people and it is surprisingly peaceful for a sunny Saturday. However, life can be detected by the chink of ice in glasses and the smell of roasting meat wafting out the windows of the tavernas.