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Agios Nikolaos
Day trip: Gytheio & Mystras
Day trip: Inner Mani


Gytheio's harbour

Places to go, Day trip to Gytheio and Mystras

This day trip will take you south from Stoupa to Oitylo, Areopoli, Gytheio, Sparta, Mystras, Kalamata and back to Stoupa again.

The route will take you in a circle and can be driven both ways.
Since Mystras closes at three in the afternoon you will want to leave Stoupa early.
Stops at Oitylo and Areopoli are not necessary. They can easily be visited on another day and you will be able to spend more time there if you do.
Most villages on the road between Stoupa and Areopoli have Byzantyne churches dating back as far as the 11th century!
The road from Areopoli to Gytheio winds its way through a beautiful valley.

It is nice to stop at Gytheio for a coffee, have a look at the town and continue to Sparta and Mystras after.
For many centuries Gytheio was an important seaport and it used to be the port of Sparta, about 40 km's inland. An earthquake in 375 AD destroyed the town and its port.
After the earthquake Gythium was abandoned and stayed a small village for many centuries. This changed during the Greek War of Independance when Greek refugees flooded into Mani and made Gytheio a major town again.
The new port has been there since the 1960s. Regular ferries sail from Gytheio to Kythira and Crete.

Cranae in Gytheio's harbour

There is a small island in Gytheio's bay, linked to the mainland by a causeway, called Cranae.
The Janetakis Tower, the tower of the famous family of the Gregorakedes, is in the middle of Cranae.
It houses the Historical and Ethnological museum of Mani.
But there are more reasons why Cranae is important to Gytheio:

First there is the Greek myth about Troy.
Most of you will know how Paris from Troy fell in love with Queen Helena, who was married to King Menelaos of Sparta.
Paris and Helena eloped from Sparta and in doing so helped cause the Trojan War.
What you may not know is that they spent their first night together away from Sparta on Cranae. The next day they set off for Troy.

The war originated from a quarrel between the goddesses Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite, after Eris, the goddess of strife and discord, gave them a golden apple, sometimes known as the Apple of Discord, marked "for the fairest". Zeus sent the goddesses to Paris, who judged that Aphrodite, as the "fairest", should receive the apple. In exchange, Aphrodite made Helen, the most beautiful of all women and wife of Menelaus, fall in love with Paris, who took her to Troy. Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and the brother of Helen's husband Menelaus, led an expedition of Achaean troops to Troy and besieged the city for ten years because of Paris' insult. After the deaths of many heroes, including the Achaeans Achilles and Ajax, and the Trojans Hector and Paris, the city fell to the ruse of the Trojan Horse. The Achaeans slaughtered the Trojans (except for some of the women and children whom they kept or sold as slaves) and desecrated the temples, thus earning the gods' wrath. Few of the Achaeans returned safely to their homes and many founded colonies in distant shores.

This second story is also related to Cranae and royalty.
In Roman times Gythium was an important town with a major port and a Roman theatre (that you can still visit today)
The reason is that Phoenicians from Tyre set up a workshop on Cranae for the elaboration of porphyra, also known as Tyrian purple or royal purple.
The Romans loved the purple dye and rose antique marble that Gytheio exported and the city flourished.
The purple-red dye was very expensive. According to the 4th-century-BC historian Theopompus, "Purple for dyes fetched its weight in silver at Colophon".
The expensive purple-dyed textiles were status symbols and laws dictated and forbade their use. The production of shellfish purple was tightly controlled in Byzantium and subsidized by the imperial court. Tyrian purple was restricted for the coloring of silks for imperial use. Persons belonging to the imperial family were porphyrogenitos, "born in the purple".
The dye substance consists of a mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of predatory sea snails found in the eastern Mediterranean.

Sparta is about 40 km's from Gytheio. It doesn't take long to get there since its a straight road. You will pass lots of citrus trees on the way.
Until modern times, Sparta was a relatively small village that lay in the shadow of Mystras. In 1834, after the Greek War of Independence, King Otto of Greece decreed that the village was to be rebuilt into a city on the site of ancient Sparta and bear the same name. Today it is known as Sparti.

You can visit the Archaeological Museum, the Cathedral and the Tomb of Leonidas (Leonidaion) in Sparta. The ruins of ancient Sparta are North of the modern town. Entering by the South Gate of the Acropolis, known as Lakedaemonia, there is the Rotunda, the Theater, the Temple of Athena Chalkioikos and the 10th Century AC Monastic Church of Osios Nikonas. Exiting the Acropolis by the North Gate there are the remains of the earliest ancient walls, the Heroon and the Altar of Lycourgos, whereas to the East there is the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia.

Sparta was a city-state in ancient Greece and well known for its dominant military power. During the Greco-Persian Wars in 480 BC King Leonidas of Sparta and his troops made a legendary last stand at the Battle of Thermopylae against the massive Persian army, inflicting a very high casualty rate on the Persian forces before finally being encircled.
Between 431 and 404 BC, Sparta was the principal enemy of Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Sparta's defeat by Thebes in the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC and the subsequent conquest of Greece by Philip II of Macedon ended Sparta's role as the dominant military power in Greece.

Sparta was unique in ancient Greece for its social system, which divided its inhabitants into Spartiates (Spartan citizens, who enjoyed full rights), Perioikoi (freedmen), and Helots (state-owned serfs). Although Sparta did not practice slavery, helots formed the majority of the inhabitants of Sparta (over 80% of the population according to Herodotus).
The Spartans were well known for their harsh upbringing. Babies, for instance, were bathed in wine by their mother to see if they were strong. If the child survived it was brought before the counsil of elders who then decided whether it was to be reared or not. If they considered it "puny and deformed", the baby was thrown into a chasm on Mount Taygetos (you will pass this deepest part of the canyon shortly after you leave Mystras).
Male Spartans began their military training once they were 7 years old. Discipline and physical toughness were encouraged to emphasise the importance of the Spartan state. Boys lived in communal messes and were deliberately underfed so they would master the skill of stealing food. If they got caught they weren't punished for stealing but because they let themselves get caught! Besides physical and weapons training, boys studied reading, writing, music and dancing. Special punishments were imposed if boys failed to answer questions sufficiently 'laconically' (i.e. briefly and wittily - Sparta lies in the province of Laconia).

Since 1989 the whole of Mystras including the fortress, palace, churches, and monasteries, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It lies on a mountain overlooking the plains around Sparta, a great spot to build a fortress because you could see everyone coming from miles away.
The oldest part is at the top. Here a palace was built in the 13th century during the Fourth Crusade by Prince William II Villehardouin.
The city below is of later date and can be wandered through. The frescos in the Peribleptos Church, dating between 1348 and 1380, are a very rare surviving late Byzantine cycle, crucial for the understanding of Byzantine art.
Here you will find more info about Mystras

(with thanks to Wikipedia for some of the information on this page!)

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