Once a thriving religious metropolis founded in the 13th century, Mystras today is a haunting, abandoned relic of the Byzantine Empire that will leave you awestruck. Originally it was established as a city by Frank William de Villehardouin who built his palace in 1249 and fortress there, but ten years later the Byzantine Empire had captured the city and built some of their most magnificent monasteries and churches. At its height Mystras counted 40,000 inhabitants, more than double the nearby current city of Sparta.
On a cool day, Mystras is an enjoyable five-kilometer hike to Sparta for those who like to walk. For this reason and to see the place free of tourists, it is a good idea to visit Mystras in the cooler winter months (in midsummer it might really be too hot). If you’re not the walking type, keeping in mind that Mystras is built on a hill, drive to the upper part of town to see the castle, then drive to the lower gate to see the rest. Whatever you do, you’ll discover some breathtaking churches and buildings. Not to be missed is the Church of Agios Dimitrios with remains of frescoes and a modern museum on the first floor which holds pottery, jewelry and age-old manuscripts. Agios Dimitrios, founded in 1292, was built and decorated in various architectural styles and is where emperor Constantinos Paleologos was crowned in 1449.
Not far above lies the Church of Evangelistria (Virgin of the Annunciation) that boasts some rare frescoes from the 15th century such as that of Christ Pantocrator surrounded by angels.
Also noteworthy is the Monastery of Vrontochion and its inner church of Odigitria. Intriguing architecture with an almost gothic twist despite the Byzantine cruciform plan. You can marvel at the frescoes that depict the miracle of Christ, completed by the talented painters of Constantinople.
The Monastery of Pantanassa, inhabited today by friendly nuns, was founded in 1428. It was founded by Ioannis Frangopoulos, Prime Minister of the Despotate at the time. This church and its bell tower reflect a strange combination of byzantine and gothic styles.
These are but some of the graceful remains of a glorious era, most of which are open in winter (but not all). Keep an open mind and you will feel a spiritual energy in this part of the Peloponnese that is special indeed.