Spread over a steep, verdant mountainside of the Taÿgetos ranges, this former capital of the Byzantine Empire is the single most compelling set of medieval ruins in Greece. A classic fortified city, Mystras is surrounded by verdant olive and orange trees. Treading the cobblestones, worn smooth by centuries of footsteps, you can walk with the ghosts, ducking into the ruins of palaces, monasteries and churches, most dating from between 1271 and 1460.
From the upper-entrance ticket office, the right-hand path (signposted ‘Castle’) leads up to the fortress; it’s a 10-minute ascent. The fortress was built by the Franks and extended by the Turks; the views of the Lakonia plain, spread out below, are nothing short of fantastic. The left-hand path descends from the ticket office to Agia Sofia , which served as the palace church and burial ground for several emperors’ wives; some frescoes survive in a side chapel. Steps descend from here to a T-junction.
A left turn leads to the Nafplio Gate . Near the gate is the huge Palace of Despots , largely restored but closed to the public at the time of writing. The complex was started by the Franks and finished by the Byzantines; various buildings were constructed between 1250 and 1450 and the main palace was built between 1350-1400.
The right fork leads down to the Monemvasia Gate , the entrance to the lower town. Through the gate, turn right for the well-preserved 14th-century Convent of Pantanassa . This features a beautifully ornate stone-carved facade and is still maintained by nuns, Mystras’ only inhabitants besides the motley crew of stray cats. The convent is an elaborate, perfectly proportioned building that’s never overstated. The exquisite, richly coloured 15th-century frescoes here are among the finest examples of late-Byzantine art. Look out for the tiny stamped silver and gold votive offerings beneath the large icon of the Virgin. You’ll find images of eyes, ears, legs, arms, breasts, babies, husbands and wives stamped onto these small tablets, depending on the problems (health or personal life) for which the faithful are hoping for supernatural help. The nuns ask that, before entering, you cover bare legs with the cloths provided.
The path continues down to the Monastery of Perivleptos , which is built into a rock and tucked away in a pine grove. Inside, the 14th-century frescoes, preserved virtually intact, equal those of Pantanassa. The church has a very high dome and in the centre you’ll find the Pantokrator (the Byzantine depiction of Christ as the universal, all-powerful ruler) surrounded by the Apostles, and the Virgin flanked by two angels.
Continue down towards the Mitropolis and you’ll pass Agios Georgios , one of Mystras’ many private chapels. Further down, and above the path on the left, is the Laskaris Mansion , a typical Byzantine house.
The Mitropolis (Cathedral of Agios Dimitrios) is a complex of buildings enclosed by a high wall. The original church was built in the 1200s, but was greatly altered in the 15th century. The church stands in an attractive courtyard surrounded by stoae and balconies. Its impressive ecclesiastical ornaments and furniture include a marble iconostasis, an intricately carved wooden throne, and a marble slab in the floor featuring a two-headed eagle (the symbol of Byzantium) located on the exact site where Emperor Constantine XI was crowned. The church also has some fine frescoes. Exhibits at the small but modern museum upstairs include fragments of ancient cloth, buttons, jewellery and other everyday items of Mystras’ inhabitants.
Beyond the Mitropolis is the Vrontokhion Monastery . This was once the wealthiest monastery of Mystras, the focus of cultural activities and the burial place of the despots. Of its two churches, Agios Theodoros and Aphentiko , the latter is the most impressive, with striking frescoes.