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My Great Greek Adventure: Sparta, the City of Legends

The National Herald

Sparti in river Eurotas valley flanked by Taygetos mountains.

It is true that legends never die in Greece. In fact, every day we walk on sacred and ancient land that holds secrets and memories of great minds. Across the world people recognize the name of the Spartans and the story of three hundred soldiers who protected their hone at all costs. The ancient city Sparta or Sparti as it is called today, is located in the southern Peloponnese. The modern city of Sparti is built alongside the Eurotas River and at the base of the Profitis Ilias mountain range. Kalamata is just on the other side of the mountains, and Gythio is a forty-minute drive south following the path of the river to the sea.

Sparta's history is focused on its warrior spirit and the organization of the Spartan army which won them legendary battles. The people of Sparta were very dedicated to maintaining strength and tradition in their military practices. Young men would begin training in a mandatory state-run program from the age of seven, and were expected to handle strict and strenuous duties. The training program was given the name `Agoge' and it encompassed military and mental tactics to become the ultimate soldier.

The loyalty towards the Spartan state, also referred to as Lacedaemon, was deeply engrained in their personalities. The boys who were healthy were required to join the Agoge program and they would continue to live and train together into their adult years. When the time came for them to find a partner and start a family, the men's loyalty to their military and state remained their true love. They did not have much of a choice in the matter, as this service to the military was expected and became a life-long career for the Spartan men.

The National Herald

Ancient Sparta.

The women of Sparta had a freer experience. Distinguished differences separated Spartan women from others in Greece. These women were formally educated and took part in competitions of art and sport. They also possessed more legal rights such as the ability to own property. Behind the military creed of the men and the free and powerful lives of the women, Sparta was kept moving by the slave class called Helots. These people were treated very poorly but were the laborers that ultimately kept society functioning. The lifestyle in Sparta was much different than other Greek city-states such as Athens, where art, philosophy, and knowledge were the main forces at work. The city-states' conflicting ideologies would eventually lead them to battle in the Peloponnese War, where Sparta would ultimately be victorious.

The modern city of Sparti is quite small, only about a dozen street blocks wide. And as you can imagine, it is built among the ruins of its ancient predecessor. The first sight to see is the ruins and the old city on the northern outskirts of town. You can find it by following the main road by the name Palaiologou. Along this road is where you will find the majority of shopping and gathering happening. The streets are lined with shops large and small, as well as the necessary café and bakery shops that keep life going in Greece. And although it is not a top tourist city, there are plenty of accommodation options to choose from in town and out into the countryside.

Naturally there is a big open square at the center of town right off of the main road. Lined with trees and statues honoring ancient Spartan warriors with mosaic artwork framing the pathways, the square is a gathering place for everyone to enjoy. Opposite of this art of honor is the city hall building built within the square itself. The architecture of Sparti is a mix of the classical and what is cool right now, but the buildings all seem to blend together in a charming pattern. Across from the town square passing the main road is an equally-sized park and green space. The park is built around and in relation to the grand Archeological Museum of Sparti. Artifacts and marble masterpieces from varying time periods of Ancient Greece fill the museum. Despite it being a small town, the Archeological Museum of Sparti holds treasures that resemble those in the grandest museums in the world.

The National Herald

Mystras Pantanassa Church.

Open spaces are easy to find in Sparti, with a perfectly kept park or fountain in each neighborhood. But more impressive than the small parks and squares throughout town is the scene that presents itself off into the distance. The massive mountain range Profitis Ilias also known as Taigetos towers above the town with its snow-capped peaks standing out. Along its slopes are more cultural and archeological sites to see that remain low key and authentic.

In the neighboring Mystras area you will find the Palace of Despots and Villehardouin Castle. They are both made of stone and are comprised of various additions attached through the ages. They have a history as the homes of nobility, but share the hillside with the homes of the Lord – renowned religious establishments. Veering off the same main road of Mystras, you will find along the mountain side Pantanassa's Monastery with its tall archways and columns as well as other small churches all built along the slopes and viewing the town below. There is even more historic richness along this area with the ruins of ancient Mystra bordering the Palace, and the area's own archeological museum. The Archeological Museum of Mystra is built connected and intertwined with the old church of the Metropolis Naos Agios Dimitrios, a church with delicately preserved mosaics, stonework, and architectural and cultural details dating back to the 11th century.

The modern town of Sparti and its surrounding hillsides have remnants of its ancient and medieval past. The buildings and monuments refuse to let the stories or legends of this land to be forgotten. Sparti is for the traveler who seeks to step into the past for a moment to understand the trials and triumphs of their ancestors. While the beach is a short road trip away, cultural and historical travel experiences are often the most moving and memorable.