William Dalrymple finds precious frescoes, precipitous villages and inviting beaches in southern Greece’s Peloponnese
THE church is very small, only a little larger than a big garden shed. It has a domed, red-tiled roof and round arcaded windows. It lies quite alone in the rocky fields below the village and has been built from stone the colour of haloumi cheese. It is hemmed in on either side by tumbling terraces of silver-grey olive trees.
The sun is slowly sinking over the hills at the end of a hot day in the Peloponnese, and there is a warm smell of wild rosemary and cypress resin in the air. From the higher slopes, the tinkle of goat bells cuts through the drowsy background whirr of cicadas as a pair of shepherd children lead the long-horned flocks through the dry heat of the long, dry grass back in for the night.
We have been sitting in the shade of the ilexes, watching the shadows lengthen and the sun go down for some time before the old man appears, carrying in his hand a huge ancient key. He turns the key in the wards of the old Byzantine lock and, with a great creak, the door opens.
After a fortnight in the Peloponnese we have become used to seeing wonders in the most unexpected places but nothing prepares us for what lies inside. After all, this village of Geraki does not feature in any of our guidebooks and we have stumbled on it quite by chance driving towards the coast where we are to spend the night.
It takes a few seconds for our eyes to adjust from the bright light of the olive groves to the darkly frescoed gloom of the interior. Slowly, out of the shadows, there appears an entire, glittering Byzantine court. Despite the modest size of the church, and its remote and rustic situation, the wall paintings inside portray a courtly world of alluring brilliance and sophistication.
The last rays of the sun, pouring through the narrow doorway on to the foot-polished stone floor, illuminate a pair of youthful, confident and wide-eyed Byzantine soldiers: a young, swaggering St George astride his white charger, and standing at ease slightly to his left, leaning lightly on his spear at the end of the arcade, a dazzlingly handsome St Demetrius with dark-tanned skin, a mail coat, a bow slung over his shoulder and a single, rather dandyish, earring glinting from his right lobe.
Above the two men lies a line of roundels containing portrait heads of worldly looking empresses — Theodora, Helena, Irene — wearing crowns of large glittering pearls and court robes of gilded silk set against the dark, imperial purple of the Constantinople palace. Elsewhere, in the apse and narthex, spectators on biblical scenes, stand ranks of Byzantine courtiers: exarches and tetrarchs, prefects and governors, thassolocrats and polemarchs, a grand logothete and a chartophylax, swarms of aristocratic Paleologi and Cantacuzene.
These portraits are all so astonishingly lifelike that you find yourself fighting to restrain a gasp as you stare eyeball to eyeball with a soldier who could have fought the Turks on the walls of Constantinople or a bejewelled society lady who may have known the last Byzantine emperor. They are portraits so humane, whose handsome faces seem so startlingly contemporary in their features and expressions, that you have to keep reminding yourself these sitters are not from our world, that they have not just wandered in from the better drawing rooms of Athens or one of the more fashionable beaches of Spetses.
For all their grandeur, and the fact they wear the dress of the 14th century, the emotions that play on their lips are utterly modern and immediately recognisable.
There is none of the otherworldly religious asceticism that you sometimes find in early Byzantine mosaics of sunken-cheeked desert fathers or long-bearded hermits so unreasonably saintly they are barely human. This, you know immediately, is the art of an urbane and worldly society that valued beauty, elegance and sophistication. It was also a world that had no doubts as to its own value: there was no hint of anxiety or vulnerability in these smooth, self-assured, neo-classical faces.
There is certainly no indication, from the untrammelled confidence in these young and beautiful faces, that this was also the art of a society on the verge of defeat and extinction. GREEK specialist Simply Travel owns several simple but wonderfully situated villas in Sparta, the Mani and on the southern shores of the Morea. We end up booking a beautiful one with a pool, perched on the edge of a hillside olive grove overlooking the blue waters of Navarino Bay and the beaches of Pylos. We pore over maps and work out a route through Mistra and Monemvasia that would combine enough beach time and swimming for the children with enough frescoes, forts and basilicas for the grown-ups.
Unusually, everything works out perfectly and it proves one of our happiest family holidays. Two weeks later, looking out on to grey skies, it has already receded into memory so that it seems like a rather distant dream: the smell of grilling fish and the taste of hot, sweet Greek coffee. Barefooted children playing in the moonlight under the trees of the beachside tavernas and diving for sea anemones off the deck of an old wooden caique. A village festival to celebrate a miraculous icon; calamari grilling over charcoal and Greek salads of feta and fresh tomatoes swimming in olive oil and the cicadas grinding in the olive groves.
The view from the peaks of the Taygetus down to the towers of the deep Mani and the warm blue waters of the Aegean, so clear in Navarino Bay that from a motor boat you can still see the wrecks of Ottoman galleys lying on the sea bed, hundreds of metres below. AS you drive south from Nauplia, you begin to understand why the Peloponnese made such an effective place of refuge. For all that the water is clear and the beaches easy and inviting, the interior is rugged in the extreme. Even today, no one has tried to construct a metalled road along the coast between Argos and Monemvasia: the hills are simply too steep and impassable. As in classical times, you have to swing inland and wind your way through the passes of the Taygetus.
It is one of the most spectacular roads in Europe. You leave the cliffs and promontories and blue sea gulfs behind, and corkscrew inland past the roadside shrines with their solitary icons and flickering candles.
At first you pass under bare hillsides with rocky soil too dry for vines, able only to support gorse and, occasionally, olives. But as you rise the air becomes cooler and you find yourself in hanging river valleys where the mountains widen into a cascade of terraces with groves of orange and citrus trees protected by windbreaks of cypress. The houses of the mountain villages are wooden and whitewashed, and vines tangle up their projecting balconies and tumble over the lattices and the trellising. Ilexes and oleanders line the roadside while tall yellow mulleins and apricot hollyhocks spring up in the screes above.
Then the mountains close in again and you find yourself winding in elaborate S-bends up into wild and remote territory through tangles of conifer forests alongside narrow switchback roads defended by the ruined towers of the Despots of Morea. Orthodox monasteries hang like swallows’ nests from the crevices of the rock face; only monks and mountaineers and occasional shepherd boys pass this way.
Even the most powerful Byzantine emperors had trouble controlling these mountains or monitoring the blood feuds that thrived between the different clans of the Taygetus.
As the 14th-century emperor Manuel II Paleologus wrote to his friend Euthymius: ‘‘ It seems to me that it is the fate of the Peloponnesians to prefer civil war to peace. Even when there appears to be no pretext
for such war, they will invent one of their own volition; for they are all in love with weapons. If only they would use them when they are needed, how much better off they would be. In the midst of it all I spend most of my time trying to reconcile them with each other.’’
We arrive at Monemvasia late in the evening. Spiralling down out of the mountains, we debouch out of a river valley and see the great fortress rock rising sheer and white out of the ocean, connected to the mainland by a fragile tidal causeway. On three sides the cliffs are so steep that habitation is impossible, but on the fourth a small ledge juts out, defended by two land walls and a sea wall. It is in this small space, sheltered under the lee of the cliff, that the Byzantine port was built, an impregnable fortified town that would continue to hold out against the Turks even after the fall of Constantinople.
A single gateway, too narrow to allow cars into the town, leads into a maze of narrow alleys, steep cobbled streets and vaulted tunnels, opening into the occasional square or piazza in a manner like the old city of Jerusalem. Domed Byzantine churches face large whitewashed Ottoman merchants’ houses with red-tiled roofs; above rise the campanile of the churches and the towers of the city walls.
It is cool now, so after leaving our bags in a wonderful medieval room of the Malvasia Hotel, we head up the zigzag goat path leading to the citadel at the top of the rock. Here the double-headed eagle, the standard of the house of Paleologos, once fluttered over the city. It is easy to imagine these last Byzantines peering out from their towers, scanning the distance, beyond the great birds of prey wheeling in the thermals, waiting for the sails of the inevitable fleets of Ottoman galleys to appear over the horizon to the east.
On the terraces of the hillsides of the mainland, the vines would have been ready for the harvest, while below in the harbour would have bobbed the ships of the Venetians with the winged lion on their sails, dwarfing the occasional trading bark from Norwich, Whitby and York. Perhaps you could hear the cries of the sailors as the barrels of malmsey were rolled down into their hold of the boats, and the shipwrights scraped the barnacles off the hulls, the better to escape the Barbary corsairs and Greek pirates who preyed on Latin shipping.
The sun is sinking and we are hot from our climb. The water, as still and as silver as a pool of mercury in the evening light, looks inviting. We head back down the path and make straight for the jetty below the sea walls, ready to dive in before the smell of grilling mullet lures us out again for supper. WE save Mistra for last. Three days later, on our final morning in the Morea, we rise early and climb into the ruined city just after opening time. Below in the vale of Sparta a slight mist shrouds the chequerboard of olive groves. It is a Sunday and, from a modern village far below, the silence is broken by a single male, bass voice chanting: the village priest at his matins. There is no sound of cars, no tour groups, nothing of the 21st century. The chanting, still sung in the language of Byzantine Empire, seems like a lifeline of tones and syllables linking us with the 14th-century glory days of Mistra.
All around, clinging to the steep green slopes of the ruined city, lies a litter of great palaces and monasteries, libraries, refectories and scriptoria, drinking fountains and aqueducts, fortress walls and frescoed churches, all completely deserted. Between the ruins grow cypresses and oleanders, hibiscus, myrtle and wild roses.
It is a beautiful place but, inescapably, a sad one: a last bastion that failed to hold, full of hope and culture and artistry, but one that ultimately proved as vulnerable as the rest of the empire.
Here, then, was the last stand of the Byzantines. After everything else had gone, Mistra represented the last gasp of a civilisation that had resisted extinction for more than 1000 years since the fall of Rome and the demise of the western half of the empire. It was here that the last double-headed eagle fluttered over the gnarled contours of the Mistra acropolis and the domes of its churches, waiting until, on May 29, 1460, seven years to the day after the fall of Constantinople, the army of Mehmet the conqueror wound its way down the slopes of Mt Parnon.
The citizens of Mistra could only look out helplessly across the valley and watch as the white tents of the great Ottoman army were erected throughout the vale of Sparta, along the length of the city walls, their impossible struggle finally over. William Dalrymple’s WhiteMughals won the 2003 Wolfson Prize for History; his TheLastMughal: TheEclipseofaDynasty won the 2007 Duff Cooper Prize for History and Biography. More: www.williamdalrymple.uk.com.
For information on the Malvasia Hotel in Monemvasia: +30 273 206 1160; firstname.lastname@example.org. www.simplytravel.co.uk www.gnto.gr
Aegean dreams: Domed Byzantine churches and monasteries dot the landscape in Mistra, in the Peloponnese, main picture; a crest of the Byzantine empire, inset