Byzan­tine ma­noeu­vres

William Dal­rym­ple finds pre­cious fres­coes, pre­cip­i­tous vil­lages and invit­ing beaches in south­ern Greece’s Pelo­pon­nese

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.

Check­list

For in­for­ma­tion on the Mal­va­sia Ho­tel in Monem­va­sia: +30 273 206 1160; mal­va­sia@otenet.com. www.sim­ply­travel.co.uk www.gnto.gr

Main pic­ture: Photolibrary

Aegean dreams: Domed Byzan­tine churches and monas­ter­ies dot the land­scape in Mis­tra, in the Pelo­pon­nese, main pic­ture; a crest of the Byzan­tine em­pire, inset

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