Crusaders, Castles, and Greek Independence

So i mentioned in my last post that i want to touch on a couple of specific topics, and the first is a little bit of history…

I discovered that Greece is not just myths, pagan gods and ancient ruins (ok i knew that already but I’ve not really talked about much else). It was also rather important in Medieval, Byzantine and post-Byzantine times and that the church, religion and faith also had a large part to play in the formation of this wonderful country. And as the Peloponnese saw it all, it would be remiss of me not to mention some of this, after I’ve spent the last few months going on about the Ancient Greeks, without even mentioning the Byzantines, Franks, Venetians, Ottomans and Greeks of the Middle Ages.

So here goes my take on it all…

After the 4th crusade, in the mid 13th century, a group of French knights were riding home from the Holy Land when they passed through Greece. Looking around they admired the beautiful, rich land and thought “oohlala, isn’t this nice. I think I’ll have that”. And that’s just what they did. They proceeded to occupy strategic points and built imposing castles on top of hills to display their prowess, power and importance, and all in the name of the church. Towns sprang up below the castles, on the slopes of the hills, as the various knights puffed their feathers, flexed their muscles, increased their bank balances and prayed to God, surrounded by defensive walls. They filled the towns with churches (they liked churches a lot the crusaders), and then people. Within the walls, two or three storey houses, and artisan workshops appeared, connected by cobbled streets, with one main artery snaking it’s way from the castle, down the hill to a defensive gate at the bottom.There could be up to 40,000 people crammed inside, the wealthy at the top separated by a wall, the poor at the bottom. I’m sure it must have been incredibly clean and hygienic!

Then for many centuries there was a long game of ping pong as the various powers of the time (Byzantines, Franks, Ottomans, Venetians, Greeks) played pass the parcel and Risk, invading, conquering, sharing and swapping. Churches became mosques, then churches again, then mosques. Castles were built, were destroyed, rebuilt bigger and better, and then destroyed again. In fact I guess it’s somewhat like Game Of Thrones!

There are castles with their respective towns/villages dotted all over the Peloponnese. Some are still inhabited, while others were abandoned long ago, leaving only a small collection of nuns or monks in the monasteries, who spend their days praying, baking biscuits and looking after the stray cats. They are visited by the tourists who come to see the marvelous churches/mosques, frescoes and ruins.

The most impressive, and most visited, are Mystras and Monemvasia.

Mystras and one of its many churches
Mystras and one of its many churches

Mystras is a sprawling mass of ruins, with more churches than you can shake a stick at, backed by the imperious peaks of the Taygetos mountains. There are many Byzantine frescoes inside the churches, considered to be some of the finest examples which can be seen in the world. The castle at the top of the hill is right under the peaks of the mountains, and the views out onto the plain of Sparta are impressive. Actually, Mystras was built using the stone from the ruins of Ancient Sparta, which probably would have had the ancients turning in their graves, shouting in manly Scottish accents “you can’t do that. THIS IS SPARTA!!!”

The view to Mystras castle
The view to Mystras castle

Monemvasia, known as the Greek Gibraltar, stands proudly on the side of a huge rock (hence the name), the ruins of churches and houses of the upper city only now being excavated. An unkempt, atmospheric wilderness is the overriding feature, while the lower town looks like a miniature model village from above. You look down on a scene of idyllic perfection, the red roofed houses and churches, interspersed with small lanes and squares, leading down to battlements on the sea. Somehow it made me think of Duloc in Shrek – such a perfect plaaaaaaaaaace!

The rock of Monemvasia
The rock of Monemvasia
The upper town of Monemvasia
The upper town of Monemvasia
Monemvasia lower town
Monemvasia lower town

Both are definately worth visiting, and are 2 of the most important tourist attractions within the Peloponnese. Perhaps it is because they are geared towards visitors that i was unable to connect, but somehow these churches and Christian “museums” do not evoke in me the same awe and inspiration as ancient monuments with their gods and pagan rituals. I appreciate their beauty but I am not moved in the same way. They seem too real, removed from nature, and altogether too human.

I should also add that another site grabbed my attention and interest far more, a castle I came across on my 2nd day in the Peloponnese quite by accident. Chlemoutsi sits above the modern village of Kastro (can you guess what that means in English? Yep, kastro = castle), on the western tip of the Peloponnese, staring out imperiously towards the islands of Keffalonia and Zakinthos. It has the same rich history as a crusader castle – in the 1300s the crusaders took the castle and annexed the area. For the next 300 years it changed hands from Franks, to Ottomans to Venetians, before passing to the Vatican. Perhaps the fact it is less known was the reason I liked it so much, and as the only visitor that day I was able to walk around and take my time without anybody else except the 2 friendly ladies who work there. I sat and chatted with them afterwards as they questioned me about my journey, and offered me a refreshing lemonade in the heat of the midday sun.

Chlemoutsi castle, with its splendid view
Chlemoutsi castle, with its splendid view

So after centuries of warfare the Greeks were somewhat tired of not having their own land. So they decided to do something about it…

I arrived in the outskirts of Kalamata, the first big city I’ve seen in a long time, to celebration and festivity on Greek Independence Day. In 1821 the Greeks threw off the Turkish yoke and it all started in Kalamata. Happy, smiling locals, all clad in traditional dress were busy celebrating and dancing, women in colourful dresses and yellow headscarves formed up in large circles, moving with the music. The men, in white knee length frilly shirts with colourful sashes slung over their shoulders, carried guns which they were firing into the air with complete abandon in raucous fashion, the explosions deafening the ear drums, the smoke drifting around the gathered throng of people. Soon after they formed up into a parade, the men at the front headed by an older man with a huge twirled moustache, dressed in black, and looking every part a victorious general. Along the main street they marched, firing guns, laughing, reloading and firing again, as the cars stopped to beep their horns and wave. In the main square different groups of brightly clad celebrants converged, forming one huge circle. The music played, they danced around holding hands and the four heads of the various groups embraced in the centre, theatrically waving their arms in the air and smiling. Then everybody set off to parade through the streets, and the people began to disperse, show over.

Dancing ladies in traditional dress
Dancing ladies in traditional dress
Dressed to kill for Greek Independence Day
Dressed to kill for Greek Independence Day

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