Once we were warriors

The region of Laconia may be known for its militant past, but as Despina Meris finds, today it is a peaceful place to explore a bygone era

When I was quite young and impressionable, my mother took great pleasure in reminding me that in ancient Sparta, children that were deemed unfit or weak were thrown from the peaks of Mount Taygetos into a chasm below.
Luckily, a visit to modern day Sparta is not nearly as harrowing. In fact, journeying through Laconia in the southern Peloponnese is a blissful way to spend time, sampling local produce and taking in the dramatic vistas.
Sparta is a European-style polis with tree-lined boulevards leading to an inviting central piazza or plateia. It is so inviting, in fact, that you’ll find yourself gravitating to the plateia’s cafes, bakeries and boutique shops time and time again.
Ancient Sparta was – and is – respected for its unique social system, with a single-minded focus on military excellence and developing strong warriors.
Unfortunately, they were not as concerned with monuments and temples, so there is not much evidence today of its military glory. An afternoon can be spent exploring the Archaeological Museum, the Tomb of Leonidas (revered king of Sparta, hero of the Battle of Thermopylae), and the modest ruins of ancient Sparta, which include the Rotunda, the Theatre and the Temple of Athena.
Sparta’s true charm lies in its villages, where traditional stone buildings line cobblestone streets and life centres around the village square. Dafni and Xirokambi are two traditional villages that still thrive with a vibrant population. Dine at a traditional tavern, feasting on local dishes like bouzoupoula (whole roasted suckling pig), locally grown aromatic thyme and oregano, regional white wine and of course, the area’s biggest export- olives.
Greece’s saint day festivals or paniyiria are a unique experience, so try and time your trip with July 25 for the Prophet Elias paniyiri in Lefkohoma or July 26 for the Saint Paraskevi festivities in Arahova.
Mount Taygetos is the tallest mountain range in the Peloponnese, and a major source of pride for the locals. A popular hiking destination, it is home to a challenging pilgrimage to the church of Prophet Elias at its highest summit.
The jewel of the area is UNESCO World Heritage Site Mystras, a fortified town built into the mountain’s steep slopes. Mystras served as the capital of the Byzantine Empire and the fortress, palace, churches, and monasteries are all incredibly well preserved, as are the few surviving frescos dating back to the 14th century. It is essentially an open air museum, with a stunning outlook over all of Sparta. Avoid the midday sun by planning your visit in the morning or late afternoon.
The nearest beach to Sparta is Gytheio, a picturesque seaport with a backdrop of pastel-hued neoclassical buildings. It has an atmosphere of faded grandeur that just begs you to stroll the promenade, crunching on corn on the cob. There are traditional taverns galore, serving simple whole grilled fish, and ouzeries for your fill of meze and shots of ouzo.
A memorable day trip from Gytheio is a visit to the magnificent Diros Caves, an underwater cave network that is believed to stretch over 33,000 square meters. Only a fraction has been explored, but nonetheless it makes for a dramatic journey into a chilly underground world. Aboard narrow boats, each group is led by a tour guide along a challenging route, quickly learning to duck in order to avoid hanging stalagmites in the eerie, echoing canals. This is a must-do.
On the east coast of the Peloponnese stands the imposing medieval fortress town of Monemvasia, built in the sixth century by the Byzantines. Nicknamed the ‘Gibraltar of the East’, the town has been painstakingly restored and feels as if you are taking a step back in time. Take time to wander down the cobblestone pedestrian-only streets past stone houses, mansions, Byzantine churches and castle fortifications. Buildings have been respectfully converted into hotels, spas, restaurants and cafes, allowing modern comforts to the visitor while they take in the majesty of this medieval marvel.
As you can see, a visit to Sparta and its surrounds doesn’t necessarily have to be so, well, Spartan.
Getting there: By hire car or bus service from Athens (seven times daily during peak season).
Staying there: Charming Pantheon City Hotel in Gytheio serves as a great base for the area. For romantic luxury, stay at Kinsterna Hotel and Spa, Monemvasia.
Eating there: Romantic Nisi, in Gytheio, is on a tiny island attached to the mainland by causeway. Dine under plane trees and drink from natural mountain springs at Drosopigi restaurant. Stelakos, near Mystras, serves up country-style fare in a charming village.