I wanted to take you to Sparta today.
Sparta is the mighty ancient city, which is no more. It used to rule the world from its location in the south of Peloponnese Peninsula, south of Greece, for roughly a thousand years, leaving the legend behind. The legend – and very little physical remains.
The whole archaeological site of ancient Sparta comprises of a small, open-air museum, which lies perfectly to the north off the current, modern city of Sparti, built in the 19th century. It it but a little of what used to be the ancient power, which ruled the world, as it was known then, with the centre of the universe at Delphi. The majority of the ancient buildings, uncovered as part of the limited archaeological excavations, date back to the Roman times or to the early Byzantine period in Greece. Or, at the very least, show extensive Roman influences and reconstructions, as in the case of the ancient theatre. Very, very little is left of the Greek ancient polis.
The spirit of Sparta is very much present in the wide valley of Eurotas river, which run grey-sand dry as I visited September 2017. I spent hours contemplating the ancient theater remains, walking in between the olive trees in the grove outside of the open-air museum. As I walked around I realized that all of that space used to be ancient Sparta. Just some of it was not fenced in and excavated – but it was still there. Sparta sat on the three wide, flat hills in the heart of Eurotas river valley. And extended even further – the Artemis Orthia sanctuary, which is down in the valley, to the east of the current city, must have been part of the same organic, ancient organism.
Shadows of the old glory can be seen, overgrown with bushes, in the olive grove. People walk through it to get from the suburbs to the city – next to the ruined Roman wall, next to the ruined Roman baths. The golden shadows of the past move there, in between the green olive trees, in the valley overlooked by sharp peaks of Taygetus Massive – a mountain range extending at 100 km through the Peloponnese Peninsula. Its tallest peak, Profitis Illias, stands at 2.4 thousand meters above sea level, majestic and stone cold, just as it stood back then, looking at the little Laconian children, who run the ancient streets of the city that disappeared.
It is a very weird feeling, to be there, inside the archaeological dig, and walk through the grove on the outside of it – sensing the spirit of the mighty city, but unable to see it. One part of my brain was preoccupied with questions as to why is seemed that no one cared for the remains decaying with time. Another part was so happy that Sparta did not become yet another Disneyland, and managed to hide off the beaten tourist track, as most people were discouraged to go there by travel guide books that told them ‘it’s a waste of your precious, city-hopping time’. I spent hours and hours walking in between the trees, breathing in the atmosphere, seeing the ancient city as it woke up and rose before my eyes, conjured lightly from sun rays and dust – alone, in silence and peace.
For those of you who will go there – who will listen, dare to explore where they think there is nothing to find, take it all in with contemplative eyes – Sparta will be understated and so beautiful because of that. It invites through silence, a promise of discovery so light that one has to listen closely enough to understand its whisper.
And yet, the modern city next to the old olive grove thrives. It’s full of life, vivaciousness, children, dogs, families, chaos and life and delicious restaurants, topped with ice-cream cones and a bountifulness of the Greek salad. It stops the traffic on the main street – to unassumingly and so happily play jazz. Sinking into the smiles and beautiful faces, kind people and genuine welcome, it’s the perfect place to experience the living Peloponnese: as it was and as it is. There is very little tourism there. People treat it as a stop rather than a destination: and this is precisely why I loved it to bits. Rolled in one, the ancient whisper, the shadow of the past – and the current life.
Don’t miss it, just because someone tells you ‘it’s a waste of time’.
P.S. and for those of you who, like myself, love bats, take a stroll around the olive grove and the archaeological site at dusk, just as the door of the museum closes. The intoxicating freedom and joy of soundless hunting flight above your heads will bring you back to the times, when these same nightly creatures fluttered above the heads of little Laconian children, as sleep covered their heavy eyelids after a trying day of physical, mental and emotional exercise…