Land of the Byzantines

William Dalrymple finds a heady mix of ancient treasures, rustic mountain villages and tantalising beaches in the Peloponnese

The church was very small - only a little larger than a big garden shed. It had a domed, red-tiled roof and round arcaded windows. It lay quite alone in the rocky fields below the village, and was built from stone the colour of halloumi cheese. It was hemmed in on either side by tumbling terraces of silver-grey olive trees.

The church was very small - only a little larger than a big garden shed. It had a domed, red-tiled roof and round arcaded windows. It lay quite alone in the rocky fields below the village, and was built from stone the colour of halloumi cheese. It was hemmed in on either side by tumbling terraces of silver-grey olive trees.

The sun was slowly sinking over the hills at the end of a hot day in the Peloponnese, and there was a warm smell of wild rosemary and cypress resin in the air; from the higher slopes, the tinkle of goat-bells cut through the drowsy background whir of cicadas as a pair of shepherd children led the long-horned flocks back in for the night through the heat of the long dry grass.

We had been sitting in the shade of the ilexes, watching the shadows lengthen and the sun go down for some time before the old man appeared, carrying in his hand a huge primeval key. He turned it in the wards of the Byzantine lock and, with a great creak, the door opened.

After a fortnight in the Peloponnese we had become used to seeing wonders in the most unexpected places, but nothing prepared us for what lay inside. After all, this village - Geraki - did not feature in any of our guidebooks, and we had stumbled on it quite by chance as we drove towards the coast where we were due to spend the night.

It took 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 appeared an entire, glittering Byzantine court. Despite the modest size of the church and its remote and rustic situation, the wall paintings inside portrayed 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, illuminated 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 lay a line of roundels containing portrait heads of worldly looking empresses - Theodora, Helena, Irene - all wearing crowns of large glistening pearls and court robes of gilded silk set against the imperial purple of the Constantinople palace. Elsewhere, in the apse and narthex, stood ranks of Byzantine courtiers, spectators on biblical scenes: exarches and tetrarchs, prefects and governors, thassolocrats and polemarchs, a Grand Logothete and a Chartophylax, swarms of aristocratic Palaeologi and Cantacuzene.

These portraits were all so astonishingly realistic that you found yourself fighting to restrain a gasp as you stared, 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 were portraits so humane, whose handsome faces seemed so startlingly contemporary in their features and expressions, that you had to keep reminding yourself that these sitters were not from our world, that they had not just wandered in from the better drawing rooms of Athens or one of the more fashionable beaches of Spetses.

There was none of the otherworldly religious asceticism that you sometimes find in early Byzantine mosaics - sunken-cheeked desert fathers or long-bearded hermits so unreasonably saintly that they are barely human. This, you knew immediately, was 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 self-assured neoclassical faces. There was certainly no indication in the untrammelled confidence in these young and beautiful figures that this was also the art of a society on the verge of defeat and extinction.

Our journey to Greece had begun, oddly enough, in New York. Earlier this summer the Met staged one of the most magnificent exhibitions of ecclesiastical art ever mounted - "Byzantium: Faith and Power 1261-1557". In room after room many of the greatest masterpieces of late Byzantium - huge icons and altarpieces, gospel books and imperial scrolls, tympanums and tomb covers - were brought together, convincingly demonstrating the brilliance of the final great flowering of the art of the Byzantines before the janissaries of the Ottoman armies finally crushed the dwindling legions of the empire.

The show was the third of a trilogy of spectacular exhibitions of Byzantine art that the Met has mounted over the last two decades. In the two previous shows, which dealt with the late antique and early medieval periods, almost all the greatest masterpieces had been from the capital, Constantinople. What was striking about the third and final show was that many of the finest icons and frescoes came from two sites in Greece about which I knew little.

Towards the last days of the Byzantine Empire, the heavily fortified citadels of Mistra and Monemvasia in the Peloponnese grew increasingly important. As the Turks closed on Constantinople, slowly whittling away the last Greek possessions in Anatolia, many of Byzantium's nobles and a disproportionate number of its savants, artists, writers, philosophers and intellectuals fled to the Morea, where life was less edgy and uncertain and there was far greater intellectual freedom. Here, princes of the imperial family ruled over a prosperous province where flourished the great neo-Platonist Plethon and his friend George Scholarios. Together they brought about a great revival in the study of Plato and the thinkers of classical Greece.

Plethon, in particular, was an extraordinary figure: a free thinker who left Constantinople to study both the teachings of Aristotle and Kabbalistic mystical lore under an Ottoman Jew named Elisaeus. He also probed the mysteries of Zoroastrianism and the teachings of the Brahmins of India. All this - but especially the teachings of Plato and Pythagoras - was a torch that Plethon later handed on to the Italians, so stimulating the beginnings of the Renaissance in Western Europe: it was in honour of Plethon that Cosimo de Medici founded the Academy at Florence.

The citadel of Mistra, rising on a great spur of rock in the foothills of the Taygetus mountains, not far from the site of ancient Sparta, was the centre of the court and the church; Monemvasia was its port and the focal point of Byzantine commerce in raisins, salt, silk and especially alcohol. Monemvasia was the source of much of the wine drunk in medieval England, and in time the English changed the Greek name to one easier on domestic ears and tongues. Monemvasia became Malmsey - as if it was somewhere in Wiltshire, perhaps a suburb of Malmesbury.

The combination of this stirring of memories from childhood history lessons, the fabulous richness of the treasures displayed in the Met exhibition and the tantalising pictures of the citadels from which they came, proved an irresistible combination: on our return from New York, we got out an atlas and a guide book and began working out an itinerary for the summer.

We looked at villas in Sparta, the Mani and on the southern shores of the Morea before finally booking a beautiful house, with a pool, perched up on the edge of a hillside olive grove overlooking the blue waters of Navarino Bay and the beaches of Pylos. We pored over maps and worked out a route through Mistra and Monemvasia that would combine enough beach time and swimming for the children with enough frescoes and basilicas for the grown-ups.

Unusually, everything worked out perfectly and it proved one of our happiest ever family holidays. Two weeks later, looking out onto grey northern skies, it has already receded into memory so that it seems now like a distant dream: the smell of grilling fish and the taste of hot, sweet Greek coffee; bare-footed children playing in the moonlight under the trees of the beach-side tavernas; diving for sea anemones off the deck of an old wooden caique; a village festival to celebrate a miraculous icon; calamari grilling over charcoal; Greek salads of feta and fresh tomatoes swimming in olive oil; 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 motorboat you can still see the wrecks of Ottoman galleys lying on the sea bed.

As you drive south from Nauplia, you begin to understand quite why the Peloponnese made such an effective place of refuge. For all that the water is clear and the beaches are easy and inviting, the interior is rugged in the extreme. Even today, no one has tried to construct a road along the coast between Argos and Monemvasia - the hills are simply too steep and impassable. As in classical times, you still have to swing inland and wind your way through the passes of the Taygetus.

The route is one of the most spectacular in Europe. You leave the cliffs, promontories and blue sea gulfs behind and corkscrew inland, past roadside shrines with their solitary icons and flickering candles. At first you pass under bare hillsides whose rocky soil is too dry for vines and can only 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 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.

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, mountaineers and the occasional shepherd boy pass this way. Even the most powerful Byzantine emperors had trouble controlling these mountains and monitoring the blood feuds that thrived between the different clans of the Taygetus. As the 14th-century emperor Manuel II Palaiologos 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."

We arrived at Monemvasia late in the evening. Spiralling down out of the mountains we debouched out of a river valley and saw 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 into the ocean, defended by two land and one sea wall. It is in this small space, sheltered under the lee of the cliff, that the impregnable Byzantine port was built, a 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 in - leads into a maze of narrow alleys, steep cobbled streets and vaulted tunnels, opening up into the occasional square or piazza in a manner not unlike the old city of Jerusalem. Domed Byzantine churches face onto large, whitewashed Ottoman merchants' houses with red tiled roofs; above rise the campanile of the churches and the towers of the city walls.

It was cool now, so after leaving our bags in a wonderful medieval room in the Hotel Malvasia, we headed straight up the zigzag goat path leading to the citadel at the top of the rock, where the double-headed eagle, the standard of the house of Palaiologos, once fluttered over the city. It was easy to imagine the 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 harvest, while below in the harbour would have bobbed the ships of Venetians with the winged lion on their sails, dwarfing the occasional trading bark from Norwich, Whitby and York. Perhaps from up here you would hear the cries of the sailors as the barrels of wine were rolled down into the hold of the boats and the shipwrights scraped the barnacles off the hulls the better to escape Barbary corsairs and Greek pirates.

The sun was sinking, and we were hot from our climb. The water - as still and as silver in the evening light as a pool of mercury - looked inviting. We headed back down the path and made straight for the jetty below the sea walls, ready to dive in before the smell of grilling mullet lured us out again for supper.

We saved Mistra for last. Three days later, on our final morning in the Morea, we rose early and climbed into the ruined city just after opening time. It was a Sunday and, from the modern village far below, the silence was broken by a single male bass voice chanting: the village priest at his matins. There was no sound of cars, no tour groups, nothing of the 21st century. The chanting, still sung in the language of Byzantine Empire, seemed 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, lay a litter of great palaces and monasteries, libraries, refectories and scriptoria, drinking fountains and aqueducts, fortress walls and frescoed churches, all now completely deserted. Between the ruins grew cypresses and oleanders, hibiscus, myrtle and wild roses. It was a beautiful place but also, inescapably, a sad one: a last bastion which failed to hold, full of hope and culture and artistry, but one which 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 thousand 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, until, on the 29 May 1460, seven years to the day after the fall of Constantinople, the army of Mehmet the Conqueror wound its way down the slopes of Mount 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 entire length of the city walls, their impossible struggle finally over.

William Dalrymple's most recent book, 'White Mughals', won the Wolfson Prize for History. The National Theatre has just commissioned Christopher Hampton to write a stage adaptation of it to be performed next summer

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

William Dalrymple travelled with Simply Travel (020-8541 2203; www.simplytravel.co.uk). A similar seven-night package including flights from Heathrow to Athens, a self-catering villa and a week's car hire costs from £480pp in October.

Airlines flying to Athens include easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyJet.com) from Luton and Gatwick; and Olympic Airlines (0870 606 0460; www.olympicairlines.com)from Heathrow and Manchester. Boats and hydrofoils leave for ports in the eastern Peloponnese from Piraeus, Athens' port. Contact Hellas Flying Dolphins (00 30 210 419 9000; www.dolphins.gr).

STAYING THERE

The writer stayed at Villa Koroni in Sparta and the Hotel Malvasia (00 30 2732 061160) in Monemvasia. Doubles from €45 (£32) per night.

VISITING

Most of the archaeological sites are open from 8.30am-7pm during the summer. The site at Geraki is open to visitors from Tuesday to Sunday.

Sophie Lam

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