Mystras -- my own Ithaca

Trip Start Mar 14, 2007
Trip End Apr 10, 2007

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Tuesday, April 3, 2007

When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon -- do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.
Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.

-- Constantine P. Cavafy (1911)

I carried a copy of this Cavafy poem in my journal, having found it shortly before I left home. I love its sense of the true value of travel, how travel changes the traveler in ways that can't be anticipated. It is well-known to Greeks, Cavafy being something of a national poet. When I showed the poem to Greeks I met along the way, each one brightened and said he or she had learned it in school. Each one seemed surprised and pleased that I knew of it.

My own Ithaca was Mystras, that mystical hillside site, the last stronghold of the fading Byzantine empire, the place where the last emperor was crowned. Before I left on my journey, I had become fascinated with Mystras. The more I read about it, the more I knew I had to make every effort to see it for myself. It took every effort to see it.

I wasn't certain how I would get to Mystras before I arrived in Greece. I considered stopping in Sparta and taking a bus there. I considered taking a taxi. I even considered eliminating it entirely from my itinerary. Finally, I decided to go on to Monemvasia and backtrack to Sparta and Mystras by catching an early morning bus (7:15). I couldn't not make the effort. So, the night before I synchronized my alarm clock with my wristwatch for a 6 am wake-up. That, I figured, should allow just enough time to get ready and walk from the rock to the bus stop in Gefyra on the mainland. I thought it odd, that the alarm clock showed a different time than my watch did, but I set the alarm for the same time as my watch and went to bed a little early.
Even before the alarm clock buzzed the next morning, I was already awake. The clock said it was 5:45, but I decided to get up and get ready, just to be sure of catching the 7:15 bus. Outside on the ancient stone streets of Monemvasia, all was quiet it could have been any time over the past thousand years, but for a few visual clues to the current century. A nearly full moon hung low over the hills on the mainland, glinting brightly off the sea, as I walked through the cool early morning air toward Gefyra, with my only company a cat prowling trash bins outside the only gate into and out of Monemvasia (which means "one entrance"), a donkey grazing on the steep hillside below the stony face of Monemvasia and the town cop slowly patrolling the causeway in his compact cruiser. Gefyra was quiet. Very quiet. Nothing open. No one around. When I arrived at the bus stop, outside the town's only travel agency, I sat down on the wooden bench and started to update my journal. I checked my watch for the date and was puzzled that the date read 4/2 -- yesterday. Then it dawned on me -- my watch displays the date only in the mode in which it displays the home time zone, not in the mode displaying the time zone for the current location. I had synchronized the alarm to Seattle time! It was 6:56 in the evening in Seattle, but only 4:56 in the morning in Greece! Somehow I had bumped one of the buttons on my watch so that the time returned to the home time zone.
At first I panicked. Then I laughed. Another interesting travel experience. And it had allowed me to experience Monemvasia all to myself.
Fortunately, there was a 5:15 bus -- the "direct" bus to Athens. When it arrived, the driver looked somewhat surprised to find a passenger waiting, but I boarded, paid the fare and was soon on my way through the darkened countryside and villages toward Sparta. Heightened by the sleeplessness-induced dream-like spell, the ride was immediately etched into my memory. Deprivation while traveling has that effect on me.
As the dawn gradually brightened, more passengers boarded -- mostly local women who seemed to be headed to market. When we arrived at the Sparta bus terminal, I went to the ticketing and information window to ask about the local bus to Mystras, and then I had a cup of strong espresso to pry open my eyes. I then caught the first bus of the day (8:45) for the 7 kilometer ride to the site.
I won't attempt to describe in words all of the sights of Mystras and my impressions. The photos may give a glimpse into this World Heritage site that, even in its mostly ruined state, seems frozen in a time, when an empire's last days were numbered but intellectual life and art reached their height (not unlike Muslim-ruled Granada, Spain, which at about the same time at the other end of the Mediterranean was experiencing the same). When Mystras finally fell, its great thinkers and artists fled to Florence, Italy, where they greatly influenced the Italian Renaissance. I spent the morning wandering the ancient lanes, imagining daily life and marveling at the high Byzantine art. After descending the hillside, I stopped in the church of Agios Dimitrios, the mitropolis (cathedral), and stood over the very spot -- marked by a stone with the double-headed Byzantine eagle -- where the last emperor, Constantine XI Paleologos, was crowned, setting him on what he must have realized was a suicide mission to try to save the empire from the Ottoman Turks. I had the thought-provoking spot to myself.
Then my visit was over, and I had to return to the 21st century and the details of returning to Monemvasia. But I had found my Ithaca, and it had not deceived.
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