If you’re fond of history, when you’re vacationing on an MSC Mediterranean cruise in Greece, the port of Gythion will welcome you with open arms. As you step aground from your MSC cruise you’ll realize that modern Spárti, capital of Lakónia, has few ancient ruins, and today is merely the organizational centre of a huge agricultural plain.
The town owes its limited appeal to its very ordinariness – pedestrianized side streets, café-lined squares and orange trees. But the real reason for coming here on your MSC cruise excursion is basically to see Mystra. Mystra is a Byzantine town, 5km to the west, which once controlled great swathes of the medieval world. There are a few ruins to be seen to the north of the city. From the bold Statue of Leonidas, hero of Thermopylae, at the top of Paleológou, follow the track around and behind the modern stadium towards the old Acropolis, tallest of the Spartan hills.
An immense theatre here, built into the side of the hill, can be quite clearly traced, even though today most of its masonry has gone – hurriedly adapted for fortification when the Spartans’ power declined and, later still, recycled for the building of Byzantine Mystra. Above the theatre a sign marks a fragment of the Temple of Athina Halkiakou, while at the top of the acropolis sit the knee-high ruins of the tenth-century Byzantine church and monastery of Ósios Níkon.
Out on the Trípoli road, a track leads to the remains of the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia. This was where Spartan boys underwent gruelling tests by flogging. The Roman geographer and travel writer Pausanias records that young men often perished under the lash, adding that the altar had to be splashed with blood before the goddess was satisfied. All moveable artefacts and mosaics are now on view at the town’s small archaeological museum on Áyios Níkonos.