When you hear the name Sparta in modern days, it is inevitable for you to elude the image of king Leonidas, his 300 elite warriors and the other Greeks delaying the Persian advance into Europe. The Battle of Thermopylae was a decisive battle but it did not mark the end of the Persian Wars. It was but one year later, after the Battle of Plataea, that Greece repelled Xerxes’ forces thus ending the wars.
The unofficial dominion of Sparta ended when king Cleombrotus I was defeated by Theban ruler Epaminondas in the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC. After that, the majestic city-state faced a slow but certain decline. Its warrior-traditions dwindled (in fact, scholars believe that it has somewhat weakened prior to the Battle of Leuctra – hence the defeat) and it even came under Roman rule later on. While the film “300” depicts its zenith, it may have been vastly different towards its end. Today, one can visit Sparta but one will not find a megalopolis like Athens, for it only has a population of just over 17,000. This makes it even less populated than its ancient counterpart with its estimated 35,000-50,000 people. Maintaining its capital status in Laconia, Sparta sees quite a number of tourists annually, so let us explore why it is so glorious still.
Built upon (adjacent to, to be precise) the site of ancient Sparta, the modern incarnation has the same climate: a warm Mediterranean one. With hot summers and mild winters, it is an excellent destination for those who do not like negative extremes. Winters do exist but they are notable not because of their cold weather but due to their humidity. Most rainfall happens in December while January and February are not far behind. Mosquitos can become a problem if you are travelling there during summertime so do consider packing significant protection.
Arguably the best way to get to Sparta is to travel to Athens first. Between the capital and Sparta, there is a bus line that takes about 3 hours: about two hours to the Tripoli transport hub and an additional hour to Sparta. This will cost you between 20 and 25 Euros and considering the length of the journey, it is more than affordable.
Getting around in Sparta is extremely easy on foot. Why? Well, because the city is so small that you can reach most destinations in 15 minutes or less. There really is no reason to rent vehicles there for the tree-riddled boulevards are best enjoyed while walking. Oh, and do not forget to bask in the brilliance of the roadside palms!
SIGHTS AND ACTIVITIES:
If you want to get a better feel of ancient Sparta, pay a visit to the Archaeological Museum of Sparta. Boasting with a massive collection of artefacts produced from the ancient Acropolis of Sparta (you may know it by the name Lakedaemonia). Pertaining to the 5th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classic Antiquities, its contents span from the Neolithic age to the Roman times. With seven different rooms to explore, it is an excellent place to take your children to.
To further enhance your understanding of the Spartan culture, make sure that you head over to Mystras, an adjacent fortified town on the slopes of Mount Taygetos (the one looming over Sparta). Serving as the capital of Byzantine Despotate of the Morea between the 14th and the 15th centuries, it currently has a population of just over 800. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989 (this includes the fortress, palace, churches, and monasteries), it lies but 8 kilometres to the west of Sparta. The fascinating architecture and the general atmosphere of splendour are all excellent reasons as to why you should not avoid the place!
If you happen to be in the north-western section of the city, we highly recommend that you explore the Leonidaion (also known as the Tomb of Leonidas). Oh, and since we know how much you like your ouzo, be sure to stop by the Leonudas pub right next to the establishment. After the awe, take to the straw (wink)!
If, however, you are in the south-western part of the city, consider visiting the renowned Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil. Showcasing ancient oil-producing technology and other things, it is quite a modest yet great establishment to spend a few hours at. Oh, and did we mention that it was cheap?
And here comes the heavy artillery: the Statue of Leonidas. It is not only its grandeur that drew us to mention it last but also its significance when word comes of the Spartathlon (a 246-kilometre-long ultramarathon between Athens and Sparta held annually since 1983). If you happen to be one of those people who enjoy sports, know that the renowned Spartathlon ends at the monument.
Fascinating sights, great people and a lot of souvenir shops: these are the words that describe the modern-day incarnation of the Vanguard of Greece. Oh, and did you think that those 246 kilometres were madness? Madness? THIS IS SPARTA!!!