In my personal blog, I recently wrote a piece entitled The Whispering Stones of Sparta in which I found myself defending my recent visit to this ancient Greek city. Before heading to Greece this past Fall, I’d been told that Sparta wasn’t worth the trip. It was remotely located and therefore a long haul from, well, almost anywhere. Plus, the town just wasn’t very interesting and the ancient ruins and museums were inconsequential.
"I wouldn't even bother with Sparta," a good friend told me before I left, having visited several years earlier. "There's nothing there but a few piles of rock, so spend your time at better sites."
With all due respect, the naysayers were wrong. Sparta was a genuine surprise, not only for its ruins but as a city filled with amazing restaurants, impressive museums and a vibrant open-air market.
We drove over from Kalamata using the narrow, winding GR-82 highway. The road was beautifully maintained – something we found in almost every large thoroughfare we used in Greece – and offered amazing views along the mountain’s spine, the Messinian Gulf to the southwest and the Evratos river valley to the east. The landscape transformed as we crept over the mountain passes. On the west, it was drier, more barren, dominated by grasses, low scrub and scattered trees, epitomizing the Mediterranean climate. As we descended toward Sparta however, it grew green and lush. Thick stands of conifers clung to the towering rock walls and choked narrow grottos next to rushing streams. The journey across the mountain took much longer than it would normally, as we were constantly tempted to stop at the tiny mountain villages and roadside markets selling homemade soap and produce.
As Greek cities go, Sparta was fairly typical – noisy, crowded, bustling, friendly. We found it easier to park our car and walk the streets since a massive farmer’s market had been set up in the town square and the crowds were almost impassable. We filled our backpacks with fresh figs and vegetables, then wandered down to the Archaeological Museum which lay at the center of an elaborate courtyard filled with fountains and lines of headless Roman statues. The collection itself was small compared to what we saw in Athens and Delphi, but did much to refute the naysayer’s claims that Sparta had “nothing good to see.” Artifacts from Sparta’s earliest era as a bronze age settlement through its Roman occupation spoke clearly of a community which valued beauty as much as any other ancient city-state, though perhaps this was over-shadowed by the Spartans’ reputation as fearsome warriors.
If my friend and the guidebooks were right about one thing, it was that the ruins of Sparta were not as vast as those in Athens, Corinth or Messene. In antiquity, Spartan resources weren’t necessarily directed toward massive building projects, partly because their isolation and the surrounding mountains made elaborate fortifications unnecessary. Even in ancient times, visitors to the city commented how Sparta seemed more like a collection of tribal villages than that era’s equivalent of a super power. Still, geography and the Spartan’s warlike reputation seemed to work in their favor. The city remained untouched throughout most of antiquity, although the Spartan state eventually succumbed to internal strife and distant battlefield defeats which forced it to bow to Macedonian, and later Roman rule.
Now, if you're only impressed by size and grandeur, well, I guess you might want to skip the Spartan ruins after all. But personally, I can find a lone marble column standing lost in a grove of olive trees to be just as intriguing as a sprawling temple. Very few people seem to visit the ruins, so the noises of the city far were away and we could hear every chattering bird and the wind rustling through the treetops. The sense of isolation was almost eerie, as though we were the first people to set foot here in two thousand years. Well, okay, not the first people. The shady groves seem to attract many of the locals looking for a romantic hideaway. We unintentionally dislodged several couples in various states of public displays of affection. Like the museum below, the ruins represented numerous eras of Spartan development. Crumbling walls and scattered marble edifices lay toward the bottom of the low acropolis. At the top were more sprawling Roman-era ruins, including a partially excavated theater, stadium and Temple of Athena. If nothing else, the view from the top of the acropolis, providing an excellent panorama of the modern city dwarfed by the Taygetos Mountains beyond, was worth the long, sweaty climb.
So in retrospect, I heartily recommend a visit to Sparta if you find yourself in the area. But please appreciate it for what it is. If you spend all your time there grousing that its treasures aren’t the same as those of Athens or other sites, you do an injustice to Sparta’s legacy while ensuring your own disappointment.