I’ve never been let down by visiting a UNESCO World Heritage site. There’s a reason those places make the list after all. Tramping up the pyramids at Chichen Itza in Mexico, exploring the palaces of Beijing‘s Forbidden City, riding a horse-drawn carriage through the cobblestone streets of Brugge, Belgium—all of these rank as some of my favorite travel memories. I’m sure they do for you, too, because it certainly seemed like we were all there at the same time.
Yes, these spots can get a little crowded. On my recent trip to Greece, I experienced this phenomenon at the Acropolis. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved seeing the Acropolis. Despite the crowds, it’s a fascinating place, and you should go. It’s the Acropolis. But it’s not exactly a retreat made for quiet reflection. Which is why I also recommend Mystras, another Greek UNESCO World Heritage Site where I saw approximately 10 other people over the course of a three-hour visit with my family.
Mystras is on the Peloponnese, the large peninsula west of the Greek mainland, about a two and a half hour drive from Athens. It was founded in the late 1200s, which makes it, oh, 1,700 years younger than the Acropolis and yet still quite old (200 years older than the Forbidden City, for instance). It actually makes you appreciate just how old the Acropolis is. But for me, traveling to UNESCO sites is not about checking off the oldest, the biggest, or the “most important” places. Forgive me if this sounds touchy-feely, but for me it’s about the vibe of the place, and the thoughts and feelings it inspires. That’s why we go to new places, isn’t it? To get away from our usual routines? At the crowded sites, sometimes the logistics of visiting make it hard to hear yourself think. That’s not the case at Mystras.
The site is divided into upper and lower sections. We drove to the upper, explored that for a while, then drove down the five minutes of switchbacks to the lower and spent more time wandering around there. You could probably walk down, but you if did that, you would probably not be traveling with an 8-year-old, as we were.
The upper section is hilltop ruins that look out over the surrounding countryside. That’s what I like in a ruin: rocks and bricks to scramble over, commanding views, no people. You get to put yourself in the place of the guy who decided to build the city here—yes, from this spot it would be easy to see invaders coming. You get to wander around with no guardrails or ropes to restrain you and breathe the fresh air and listen to the wind through the trees and realize that yes, it’s really hot here. It’s the kind of spot that reminds you that you’re not sitting in an office looking at a spreadsheet.
The lower section is better preserved and restored. There are a number of churches, their ceilings covered in frescoes, and you stroll from one to the next along stone paths, with bougainvillea spilling over the walls. You don’t have to be into art or religion to be impressed by the frescoes, which cover every square inch of ceiling. Other sites might offer more interpretive signage to help you understand Byzantine Christian iconography. Here, it’s more about soaking up the feeling of the space. You’re surrounded by nothing but quiet.
For one of the few people we saw, that meant it was time to sketch. He sat in the courtyard of one chapel drawing the arches that supported the cloister where we rested in the shade. For me, it was a chance to think about the life and death of cities. This place started as a fort, then grew as common folk from the surrounding area sought protection, and rich people built churches and monasteries, which attracted monks, and pretty soon it was a center of trade, and ultimately it became one of the most important cities of its time.
And now? There remains a working nunnery on the site. We caught a glimpse of one of the nuns in her black habit. Seeing her helped me connect the present with the past in a very personal way. The city may be in ruins, but for centuries there have been people, like her, coming here to find peace. And, of course, to take care of the cats.
P.S. After we explored Mystras, we ate stuffed tomatoes here.