R&R: Gytheio

Rest and relaxation — time to get out of Sparta! After 2-1/2 weeks of long and tedious days handling dirty and moldy old documents, my body screamed for sun and surf. So I went where the locals go, south to Gytheio. It’s only 40 kilometers but a world away.

Homes on the hillside overlook the harbor, Gytheio, June 2018

Gytheio is the capital of Mani and the second largest city in Laconia.

Archaeological findings date Gytheio to ancient, even prehistoric, times. It has served as an important port for Sparta and the entire southern Peloponnese. Merchant ships bring in goods from foreign lands and take out olive oil and other products.

Boats moored in the harbor of Gytheio, June 2018

This city is a haven for tourists. I met people from the Netherlands and Germany, and I spotted several Americans. Sometimes when I speak Greek in public, people answer me in English. I once asked my friend, Giannis, why is it that people don’t think I am Greek–after all, I am a full-blooded Spartan and I was speaking the language. He replied that it is obvious that I am American. I thought that was an odd response until today, when it was easy to pick out Americans among native Greeks and Europeans, and they were not wearing jeans, white sneakers or tee shirts! Maybe we emanate a certain aura?

This is a fish-lovers’ haven, and fresh octopus was hanging everywhere, but not for me.

Not for me!

The city’s neoclassical buildings provide charming sophistication. Each one is distinct and different. The colors blend beautifully and give Gytheio its distinct look.  A lover of architecture could spend days here.

Each building is charming and unique.

As I wandered along the waterfront, I noticed a lighthouse situated on a promontory.

This point of land is actually the Kranai islet, connected to the city by a concrete walkway. It led to beautiful and surprising things!

A tiny church (of course!)

A fortress / castle / tower! This is the Tzanetakis Tower, built in 1829 by General Tzanetakis Grigorakis, who was one of the leading figures of the Grigorakis family of Eastern (Lower) Mani and a hero of the 1821 Revolution. One can only imagine what this building has witnessed. Its position on the island gives it a perfect view of the harbor and the city. The family continues to be prominent in contemporary Greece, and donated this tower to the government. It is now a museum but unfortunately was not open.

Tzanetakis Tower, Gytheio, June 2018

The tower commands a perfect view of the harbor and city.

The lighthouse looks fairly new, but the structures adjacent to it testify that a look-out building on this point has been in place for centuries.

Old and new, standing as sentinels to the harbor

As I sat on a rock and absorbed the spirit of this place, I noticed an unusual round, stone circular structure at the edge of the water–obviously historic and meaningful, but unknown.

Ancient, but unknown – obviously important

I sat for a long time, taking in the sea, the view and the history. I wonder: what was life like for people living here in the 1700’s, 1800’s and even before. This is a land of rock and stone. There were pirates patrolling the seas, invasions by Turks, Venetians and others; there were vendettas among families and wars among clans. And of course, there were other harsh realities of life and the forces of nature–all combined to make Mani a very difficult place in which to exist.

But countering all this is the sea. And today, Mani’s beaches draw people worldwide who seek respite from the challenges of their own lives. Spending an afternoon in this environment of serenity and beauty is rejuvenating and refreshing.

Mavrovouni Beach

This day was so very needed by my body and soul. A dip into history and a dip into the sea. I’m now ready to get back to work next week!



Amykles lies adjacent to Sparta, south of the city on the road to Gytheio. It is a village of historical and religious prominence, dating to pre-8th century B.C. It is the site of the ancient Throne of Apollo, and is discussed in the writings of Pausanias. This website has photos, historical data and artists’ renderings of the sanctuary as it would have appeared in ancient times.

The sanctuary sits on a large hill overlooking the village of Agia Kyriaki. Because it is under archaeological excavation, the site was fenced and we were unable to enter.  Information on the progress of the dig can be found here: http://www.amyklaion.gr.

Ruins under excavation

The church at the top of the hill overlooks a spectacular valley, and it is easy to understand why the Throne was erected there.

A magnificent view of the valley below

My friend, Popi Zarafonitis who lives in Amykles, was my tour guide. She explained that over the years, rocks were taken from the ancient sanctuary and used to erect buildings, such as this Byzantine church of Agios Theodoros.

Agios Theodoros, Amykles

This rutted, dirt road which winds through olive groves was the path of an amazing destination–two churches, one Byzantine, one 19th century–situated “exo-horio” (outside the village).

In the photo below, the square building on the left is what remains of the Byzantine-era church; its 19th century “modern” counterpart is the one on the right. We went inside the older church and I was astonished to see that the 15th century icons painted on stone were still visible–a testament to the faith and resilience of those who labored to build it and worship within. 

Ancient Byzantine church is on the left; 19th century counterpart is on the right

These walls still speak

Old Amykles is a step into ancient history. Today’s Amykles is a step into culture. Recently, a festival was held by the Church to benefit the poor in the community. As always, there was music, food and dancing.

Amykles–a beautiful blend of past and present.

Records Preservation in Sparta

Almost everyone comes to beautiful Greece for vacation. But I come to work! This is precious time for me to do what I cannot from home: visit repositories, explore ancestral villages, look for new sources of information and visit family. This summer is a two-month extended stay for me, as I have added a new item to my “to-do” list–records preservation.

Vital records in Greece are kept in three key locations:  town halls (Dimarheion), archive offices, and churches. All have the need to preserve their documents, but only some have begun this work. Fortunately, Sparta has a Bishop who understands the importance of record preservation, and he was most enthusiastic when approached about the opportunity to have his church records digitized.

In Sparta, marriage license records exist from 1835-present. The bishop approved digitization of 100 years of these documents–from 1835 to 1934. I volunteered to do the work, and honestly, it is my privilege. With the assistance of the church archivist, I work from 8:30-5:00 Monday-Friday.

Working girl

Records from 1835-1840 are sparse, but incredibly, some do exist and we are fortunate to have those that survived both the elements and humanity.

1836 marriage license

As you can imagine, these documents are dusty, dirty and some are very fragile. But they have withstood time and elements. Some have water damage, some have mold, but every one is precious.

Marriage licenses, ready to be preserved

Sometimes we find a document where the priest has glued together several strips of paper to create a full document. If you click on the picture below and make it larger, you can see the vertical lines where the strips are connected.

1894-making a full document from strips of paper

I have an affinity for old documents, as I work as a Citizen Archivist at the National Archives in Washington, and also at the Maryland Archives. But there is something extra special about handling documents that were generated in your ancestral land. Written in Greek script and detailing the marriage information for the bride and groom, I am handling papers that reveal precious family history–information about the bride and groom, and their families.

We never know what we will find when we pick up a license packet. This document has a photo of the groom:

There is a notation on the back of this license that the marriage did not occur, due to an argument between the groom-to-be and his father-in-law!

No marriage! page 1


No marriage! page 2

Sometimes, documents which are not marriage-related are found, and they are removed to be put in an appropriate files. This one is of special interest to me. It is an application of the citizens of my village of Agios Ioannis (Sparta) to the Bishop, requesting a priest. The year is 1874, and 70 men of the village signed the document. One of them–line 27–is my ancestor, Ioannis Papagiannakos. A rough translation: We are pleased to judge this man and to make him our priest, Panagiotis Poulimenakos. He is an honest man, educated, has a good heart and is respectful.

1874. Agios Ioannis, Sparta. Application for Bishop. p1

1874. Agios Ioannis, Sparta. Application for Bishop. p2

1874. Agios Ioannis, Sparta. Application for Bishop. p3

1874. Agios Ioannis, Sparta. Application for Bishop. p4

I anticipate it will take about two months to complete this project. It is rewarding to know that these records will now be saved. A new generation of priests is taking great interest in what we are doing and learning the importance of document preservation.

Stay tuned for updates! 🙂

Classic Cars of Sparta

Sparta is a city with not one traffic light. Between speeding motorcyclists creating their own lanes, and double-parked cars and delivery trucks blocking narrow roads, and cars parked on sidewalks (really!) getting around is not for the faint-hearted. Motorists create their own parking spaces and often flaunt common-sense traffic laws.

Last week this tractor, parked in front of an abandoned building, caught my attention. The oddity of this rusty red piece of farm equipment on a residential street in the middle the city amused me. Its aged condition indicated years of faithful service. Perhaps it was in Sparta for repairs, or it was waiting for its owner to mount it for another day’s work.

Since then, I have been on the lookout for what, to me, are unique and classic motor vehicles still operational here. These are some of my favorite finds, which could easily find their way into the next sequel of the ever-popular movie, “Cars.”

Ready for “Cars”

Oh, and don’t ever get a parking ticket in Sparta! The police remove the license tags from your car and hold them until you pay the fine. Last summer, I was ticketed for “blocking the road” because I had parked half-on, half-off the sidewalk. If I had all four wheels on the sidewalk, I would have been fine. I drove all the way to Athens, not realizing my tags were missing. I was later told I could have been jailed for this offense.

Parking ticket for blocking the road, July 2017

Bottom line–rent a car, see the sights and have fun, but don’t drive like the locals. 🙂

Remember: May 29, 1453

Tonight my cousin, Panorea, invited me to attend a special program to remember the Fall of Constantinople on May 29, 1453 and the subsequent end of the Byzantine Empire. This event, 565 years ago, remains in the hearts and psyche of the Greek people and is marked with commemorative events throughout the country.

The music and messages paid tribute to the leader of the Byzantine Army, Konstandinos Palaiologos, and his heroic efforts to repel the Ottoman forces led by Sultan Mehmed II and to save their beloved Agia Sophia Cathedral–the center of Orthodoxy.

The music was offered by a choir of children and adults who sang with gusto and passion and by a Byzantine choir. The haunting resonance of the Byzantine chanting about this episode was evocative of the dirges of the Mani.

The spoken narrative related the historic events surrounding the capture of “The City.” The poignancy and sadness surrounding this siege is almost as painful to Greeks today as it was then.

Archbishop Efstathios of the Holy Mitropolis of Sparta and Monemvasia gave closing remarks. He bestowed the love and grace of God upon his people.

History is woven into the heart and soul of this land and people. It is something that may be understood intellectually, but must be experienced personally, to be truly comprehended.