Summer Escapes part VI- A glimpse at ancient and modern Sparti, Laconia
Sparti, view from Taygettus Mountain
Sparta or Sparti (Σπάρτη) as it is called in modern Greek, is the administrative capital of the prefecture of Laconia. It is 250 kilometres from Athens, located in the Southern part of Greece and has a population of 18.000 according to the census of 2001.
It is situated in the fertile Laconian plain, on the right bank of the river Evrotas. The site was strategically located during the antiquity, between Mount Taygetus, on the West and Mount Parnonas on the East. The majority of the population continue to live in the town itself while today Laconia is an agricultural site where it is famous for its olives and of course its olive oil, citrus processing, honey,as well as a variety of other fruits and vegetables usually distributed throughout many other towns and spots in Peloponnese.
In ancient times, Sparta was one of the most important kingdoms, not only in Greece but also to the rest of the ancient world. Sparta would occupy the entire regions, which nowadays are known as Messinia and Laconia. Only a small portion of that ancient territory continues being called Sparta, an area located towards the northern side of Laconia.
Its seaport was situated at Gytheion, another ancient city, situated 43 km from the centre of Sparti towards the north-western area of the Gulf of Laconia.
After the independence, King Otto decided to build the new town of Sparti very near the ancient one.In fact now that the city is expanding, a lot of ancient ruins are being discovered in the modern city.
The city was designed with the intention of creating one of the most beautiful cities in Greece through the use of tree lined avenues, squares and parks.
It is surrounded by ancient sites, such as the sanctuary of Artemis, the Menelaion and the sanctuary of Apollo of Amyclai (8 km south of Sparta).
Sparta is a lovely destination, which offers to the visitor the chance to learn about its history and glorious past and explore many constructions, ruins and structures in the area. The centre of the city is crowned with many neoclassical buildings and monuments.
Modern Sparti is a very interesting, small town and most of the places to visit are within a walking distance from the central square (location 5).On the square is the neoclassical building of the Municipality, which is surrounded with lots of restaurants and cafeterias.Opposite the square is the commercial centre where you will find most of the shops and every Saturday morning there is a farmers’ market there (location 9).
The square is situated on Lycourgos Avenue.
This is the road to take, if you wish to head towards Mystras. Further up Lycourgos avenue you will pass from another Square where you will find Evangelistria, the cathedral of Sparta and the statue of Lycourgos, father of Sparta (around 800 b.C.) King and lawgiver (location 2).
Next to the square is the modern building of the Courthouse and across is the public library, which is one of the most important buildings of the city, which represents the rich cultural life of Sparta as well as another neoclassical building, now a Club for the Greek officers (location 2).
Behind the square is the University of Sparta (location 8).
The new town, as in most towns, is now built with multi-storey buildings whenever the old houses are torn down.However, if you walk in the side streets you can still see some old houses, which hopefully will be restored.
The other main avenue is Constatinou Paleologou.This is the road where a lot of the hotels are situated and is the road to take if you wish to visit Amyklai, Gytheion or other lovely locations such as Elafonissos, Monemvassia, the Caves of Diros, Areopolis etc. (location 7).
Agios Nikonas is the patron saint of the city and the church is situated a block behind Paleologou Avenue (location 3). On the right side of the church is the Archaeological Museum, which is housed in a neoclassical building, with a lot of important exhibits (location 4).
The Koumantareios Art Gallery is housed in another neoclassical building where you will find a permanent collection of oil paintings by western European artists but periodically some other exhibitions take place there.
The unique most interesting Museum of Olive is also situated in the centre of Sparta and is open to the public all year round.
During September, the Spartathlon, the ultra distance race, about 250 km, takes place every year. Long distance runners from all over the world run from Athens to Sparta, following the footsteps of Pheidippides, the messenger, who was sent by General Miltiades to seek Sparta’s help against the Persians 490 b.C. The race terminates at the Stadium of Sparta (location 1).
During the second invasion of the Persians, 480 b.C., King Leonidas, who was also a general, led a small army of 300 men to fight the larger army of Xerxes, King of Persia, in Thermopylae. According to Herodotus, King Leonidas had been warned by the Delphic oracle that either Sparta would be destroyed or their king would lose his life. Although Leonidas could leave and he and his army be saved, he chose the second alternative telling Xerxes “Molon lave” meaning “Come and get us“. This distraction gave enough time for the rest of the Greek army to retreat into southern Greece. King Leonidas’ statue is outside the city stadium (location 1).
What the Spartans ate: Melas zomos
Their most famous dish was melas zomos, meaning black broth, which was so much valued that the elderly men fed only upon that, leaving what flesh there was to the younger.
They say that a certain king of Pontus, having heard much of this black broth of theirs, sent for a Lacedaemonian cook on purpose to make him some, but had no sooner tasted it than he found it extremely bad, which the cook observing, told him, “Sir, to make this broth relish, you should have bathed yourself first in the river Eurotas.”
The Spartan melas zomos, or black soup, was a staple soup made of boiled pigs’ blood and vinegar. The vinegar was added as an emulsifier to prevent the blood from clotting. Did you know that blood soups are still eaten in some countries!!
My recipe does not have pig’s blood or vinegar but it is a healthy recipe of chickpeas giahni. Giahni is the method of cooking which is a stew with tomato and olive oil.
The dish is traditionally cooked in a clay pot (gastra) with a lid for out-doored wood ovens. However, if you don’t have one, you can cook it in a casserole dish, in the oven.
If you don’t wont to cook it in the oven you can use a pot and simmer it on the stove top. In this case you will need to add more water and to be checking it more often until it is cooked.
Just before they are ready, you can add some rice and cook it 10 – 15 minutes or until the rice becomes soft and absorbs all the fluid.
Revithia giahni sti gastra
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: about 1 hour 30 minutes
- 400 grams chickpeas, peeled
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 2 red onions, finely chopped
- 2 – 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 3 large fresh tomatoes, grated
- 1 cup, pummaro tomato juice
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 3 carrots, grated
- 1 cup bell peppers, red and yellow, julienned
- 1/2 cup parsley, finely chopped
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- ½ tsp all spice
- 1/2 cup short grain rice (optional)
- Soak chickpeas (I use peeled chickpeas) from the previous evening.
- Put the chickpeas in a pot and add water to cover them. Bring to a boil and remove froth forming on top. Rinse and remove any peels that have not been removed.
- Return to the pot with fresh water and simmer until they are almost soft. Strain and place in a casserole dish or a baking tin.
- Heat the olive oil and sauté the onions and garlic until translucent. Add the carrots, the peppers, tomato, honey and spices. Bring to a boil and add the parsley and mix.
- Pour the sauce on the chickpeas and cover the baking tin with the lid or aluminium foil.
- Bake in a preheated oven to 180 degrees C for about 1 hour and 30 minutes.
- Add the rice (and water if necessary) and cook until the rice is soft, for about 15 – 20 minutes.
This and many more Greek recipes are included in my cookbook Mint, Cinnamon & Blossom Water, Flavours of Cyprus, Kopiaste!
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