Mistra: a medieval ghost town in southern Greece

Mistra, GreeceOn a steep hill overlooking the Vale of Sparta in southwestern Greece stands the last capital of the Roman Empire.

In 395 AD, beset by enemies, the empire split into western and eastern halves. The Western Roman Empire was soon overwhelmed. The east flourished. Its capital was at Constantinople, modern Istanbul. Known as the Byzantine Empire, it developed a distinctive style of art and architecture and protected the Greek Orthodox Church of its citizens.

Byzantium declined as civilizations always do, and suffered a serious blow during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The Crusaders, who had originally set off to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims, decided to capture Constantinople instead. With its capital gone, Byzantium shattered into three small states. Byzantine art and the Greek Orthodox Church survived.

The Crusaders built an imposing castle on the summit of a hill overlooking the Vale of Sparta, one of a number of fortresses to protect their new domains. That didn’t work. The Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaeologos recaptured Constantinople and steadily pushed the Crusaders out of the lands they had conquered. The castle at Mistra was handed over to the Byzantines in 1262 and a fortified city gradually began to take shape around it. Mistra became the regional capital of the Morea, as the Peloponnese was then called.

The Palaeologian dynasty was the last to rule the Roman Empire. It was a time of political and economic decline, with the Turks pushing in from the east, the Venetians dominating trade, and numerous other enemies nibbling away at the borders. Morea was one of the last wealthy regions of Byzantium and despite the empire’s troubles witnessed a renaissance in art, learning, and culture.

Mistra is only seven kilometers outside of Sparta. It’s an easy walk but I was anxious to start my visit and so I took a taxi and decided I’d walk back through the olive groves. After a week of cloudy, cold weather, the sky had cleared and the air was cool and pleasant. The winding road up the hill is dominated by the massive town wall. Passing through the gate, I found myself walking along steep, narrow lanes between the remnants of homes, palaces, and churches. Several of these Orthodox houses of worship are still open.

These churches are deceptive. On the outside they are prettily made with patterned brick and a series of small domes and half domes around a large central dome. It’s inside that they show their true splendor. Frescoes cover the walls, domes, and pillars. Every available space is decorated with Biblical scenes and images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints, all painted in a rich but somber style.
Mistra, Greece

%Gallery-146699%Mistra isn’t entirely a ghost town. A small nunnery called the Pantanassa is a miniature town inside the larger one. Men are allowed in to see its medieval church. When I arrived, one of the sisters, garbed all in black, was sweeping the sun-bathed courtyard while several cats lounged nearby. It was a perfect photo that of course I was too respectful to take. The church was built in 1428 and its rich frescoes show what a cultural high point the Palaeologian Renaissance was. The ground-floor frescoes are from the 17th and 18th centuries and represent a continuation of the art and ideas that made Byzantium great.

Back outside, I wended my way through the maze of little streets and came to the summit and its Crusader castle. Climbing to the top of the tallest tower, I looked out and saw the Vale of Sparta lay spread out beneath me, with the ancient ruins and modern city both visible. Behind me rose the snow-capped Taygetus mountains.

Of all Mistra’s medieval buildings, the most evocative is the church of St. Demetrios. Some scholars theorize this church may have been the site for the coronation of Constantine XI Palaeologos in 1449, the last emperor of Byzantium, and therefore the last emperor of Rome. He had served as Despot of the Morea while his older brother was emperor and lived in the palace at Mistra. It’s easy to imagine him here, with the images of Christ, Mary, and the saints looking down at him through the dim candlelight light as the priests sang their Orthodox hymns.

It must have been a glorious coronation and a sad one. Fears of usurpation from his other brothers meant the ceremony had to be rushed, and done in this provincial capital rather than the glorious church of Hagia Sofia in Constantinople. Even the crown showed Byzantium’s faded glory. The bankrupt Palaeologoi had long since hawked the crown jewels to the Venetians. Now the rightful heirs to the Roman Empire wore crowns of glass.

Besides the Morea and Constantinople, there was little left of Byzantium. The Ottoman Turks were closing in and in 1453 they made their final assault on Constantinople. The siege was a grueling one and it took the Turks weeks to pound the thick city walls into rubble with their cannon. In the final assault, the Emperor Constantine fought alongside his men and fell with them. He could have escaped. He could have made a deal. Instead he died fighting so that sad shadow of the Roman Empire would go down in glory.

But still Rome did not die. After the fall of Constantinople, the Ottomans spent time consolidating their position. Mistra survived until 1460 as the capital of the last free lands of Byzantium, and thus in a very real sense the last capital of the Roman Empire. Trebizond, a strip of territory on the south shore of the Black Sea, lasted another year, but that state had seceded from the empire before Constantinople was captured by the Crusaders and thus cannot be considered a part of it.

In the 15th century it was obvious to everyone that Byzantium’s days were numbered. Many Byzantine scholars and artists fled for safer havens. The favorite destination was Italy, where local rulers welcomed their learning and didn’t care much that they were Orthodox rather than Catholic.

These scholars brought with them books and a knowledge of Greek, Arabic, astronomy, history, philosophy, geography, and much more. They brought with them translations of the Classical authors of ancient Greece and Rome. Wealthy Italians, hungry for knowledge and for a model to inspire their own flowering culture, eagerly read these books and attended the lectures of Byzantine scholars. The influx of Byzantine learning was one of the major factors that led to the Italian Renaissance and the foundations of humanism and modern Western thought.

The torch had been passed.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Photo Gallery: Abandoned Americana

Americana
The old America is all around us. Americans used to be farmers. They used to go to drive-in movies. They used to think Route 66 was the greatest highway in the world. Some still do.

If you drive out of the city and leave the strip malls and cookie-cutter suburban homes behind, you’ll find it soon enough. Head down a county road and you’ll pass dilapidated farmhouses and overgrown gardens, the handiwork of people from our grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ generation. Like this old farm in Clay County, Missouri, near the Jesse James farm. I was with a couple of friends on a Jesse James road trip and we drove many of the back roads of western Missouri, places where Jesse committed his crimes and hid out from the law.

Everywhere we went we found this old Americana. On the outskirts of Kansas City we found a drive-in movie theater unchanged since the 1960s, and still open for half the year. To the west of Lexington we followed a potholed country road that led to a tributary of the Missouri River. Half a century ago there was a ferry at the end, popular enough that this road was lined with gas stations, hotels, and nice homes. The ferry disappeared when I-70 was built, and one by one the homes and businesses were abandoned.

Then there’s route 66, half ghost highway and half tourist trap. And old boom-and-bust mining towns like Bodie, California, now a State Historic Park. Not to mention all the failed businesses, the empty big box stores and bankrupt shopping malls that are creating the new ghost towns of the U.S. Much of industrial Detroit looks like an archaeological site.

Next time you go on a road trip in the U.S., get off the Interstate and take a county road. drive slow and look around. You’ll find the old America that hasn’t quite left us.

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A brief history of Telluride and its surrounding ghost towns

telluride ghost townsTelluride. The name alone conjures a variety of associations, from the debaucherous (Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues”) to the elite (Tom Cruise is the other inevitable mention). But this isolated little town in Southwestern Colorado’s craggy San Juan range has a truly wild past and a lot to offer. It’s not the only mining-town-turned-ski-resort in the Rockies, but I think it’s the most well-preserved, photogenic, and in touch with its history. Apparently I’m not alone, because the town core (all three blocks of it) was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1964.

Located in a remote box canyon (waterfall included) at 8,750 feet, Telluride and its “down valley” population totals just over 2,000 people. I’ve lived in Telluride off-and-on since 2005, and there’s something to be said about a place where dogs outnumber residents, and you can’t leave home without running into people you know. Longtime residents burn out on the small town thing, but I still get a kick out of it after years of city living.

Today the former brothels of “Popcorn Alley” are ski shanties, but they’re still painted eye-catching, Crayola-bright colors, and the old ice house is a much-loved French country restaurant. Early fall is a great time to visit because the weather is usually mild, the aspens are turning, and there’s the acclaimed Telluride Film Fest, brutal Imogene Pass Run (Sept. 10) and Blues & Brews Festival (Sept. 16-18) to look forward to. The summer hordes are gone, but the deathly quiet of the October/early-November off-season hasn’t begun.

According to the Telluride Historical Museum, the town was established in 1878. It was originally called Columbia, and had a reputation as a rough-and-tumble mining town following the opening of the Sheridan Mine in the mid-1870’s. The mine proved to be rich in gold, silver, zinc, lead, copper, and iron, and with the 1890 arrival of the Rio Grande Southern railroad, Telluride grew into a full-fledged boomtown of 5,000. Immigrants–primarily from Scandinavia, Italy, France, Germany, Cornwall, and China–arrived in droves to seek their fortunes. Many succumbed to disease or occupational mishaps; the tombstones in the beautiful Lone Tree Cemetery on the east end of town bear homage to lots of Svens, Lars’, and Giovannis.

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[Photo credit: Flickr user hubs]

telluride ghost townsThe mining resulted in 350 miles of tunnels that run beneath the mountains at the east end of the valley; you can see remnants of mine shafts and flumes throughout the region. If paddling is your thing, you’ll see gold dredges runnning on the San Miguel, San Juan, and Dolores Rivers.

Telluride’s wealth attracted the attention of Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch, who famously robbed the town’s San Miguel National Bank in 1889 (trivia: I used to live in an upstairs apartment in that very building). But in 1893, the silver crash burst the money bubble, and almost overnight Telluride’s population plummeted. By the end of World War II, only 600 people remained.

Telluride is a part of the 223-mile San Juan Scenic Highway, which connects to the historic towns of Durango, Ouray, and Silverton. There’s only one paved road in and out of Telluride, and that’s Hwy. 145. The only other options are two high, extremely rugged mountain passes (which require 4WD and experienced drivers). There are also a handful of ghost towns in the area. Some, like Alta (11,800 feet) make for a great, not too-strenuous hike; you’ll see the trailhead four miles south on Hwy 145. There are a number of buildings still standing, and two miles up the road lie the turquoise Alta Lakes.
telluride ghost towns
If you want to check out the ghost town of Tomboy, it’s five miles up Imogene Pass (13,114 feet). Don’t underestimate just how tough it is if you’re hiking; you’ll gain 2,650 feet in altitude; otherwise it’s an hour’s drive. The trail begins on the north end of Oak Street; hang a right onto Tomboy Road. Unless you’re physically fit and acclimated to the altitude, the best way to see these ghost towns is by 4WD tour with an outfitter like Telluride Outside. Another bit of trivia: every July, the “Lunar Cup” ski race is held on a slope up on Imogene Pass, clothing optional.

How to get there
Telluride is a six-and-a-half-hour drive from Denver, but it also boasts the world’s second highest commercial airport (9,078 feet) with daily non-stop connections from Denver and Phoenix. It’s closed in sketchy weather (if you’re flight phobic, just say “hell, no”), and it’s often easier and usually cheaper to fly into Montrose Regional Airport, 70 miles away. From there, take Telluride Express airport shuttle; you don’t need a car in town. Go to VisitTelluride.com for all trip-planning details. For more information on the region’s numerous ghost towns, click here.

When to go
Telluride is beautiful any time of year, but avoid mid-April through mid-May and October through before Thanksgiving, as those are off-season and most businesses are closed. Spring is also mud season, and that’s no fun. Late spring, summer, and early fall mean gorgeous foliage, and more temperate weather, but be aware it can snow as late as early July. August is monsoon season, so expect brief, daily thunderstorms. July and winter are the most reliably sunny times; that said, Telluride averages 300 days of sunshine a year. If you want to explore either pass, you’ll need to visit in summer.
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Telluride tips
The air is thin up there. Drink lots of water, and then drink some more. Go easy on the alcohol, too. Take aspirin if you’re suffering altitude-related symptoms like headache or insomnia, and go easy for a couple of days until you acclimate. Wear broad-spectrum, high SPF sunblock, and reapply often on any exposed skin or under t-shirts. Wear a hat and sunglasses, as well.

[Photo credits: Tomboy, Flickr user Rob Lee; Mahr building, Laurel Miller; winter, Flickr user rtadlock]

Dunton Hot Springs: mushroom foraging and soaking in Southwestern Colorado

There are few things I enjoy more than scrabbling around in forest litter, searching for fungi. Cooking and eating them is just a bonus. I know I’m not alone in my geeky proclivity, given the number of mycological societies and mushroom festivals all over the country. Mid-August is peak wild mushroom season in the Colorado Rockies, which hosts two well-known mushroom extravaganzas of its own, in Telluride and Crested Butte.

My mushroom lust is what led me to Dunton Hot Springs, a restored ghost town-turned-resort in the San Juan Mountains near Telluride. Dunton’s executive chef, Dennis Morrisroe, is an accomplished forager who uses wild foods in his rustic, localized cuisine. Morrisroe particularly loves mushroom hunting, and takes interested guests on his forays into the Lizard Head Wilderness surrounding the property.

If you’re into wild mushrooms, then you know that this willingness to share is a bit unusual. Foragers guard their collection spots with Pentagon-like secrecy. In the mid-nineties, a rash of murders occurred in Oregon when foragers horned in on someone else’s territory (back in the day before foreign markets started competing, domestic professional mushroom foragers could fetch up to $400 a pound, depending upon the species). On one mushroom forage I did with some chefs on the Oregon Coast , we headed back to our cars, only to find a decomposing deer carcass laid across the trail (true story).

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Understandably, then, I geeked out when I received an invitation to go foraging with Morrisroe. On a humid August afternoon, we headed up into the forest to look for chanterelles, and the odd boletus (porcini). I should add that unless you have considerable experience, you should always go with, or have your forage inspected by, an expert before consuming. Because, you know, liver damage or death just aren’t fun.

Once we’d hiked into the woods, armed with pocket knives, Morrisroe gave me tips on what to look for. “With mushrooms, it’s just as important to find what terrain they like, as well as what conditions,” he explained. “Out here, for chanterelles, we look for no aspen trees, but a high concentration of pines, and good groundcover. If I know of a good area, I’ll try and translate the same elevation and conditions to other areas.” After several hours of tramping around, we returned to Dunton to clean our booty, which included about six pounds of chanterelles, and a couple handfuls of porcini.

Dunton Hot Springs is one of the most innovative and sublime retreats in the United States. The gold, silver, and coal mining town of Dunton, established in 1886, was abandoned in 1905. Following that, a series of owners and caretakers variously used the town as a guest ranch, and backpacker, biker, and hippie haunt. In 1995, the decrepit town was purchased by German businessman Christoph Henkel. His vision was to restore Dunton to its former glory, in the form of an intimate, rustically luxurious, Old West “resort,” as well as protect the 700-acre property from further development.

Dunton is located atop a natural hot spring that bubbles up near the West Fork of the Dolores River; Henkel’s original plan was to heat the property by tapping into the springs, but sediment clogged the pipes. While it’s not a bona fide “eco” property, Dunton strives to take ecological measures wherever it can: Drinking water is piped in from an extinct mine on the property, low energy fluorescent lighting is in place, recycling and composting are routine. Fifty percent of the buildings are original structures; the remainders are originals from the same era that have been preserved and transported to the property.

The twelve little guest cabins and common buildings have been gorgeously restored using reclaimed materials, and designed and decorated by Henkel’s’ arts dealer wife, Katrin. There’s also a well-stocked library (and by well-stocked, I mean there’s a bottle of Dickel bourbon and a grizzly bear-skin rug to keep you company as you pore through art, architecture, and historical texts), dining hall, and saloon. The saloon’s focal point is the original, 1886 bar, into which Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (allegedly) carved their names when they escaped to Dunton after robbing a bank in Telluride. Even the lush, plant-filled Bathhouse boasts graffiti from the town’s original residents upon its weathered spruce walls. The indoor and outdoor soaking pools (sublime) are fed by the hot springs.

Surrounded by 1,500 acres of National Forest and situated on the river, Dunton offers guests a range of year-round outdoor activities: horseback riding (there’s a stable on the property), world-class fly fishing, rafting, kayaking, mountain biking, nordic and heli-skiing, ice climbing, and snow shoeing. But Dunton is equally acclaimed for its dining. Despite its isolated location and Colorado’s short growing season, the property is justly famous for both the quality of the food, as well as its commitment to supporting local ranchers and family farms whenever possible.

Morrisroe, 41, came to Dunton in April, 2008; he runs the kitchen with just one employee, sous chef John McClenny. Originally from Trinidad, Colorado, he attended culinary school in San Francisco, then stayed in California to work in a series of impressive kitchens, including The French Laundry. Eventually, he returned to his home state to become sous chef at Durango’s Seasons restaurant. He first developed his sensibilities about seasonality and locality from working in California, but was further inspired by his chefs at Seasons. His love of feeding people and getting them excited about eating was ingrained at an early age. “My mother and grandmother fed me well as a kid, and taught me the fundamentals of cooking. But what I didn’t realize until I came [to Dunton] is that they also taught me how to take care of people.”

Morrisroe’s eagerness to share his mushrooming spots is, I suspect, also because he’s so inspired by the wild and cultivated ingredients growing practically out his kitchen door. He works closely with Hungry Oasis Farms in Dolores, 40 miles away, and shops at the farmers market, “to the best of my ability. We currently don’t grow anything on the property because at 8,700 feet, the growing season is just too short.” Colorado is composed of so many microclimates that farming in Dolores is a viable enterprise.

Free range, hormone- and antibiotic-free pork and grass-fed, grain-finished beef come from Dunton’s maintenance man, Keith Evans; lamb are Navajo-Churro, a heritage breed purchased from the Navajo Nation outside of nearby Cortez. Morrisroe has also developed a good relationship with his seafood vendors, and has all of his fish Fed Ex’ed or UPS-delivered (because, one would assume, when guests pay as much as they do for a stay at Dunton, they likely have some very specific menu requests). In winter, when Dunton is buried under snow, he utilizes cellared root vegetables and hard squash, and relies on produce brought in from Colorado’s “banana belt” on the Western Slope, near Grand Junction.

Morrisroe’s passion, however, is foraging. “It’s a nice, relaxing way to wander the woods and get your produce at the same time,” he explains. “It’s been a hobby of mine for about five years, after I learned about it from a baker I worked with in Durango.” In addition to mushrooms, he collects odds and ends like wild mint, and chamomile. These end up in cocktails (wild mint mojitos), and on the table, in the family-style meals he describes as “fresh, simple, regional food.”

Late in the afternoon after our forage, Morrisroe, a couple of helpers, and I cleaned our haul. “I’m kind of a greedy, selfish person,” he joked. “When I clean mushrooms, I use a soft brush or paper towel instead of water, to retain all of the flavor.” I have to agree; when you’re dealing with the first wild mushrooms of the season- especially after you’ve collected them yourself- you want to savor every last, earthy, molecule.

At dinner that night, Morrisroe let our forage take starring role, with a simple salad of roasted porcini with arugula, Parmigiano Reggiano, and white truffle oil, and sea bass with a ragout of local corn and chanterelles, alongside Hungry Oasis Farms green beans and fingerling potatoes. Paired with marvelous selections from Cortez’s Sutcliffe Wines (believe it or not, there are a handful of great winemakers in Colorado) the meal was a celebration of seasonal ingredients, and the wild beauty of Dunton.

Dunton Hot Springs offers cooking classes, as wells chef-led mushroom forages (late July through August), and assist with food preparation and cooking, by request.

Chanterelle & Gruyère Fritatta

The key to sautéing mushrooms, says Morrisroe, is to have adequate heat, and not crowd them in the pan. This allows them to caramelize, which concentrates their flavor.

Recipe by chef Dennis Morrisroe

Serves 8-10

1 large russet potato
1 lb. fresh chanterelle mushrooms, cleaned
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 T. fresh thyme, chopped
10 large eggs
¼ c. heavy cream
2 t. white truffle oil
½ c. grated Gruyère
Unsalted butter, as needed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, as needed

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Peel the potato and slice to ¼-inch thickness. Heat a 10″ cast iron skillet over medium-high heat, and melt enough butter to coat the sliced potatoes. Add the potatoes, season with salt and pepper, and coat them with the butter. Place whole skillet in the oven, and roast potatoes until tender, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, sauté the chanterelles in a small amount of butter (you may also use half olive oil), in a large frying pan over high heat. Sauté until the juices are released and reduced to a thick sauce, and the chanterelles have begun to caramelize. Remove the chanterelles from the heat, and season with the chopped garlic, thyme, salt and pepper.

Whisk the eggs with cream, truffle oil, salt, and pepper. To assemble the frittata, arrange the potatoes in a tidy layer that covers the bottom of the skillet. Add the chanterelles on top of the potatoes in another tidy layer. Pour the egg mixture over the chanterelles, making sure the tops of all of the mushrooms are moistened. Sprinkle the gruyère over the top of the egg mixture. Bake the frittata until the eggs are completely set and the edges are golden, about 30 minutes. Let the frittata rest for about 5 minutes. Using a thin spatula, gently and carefully remove the frittata from the pan onto a cutting board. A long serrated knife works well for slicing the frittata; it generally 10-12 provides slices.

Visit a ghost town – Road trip tip

If you’re looking for an interesting side-trip, or you just want to get out of town for a quick day trip, visit a ghost town.

To find a ghost town, log on to ghosttowns.com, which lists hundreds of ghost towns by state and county and describes what makes each spot unique and “ghostly.”

You may be surprised at how many ghost towns are in your area. Just don’t get scared.