Byzantine capital of the Peloponnese
Mistra lies in the midst of a country, rich in history, near the birthplace of Helen of Troy and the cradle of the famous Spartans. It was the actual seat of the first manifestations of the Renaissance.
Mistra was founded after the Frankish conquest of the Peloponnese in 1205, while Sparta, a few miles to the east, in the rich valley of Lacedaemon, became the favorite residence of the Frankish princes. In 1249 William II of Villehardouin, Prince of Achaea, built a castle on a hill on the slopes of Mt. Taygetos which came to be known as Mistra. In 1259 Villehardouin was defeated and captured by John Paleologos, brother of the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Paleologos, in the battle of Pelagonia in northern Greece. By the terms of his release Mistra and two other Laconian castles were given to the Byzantine Emperor.
Princes of the imperial family of Byzantium, with the title of Despot and based in Mistra ruled the Peloponnese for two hundred years. The eminent historian Sir Steven Runciman in his book, Mistra, the Byzantine capital of the Peloponnese, notes that "Mistra became a notable centre of learning and the arts and a focal point for the cultural development of Europe as a whole ... At the close of the fourteenth century Mistra emerged as a cultural capital. Not only had it already attracted many of the best artists from Constantinople, but now it became a haven for scholarship." George Gemistos Plethon, a Neoplatonic philosopher who lived most of his life in Mistra had a profound influence on his era, the first half of the 15th century. "The actual introduction of Platonic studies into Italian Academics was due to Plethon's disciples ... It was in Plethon's honour that Cosimo dei Medici founded the Academy at Florence" Runciman says. The first stirrings of the Renaissance were felt in Mistra.
Mistra, now an archaeological site which includes the restored palace of the Byzantine Despots, innovative churches with stunning frescoes, ruined mansions, well-preserved walls and a great castle overlooks the ancient and modern city of Sparta. It is surrounded by olive groves as it has been for more than three thousand years since the times of Menelaos, legendary king of Sparta and husband of Helen of Troy, whose shrine is five miles across the valley to the east.