No matter which direction we approach Karytaina, which lies among the mountains of Arcadia around 20 kilometres west of Megalopoli, we cannot miss the attention-grabbing sight of the castle perched high on a lone steep hill as it appears in the distance 550 metres above sea level.
Like many of the Frankish castles of the Peloponnese, this was built in the 13th century following the temporary overthrow of Byzantine Constantinople after its siege by Crusaders in 1204. Some archaeological evidence and historic writings suggest the settlement existed much earlier at least in early Byzantine years, and probably in ancient times.
Following less than a century of turbulent Frankish rule, in which Karytaina played an important role due to its strategic position at the head of the Alpheios valley, the Byzantine Greeks of Mystras claimed the castle around 1320. There is a local rumour that the takeover was achieved through a spot of bribery so that the Frankish commander handed the place over to a Byzantine imperial family member, Andronikos II Palaiologos, who was Despot of Mystras.
In 1460 came the Ottoman conquest of the Peloponnese, and Karytaina became a Turkish administrative centre, Apart from the very short interruption of Venetian rule (1687–1715), it remained under Ottoman occupation right up until the Greek revolution of 1821.
In March 1821, history was made at the Battle of Karytaina where the Greek rebel leader Theodoros Kolokotronis himself freed the town in his first dramatic victory against the Turks. He repaired the castle used it as a fortress and refuge for women and children during the attempted invasion of Ibrahim Pasha later in the same decade. For this reason, an image of Karytaina appeared next to Kolokotronis on some old drachma bank notes.
Access to the top of the Karytaina Castle is from a rocky signposted path that winds up to the peak above the village. Restoration works are underway on the lower buildings, including the Church of the Virgin Mary (Panagia) and the walls of Kolokotronis house, but do tread carefully around the ruins of the walls on the upper castle as some are considered to be in a dangerous condition.
Parts of the site are roped off where vast storage rooms or cisterns can be seen deep below gaping holes in the surface, giving some idea of what undiscovered secrets may lurk below. The short uphill hike is more than justified by the 360⁰ view from the hilltop. With the backdrop of Arcadian mountains on three sides, we can see the deep gorge of the Alpheios river as it snakes below the walls of this steep rock through old and new stone bridges, extending all the way down the widening valley towards the distant town of Megalopoli.
Further landmarks below include the churches of Saint Nicolas (11th century), decorated inside with icons of the era, Saint Athanassios (18th century) and the 15th century church of Zoodochos Pigis (the life-giving spring). On your descent, a few traditional tavernas await with their simple wholesome fare in the narrow streets of the village clinging to the slopes below.
Entrance cost: Free.
Opening days/times: Mon–Sun 08:00–sunset
Other: Coach and car parking area in Karytaina village.
All images copyright Eric CB Cauchi / Eternal Greece Ltd, unless otherwise stated.