'Nothing' to write home about Franc and...

MY BEST SHOT

April 09, 2000

MY BEST SHOT

'Nothing' to write home about

Franc and Rachel Miller, Ellicott City

On a drive from Las Vegas to Phoenix, we noticed a spot on the map identified as "Nothing." We decided to make a stop there. As we drove up, the first thing we saw was this huge sign alongside a metal building -- the so-called gift shop with a rock collection, pickup truck, lawn chairs, gas pump, several old trailers, old tires and a sign that gave the population count as 4. We had an enjoyable 15-minute visit to Nothing.

A MEMORABLE PLACE

A little-known Greece

By Mary Parentesis

SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Visitors to Greece speak ecstatically of ancient sites and monuments, of the pristine beauty of the islands, but my eight-year teaching sojourn in Peloponnesus made me captive to another Greece: medieval Greece.

Three miles outside Sparta, through a road canopied by ancient olive trees, the Franco-Byzantine city of Mistra lies nestled on one of the foothills of the Taygetos, an awesome mountain range that protects this area.

Mostly in ruins now, Mistra is not difficult to reconstruct in the imagination, with its encircling walls, domed Byzantine churches, homes of the gentry and palaces.

At the summit, the fortress-castle looks down on the grandiose remains. The hillside is covered with mulberry, lemon and orange trees as well as olive and fig trees and the ubiquitous cypresses. At the fringe is a mass of wildflowers, dotted by anemones and poppies.

This was one of the strongholds of Guillaume de Villehardouin, a Frankish duke born in Greece. Medieval chronicles tell of his colorful couriers who spent their days hunting in the peripheral hills, much to the amazement of the villagers.

Frankish lords gave way to Byzantine despots, who encouraged scholars and philosophers. It was here that Constantine, the last emperor of Byzantium, was crowned in the church of the Metropolis, where a carved marble slab of the double-headed eagle -- symbol of Byzantium -- can still be seen.

The Pantanasa monastery houses hospitable nuns who offer a cool drink and a sweet to all visitors. Time and forays by foreign invaders caused much damage, but the churches remain intact and contain some of the finest frescoes of the late Byzantine period.

It is no wonder that this hauntingly beautiful site was Goethe's setting for his legend of Faustus and Helena. This is fairy-tale material -- the magnificent site, the castle at the summit, the colorful couriers, the sad-eyed foreign princesses who dreamed of their far-away homelands. Mistra is a never-ending source of inspiration and enchantment.

Mary Parentesis lives in Baltimore.

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Milford Sound, New Zealand

Peter B. Liveright, Lutherville

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