The Peloponnese is mountainous, its center filled in the north with all manner of peaks -- a huge spine which tapers off into the Parnon Range to the southeast like a lizard's tail.
As you begin the trip down from Corinth, the elevation increases steadily until you approach Tripoli, which sits on a plateau. The wheat fields of the north have now given way to pasture land and olive groves.
You're only 30 kilometers from Sparta when the Taygetos begin to rise from the background. Higher and higher they push as your drop down into the valley of Sparta until the impression is complete. The elevation of Sparta is 600 feet. The Taygetos tops are at 6,000 feet.
The modern Sparta looks similar to other Greek cities, full of square uninteresting concrete apartments, but its location sits inside the boundary of the ancient one which existed as the union of four separate villages.
At the northern edge of the city stands the statue of Leonidas. Using him as a guide, you drive around the soccer field to reach the ancient Spartan Acropolis.
There is no ticket window, bookshop, or refreshment stand at the entrance -- you just move along to discover what's there.
Almost immediately the wrong emotion works its way to the surface. You pass by ancient walls and portions of structures unmarked, wondering why this should be. Does no one care? Is Sparta gone save its story in history books? Maybe that's the way it should be because the gods have determined that no one of this age can be trusted to tell the story. Maybe the Spartan ghosts are the only ones to explain what's there.
The site is now an olive orchard and there must be 8,000 of them, one for every Spartan warrior. I feel a soft breeze which touches the olive leaves, making them whisper in unison. It's those Spartan ghosts telling their tales of battle. No other sound competes: no car horn, dog bark, or child's laugh to interrupt the message. Only the whispers.
The ruins are mostly post-Spartan: some Byzantine walls, built by people who needed walls to protect them. A Roman amphitheater is recognizable but it's new -- 50 B.C.
As you stand at the highest point and look around, you understand that Sparta was an idea as much as a culture. The culture exists only in what was written down while the idea is eternal -- that people can unite for a common purpose to become stronger than the individual. That unified strength can overcome the pursuit of wealth and popularity, which can destroy all that man has accomplished.