Monemvasia is a uniquely preserved medieval town that is carved into the majestic grey rock like a sculpture. By land, there is only one way in, via a causeway, as the origin of its name (one entrance) implies. The “Gibraltar of the East” or a “stone ship” about to set sail, as the famous Greek poet Yannis Ritsos described his birthplace, beckons you for a journey through time, wandering through vaulted alleyways and past churches and aristocratic mansions.
Take a swim in its crystal-clear waters and sample its delicious cuisine and legendary wine. Following in the footsteps of knights, pirates, crusaders and emperors, who all fell under the spell of this mythical place in the Peloponnese, time will stand still and you’ll become one with history.
As soon as you walk through the gate, you’ll begin to uncover the secrets of Monemvasia. First have a coffee in the Agora, on the main cobblestone street in the Lower Town. This was the Byzantines’ Central Avenue, the Venetians’ Market and the Ottomans’ Bazaar, the commercial artery and cultural hub for so many civilisations. Today, you’ll see cafes, tavernas, shops and artisans’ workshops. Duck in and out of arched alleyways until you reach the sea wall, where you’ll pass quaint homes and crumbling churches. Looking up, you’ll see the grand mansions of the Upper Town, where the nobility lived.
At twilight, the stones turn lavender (hence its nickname, the Violet City) and the streets fill with mysterious shapes, sounds and shadows. By now, you’re no longer a visitor but a resident, as were the Byzantines, Ottomans, Venetians before you. In the evening, you’ll have your choice of elegant restaurants, traditional tavernas, charming cafes and chic wine bars.
Try the local homemade pasta called goges (like gnocchi, but flour-based) or saitia (fried cheese pies with fresh herbs). Oenophiles should sample the regional sweet wine called Malvasia, the authentic flavour of Monemvasia, dubbed the “nectar of the nobles”.
Monemvasia is an ideal romantic hideaway and honeymoon destination. Boutique bed & breakfasts and luxury hotels with suites boasting Turkish baths, mosaic floors and flowering courtyards will transport you to another time, without stinting on modern comforts. In the dimly lit rooms, with their vaulted ceilings and handmade wooden furniture, you’ll live your own fairy tale.
The Upper Town was home to the Venetian aristocracy and, although it’s a steep climb to reach the beautiful mansions (in the 17th-century, travellers once counted 500), you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of the whole area. The half-Byzantine, half-Venetian church of Agia Sofia clings to the side of the cliff and is one of the most significant attractions in Monemvasia. Once inside, you’ll be awe-struck by its magnificent octagonal dome.
History comes to life in this castle: Twenty-four temples and churches with Byzantine elements remain from the 40 that once existed. The oldest is Elkomenos Christos, located in the main square of the Lower Town. Other churches worth seeing are Panagia Chrysafitissa, Agios Nikolaos and Panagia tin Kritikia (Myrtidiotissa).
Portelo, in the middle of the sea wall, is the only entrance to Monemvasia by water. From here you can dive into the sea, as if you’re jumping off the deck of a ship. Swimming under the mighty fortress, in one of the most beautiful destinations in Greece, is an experience you will never forget.
Unravel the secrets of the daily lives of residents from the last few centuries in the villages around Monemvasia. There are two fabulous folklore museums in Reihia and Velies, showcasing the manners and customs of the locals.