MONEMVASIA, INCREDIBLE GREEK FORTRESS JUTS OUT OF AEGEAN
Isolation and security were both in short supply in 6th century continental Greece. Avars and Slavs were ravaging lands and cities, sometimes retreating and sometimes settling, and for the local population there were only two options: fortify or flee.
The people who founded what is now Monemvasia did both. They left their homes and found a new one on a rocky islet just off the eastern shores of the Peloponnese. Then they fortified it.
In the following centuries, the refuge, whose name meant A Single Entrance, began to grow. Isolated from the mainland it might had been, but it was still close to the busy maritime trading routes, including that of the Greek wine that would later be called after the city's Italian name, Malvasia. Inevitably, the city's strategic location attracted the attention of a number of global and local powers: the Byzantines and the knights of the former Fourth Crusade, plus the Catalans, the Venetians and the Ottomans. Until the 19th century, when Monemvasia became part of independent Greece, these parties often clashed, traded, and co-habited, creating a cityscape of mediaeval lanes, Venetian-style houses and churches, a bridge to the mainland and a system of fortifications that still awes the visitor.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the isolation that was the reason for the foundation of Monemvasia became the reason why it has survived unchanged until today: life was easier and more convenient in Gefira, the modern continuation of the city on the mainland, opposite the islet.
Today, to reach Monemvasia from Athens, you need to drive either 3.5 hours (if you opt for motorway for most of the way), or about 4.5 hours, if you choose the freeway south of Corinth that takes you by other sites of interest such as Mycenae and Nauplion and leads you on a picturesque coastal trip south through Leonidio and the mountains of Laconia.
Whichever you choose, Monemvasia is worth every kilometre you cover. Inhabited by less than 100 permanent residents, the old town appears stuck in its mediaeval past. A pity (or a blessing?) that no one scouted it as a location for the Game of Thrones TV series.
Monemvasia's central square is tiny, with great vistas
Connected to the mainland by a modern bridge built in 1971, Monemvasia remains car free. After you pass the main gate of the first fortification wall, you have to rely on your feet to explore this maze of stone houses with tall, conical chimneys and roofs of red tiles. Here and there, the labyrinth opens into small squares, offering glimpses of the houses below and of the rugged mainland and islands filling the sea and the horizon. The atmosphere is relaxed. Stray cats hang around, spoiled by the constant attention of visitors. Flowers grow in pots. Lanes wind up the slope, towards Monemvasia's main fortification on the plateau overlooking the city. Even if you find it closed, the climb is worth it for the vistas.
Like all places with a long and complex history, Monemvasia has its share of local sights. These include the home of the poet Yiannis Ritsos (1909-1990), who once called the city "a boat of stone", and on the main square are the Church of Elkomenos Christos, said to be the largest Mediaeval church in southern Greece, and a former mosque that now houses the local archaeological museum.
With its gift shops and artsy cafes, restaurants and small hotels, Monemvasia has both the feel of a museum and an authentic town; a cosy place full of photo opportunities and locations to make your Facebook friends and Instagram followers swoon with envy.
The climb to the citadel provides ever-changing views of sea of red roofs and sea of blue water
However, this part of Laconia consists of more than just Monemvasia. The coastline is rugged and dotted with places to swim and sunbathe, one of which deserves special mention. The small port of Plytra is tucked into a deep cove on the western side of the peninsula and has everything you could want for a few days' break in Greece: a good, Blue Flag beach, several good places to eat, a picturesque location, tranquility, and one of the most curious archaeological sites in this part of the Mediterranean. Just west of Plytra's coast are the sunken remains of a Roman city, which can be explored by swimming. As for where to stay, the boutique hotel Costa Rampane is by far the best option. Cosy and elegant, it is by the sea and is run by some of the most welcoming and genuinely friendly people you can find in this already welcoming and genuinely friendly Greece.
The first fortification wall of Monemvasia. No cars are allowed behind
The town's cats proliferate with plenty of abandoned homes and gardens and tourists vying for feline attention
A narrow road connects the islet to the mainland at least from Venetian times
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