The towering rock of Monemvasia topped by a fortress, rises from the sea on the south eastern coast of the Peloponnese. Known as “Rosemary of the East“, or “the Gibraltar of Greece,” it has been a fortified settlement since ancient times. It got its name which means “Sole Entrance” from the 6th century AD because the only entry is through a fortified tunnel. In the words of the poet, Yannis Ritso, “This scenery is as harsh as silence“ He was born and lived for many years in this small medieval town. An aristocrat by birth, renown in Greece as an actor and director, he was one of Greece most beloved poets.
I arrived early one morning by bus from Athens. At first it seemed to me not much more than a quiet coastal town, dominated by the steep rock off-shore which is connected by a long causeway. The old town itself is completely walled and is not visible. In the new town, boats crowd the little harbor. The shore is lined with small shops and tavernas. I found a pleasant pension overlooking the sea and set out to explore.
Monemvasia was besieged by various people including the Franks who occupied it until 1200 until they were expelled by Byzantine troops. After that, it became a naval station for the Byzantine Empire. It was renown through the Medieval world for its excellent Malmsey wine, mentioned in Richard III, Act I, Scene 9 when Edward IV asked the Duke of Clarence who he’d condemned to death how he’d like to die. He replied “Drown me in a barrel of Malmsey wine!” Production of this wine ended in 1545 when the Turks prohibited it and since then the method of which the Muscat wine was produced has been lost.
Lying on an important trade route, Monemvasia was occupied by the Venetians after pirate raids caused the inhabitants to ask for their help. According to a Venetian document there were 90 famous pirates in the Mediterranean at that time. They raided, took not only merchandise and animals, but people who were sold as slaves.
After the Venetians took over, the town became inhabited with knights, merchants and officials. New building and restoration work began. But once Venetian power began to wane it fell to the Turks. According to one historian Venice sold it to the Turks for 30,000 gold florins and the people were forced to relocate.
Later when Turkey declared war on Venice, the city was recaptured but it wasn’t until the Greek War of Independence on July 21, 1821 that the town was liberated. Even today, Monemvasia is overlooked by tourists, yet it is truly one of the loveliest archaeological sites of Greece.
It’s a magical experience visiting this little medieval town. As I came through the L-shaped tunnel, through the thick stone vaulted gateway I was immediately transported into another age. The narrow cobbled streets wind up the side of the rock, which is topped by a castle fortress. The entire town is walled and invisible from the shore. Many of the old buildings are restored in the ‘new town’ but farther up, except for a few like the home of Yannis Ritsos, most of the old town is in ruins. There is a monument to the poet outside his house, which is being restored
I spent the morning browsing among the interesting little shops and cafes. Some of the old buildings have been converted to hotels. Many of them still have the crests of Venetian noble families on the old wooden doors. I was lost in the past while resting in a shaded courtyard and while edging my way down a narrow cobbled street. It’s easy to imagine what life was like there, hidden away on the rocky slope of the mountain, with the teal-colored sea churning below. Monamvasia truly is a gem, a step back into the glorious age of Byzantine Greece.
Buses run daily from Athens, via Sparta. In summer there is Flying Dolphin service once a day from Pireaus.
The medieval town is inaccessible to cars and motorcycles. A free shuttle bus operates between the causeway and old Monemvasia from 7:30AM – 10PM from June to September.
There are hotels and pensions in the new town and a camp site nearby.
Photography by Rodolph de Salis and Ruth Kozak