Monemvasia, the Rock turned atmospheric medieval fortress
This was quite the imposing sight. Across the sea stood a massive, lonely rock that looked a bit like a stranded cruise ship or like the tip of a million-year old turtle shell. Monemvasia was known as the Gibraltar of the East or even as the Rock. Both names had a nice ring to them and they described the island quite aptly but they hadn't prepared us for that hypnotic vision anyway.
Picking up places to visit on a road trip across Greece was no easy task. From the northern mountainous area of Macedonia to the southern tip of the Peloponnese, Greece seemed full of mesmerizing ancient sites, coastal towns and majestic landscapes. Yet, decisions had had to be made and this ancient medieval town named Monemvasia had grabbed our attention.
Reading about Monemvasia was already fascinating indeed. The area had been populated since the 6th century and had developed into a powerful fortress, home to many different influences from the Byzantines to Ottomans and the Venitians. However, what was most compelling of all was that the town had been built on the slope to a huge rock plateau that had been separated from the mainland for centuries. Such isolation and strategic footing had allowed the fortress to resist several invasions, by the Normans and the Arabs among others, but it had also allowed the town to stand the test of time, and quite beautifully.
There were no medieval remains in sight when we arrived in the city though, only a maze of narrow roads, barely lit back alleys full of stray cats and guesthouse signs all over the place. Present-day Monemvasia was a two-faced city and if the modern part of town was not entirely charmless, it wasn’t what we had expected. Still, it offered great views over the Rock just across the sea, a rock we couldn’t wait to discover the very next day.
Staying in the modern side of the city had its perks, the first one being its practicality. We had parked our car near our hotel and only had to cross the short bridge that led to the island on foot, contrary to the mass of cars and tour coaches that seemed to be frantically looking for a spot to park. That much traffic didn’t make for a very pleasant walk though and while Hedi decided to stay along the road to get to the town’s main gate, I decided to take a different path, one that led me to a steep pathway winding through wild grass and some sort of wild, purple thistle. In the end, he was right as he arrived in the city dozens of minutes before I did. Yet, my uneven passage had a rough charm to it. On top of it, it was deserted and quiet, to the point that I almost felt like I was sneaking into a sleeping city when I walked through the wall gate at the end of the pathway, all by myself.
Of course, this feeling didn’t last long. There was no way it could have though as Monemvasia was a small place but it was far from deserted. The island sure was awake and it was already bustling with life, from those tourists enjoying a cup of coffee for breakfast on the terrace of their hotel to those already window-shopping, on the hunt for the perfect souvenir to bring back home among the many shops battling for their attention. It felt even a bit anachronistic to see Disney figurines on a shelf next to a deck of Greek mythology themed playing cards and a miniature of a Minotaur, although Monemvasia was perhaps trying to bridge myths of old and tales of our modern days.
The fortress had been inhabited for a long time and it still was home to a few dozen permanent dwellers. The majority of its inhabitants were now on transit however, which was a given considering the number of high end boutique hotels and ice cream parlors per square meter. Even in the early morning, its typically medieval cobblestone streets, as narrow as could be, were already swarming with groups of tourists. Despite the crowds, Monemvasia was slowly growing on me though.
The hackneyed cliché of a journey back in time felt appropriate here. Indeed, it was incredible to be walking in these quaint streets that had known little change for centuries. The few medieval towns and fortresses we had visited so far in Greece were dilapidated for a lack of care and good treatment over the years. Of course, this town had been restored extensively, partly thanks to an increase in tourism, but it had never been a ghost town and it wasn’t a fake recreation either.
The town was divided in two. There was the kastro, the lower side, and there was the upper side. The kastro was all about ancient white churches, stone steeples and sandy brown domes while the upper side was less easily accessible and therefore more peaceful. A pathway going along the fortress' ancient walls, which had almost become indistinguishable from the rock, led to the upper side as well as a number of stone staircases.
Monemvasia truly was a maze, so easy to get lost into that it became in turn pretty easy to get away from the crowds too. Apart from the main street, we only encountered a handful of tourists at a time. From time to time, we were even completely on our own, save for a few local cats walking past us without a care in the world.
And then there was the sea, trapping the island into blissful isolation, even if such isolation was a bit relative nowadays. The distant lapping of the waves and the refreshing sea sprays took the atmosphere of this medieval town to the next level. The ancient architecture of the town, with its Byzantine and Ottoman influences, was already a sight to behold but the soothing sight of the deep blue sea and the mountains in the background really added to the atmosphere, creating a perfectly balanced landscape of man-made accomplishments and natural wonder.
An even better view awaited at the top of the rock, along a walk up hill leading to the ruins of the Agia Sophia Church. We had been climbing fortress upon fortress for three days in a row though, which was fine by me, but was a bit harder to swallow for Hedi. I eventually gave up in exchange for the promise of a fulfilling lunch made of gyros and Greek salad and even had to consent to an afternoon by the sea, as the shores near Monemvasia weren’t extremely fit for swimming.
The surrounding area was full of gorgeous beaches and little fishing towns, which added a more chill touch to our trip in the region. The coastal town we had picked was almost devoid of any tourist, which could also be explained by a gloomy weather or by the wrath of the gods, depending on the point of view. It showed another side of Greece, a country of authentic coastal towns, of small fishing boats waiting for sailors to come and get the catch of the day.
It was only fair then to wrap up our day with a plate of fresh squid at a restaurant near the pier on the modern side of the city, casting one last glance at the ancient Monemvasia before bidding the town farewell. We still had to climb to the ruins of a church perched atop the cliff though so it hopefully wouldn’t be farewell forever.
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