Monemvasia in the Peloponnese has been called the Greek Rock of Gibraltar, a huge offshore rock which conceals a tiny town connected to the mainland by a single road.
It's astonishing that the name of Monemvasia is hardly known outside of Greece, because it's one of the most extraordinary towns in the whole country. The result is that it remains relatively unspoiled, though it can get busy when there's an influx of cruise ship passengers. Those who do venture to Monemvasia can discover for themselves what a very special place it is.
Monemvasia: The Gibraltar of Greece
A huge mountain of a rock stands offshore, linked to the mainland by a single stretch of road. This is Monemvasia, known as the Gibraltar of Greece. When you approach it for the first time you may feel that, yes, it is an impressive site, but once you've seen it, what then? Well, then you walk or drive along the road to the entrance. If you drive, be ready to leave your car outside.
The word Monemvasia means 'single entrance'. To discover the secrets of this remarkable island you must walk through the single doorway, as if entering a medieval castle or something from Game of Thrones. The doorway is only wide enough to accommodate a loaded donkey.
As you pass through that entrance, you feel as if you're stepping back in time to the 15th century, when Monemvasia was a busy Byzantine city of some 50,000 people. Today its permanent population stands at about 50, leaving it full of ghosts and echoes of the past. Some of the old houses have been renovated and turned into hotels or other accommodation, and others have become restaurants or gift shops.
But developments have been on a very small scale and the atmosphere remains unique. The hotels are small, so if you want to stay in the old town and experience the full flavour of Monemvasia, then make reservations well ahead. There are also several small and simple hotels in the modern town across on the mainland, where the bulk of the population lives, about 1,500 people, many of them going into the old town to work.
The rock of Monemvasia became an island when it was severed from the mainland by an earthquake in 375AD, and the first people moved in to live on the island when the first road was built in the 6th century. It became a vitally important port, controlling the passage of ships travelling around the southern Peloponnese between Italy and Constantinople (modern Istanbul).
With its one entrance and sheer sides, the rock was virtually impregnable, and the only time it fell was in 1821 during the War of Independence when Turkish occupiers were trapped here and besieged by the Greeks. After five months the people inside were reduced to eating grass, rats, and even, it's reputed, each other before they surrendered.
Dining on the island today is, you'll be pleased to know, a little more sophisticated! Whether you visit by day or in the evening, allow time to wander through the streets - not just the main streets but the back streets too, where crumbling churches and houses create a picture of what life used to be like here, though it is still hard to imagine 50,000 people being crammed into this space.
Church of Elkomenos Christos
Immediately on your left as you go through the entrance gate is the house where the respected Greek poet Yiannis Ritsos (1909-1990) was born. At the far end of the village, look for the church of Panagia Chrysafitissa. Its original date is uncertain, but it was restored by the Venetians in the 18th century. Its bell hangs from an acacia tree. Close by is the larger church of Agios Nikolaos, built in 1703. All these are in what is known as the Lower Town.
The approach to the Upper Town at the top of the rock is by a zigzag stone path which leads to another entrance, still with its original iron gates. All that remains of the Upper Town, however, is the 13th-century Byzantine church of Agia Sofia, standing alone at the very top of the site. Do try to make the effort to reach it, because the views along the coast from here are very impressive.
Where to Stay in Monemvasia
Some other Peloponnese pages
The top archaeological sites in the Peloponnese in Greece include Epidavros, Olympia, Mycenae, Mystras, Tiryns, and Argos.
The Temple of Bassae in Messenia in the Peloponnese of Greece is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece.
The Peloponnese in Greece has such sights as Olympia, Mycenae, the Mani, Nafplion, Corinth and Epidavros.
The Greece Travel Secrets guide to the ancient archaeological site of Tiryns, near Mycenae, in the Peloponnese of Greece, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Patras, or Patra, in the Peloponnese is Greece's third-largest city, home to Greece's largest Carnival, with many Roman and Greek remains, museums and churches.
Kalamata in the Peloponnese is the area's second-biggest city and is world-famous for the quality of its olives and for the nearby site of Ancient Messene.
The Nemean Games, like the Olympic Games, take place every four years but, unlike the Olympics, anyone can apply to take part and run in the original stadium.
Sparta (or Sparti) in the Peloponnese of Greece was one of the most important city-states of ancient Greece and has significant archaeological remains.
Nafplion in the Peloponnese was the Greek capital before Athens and today is a charming waterfront town with good restaurants, museums, shopping, beaches, old fortresses and a delightful atmosphere.
The ruined Byzantine city of Mystras sits on the top and the slopes of a hill that juts out from the plain and is one of the most remarkable places in Greece.
Mycenae in the Greek Peloponnese was a royal palace and is famous for the royal tombs, Lion Gate, and was excavated by archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann.
Greece Travel Secrets reviews the photography book Monemvasia with extracts from works by Yiannis Ritsos and Nikos Kazantzakis.
The Mani in the south of the Peloponnese is the most southerly part of the Greek mainland and famous for its rugged landscape, feuds, and tower houses.
The ancient theatre at Epidavros is one of Greece's greatest attractions, ranking alongside the Acropolis and the Palace at Knossos in Crete, and it is easily the finest theatre in Greece.
Corinth has four aspects to it, which are the Corinth canal, the modern town of Corinth, nearby Ancient Corinth, and above that Akrokorinthos or Upper Corinth.
The Bradt Guide to the Peloponnese is the best book on the Greek region which includes attractions like Mycenae, Epidavros, Olympia, Monemvasia and Nafplion.
Travel guide to Ancient Olympia in the Peloponnese of mainland Greece, home to the original Olympic Games.
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