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Travel

My Great Greek Adventure: Monemvasia, A Gem Hidden in Plain Sight

January 30, 2021

On the eastern peninsula of the Peloponnese region is a small village called Monemvasia. Its location is unique in that it is located on an even smaller peninsula within the larger region. A narrow single road leads into this small oval shaped piece of land, until it reaches the village hidden behind the hillside on the farthest side.

From the mainland it resembles an island, indeed it is a virtual island, just barely connected by its solitary road. This is how the name Monemvasia is derived – it can be translated to mean ‘single entry’. The land is said to have been broken off from the adjacent mainland as a result of an earthquake around 375 AD, which is why it is so irregular-shaped and randomly placed. Located in the region presently and historically recognized as Laconia, Monemvasia was not spared from invasions and occupations.

As conquerors like the Romans and the Venetians among others landed on the shores, they left their inevitable marks. Around 583 AD the Byzantine Emperor Mauricius initiated the construction of the large fortress to protect the lands that were governed by him. It also served as a refuge from the terror being caused by Slavic invaders in the surrounding lands. The fortress graces the steep but narrow mountain above Monemvasia.

The village endured captures and conflict for centuries along with all the neighboring regions but despite this, there were bouts of prosperity and trade for Monemvasia. The village became widely recognized for its production of a special wine derived from the Malvasia grape. It has a sweet flavor paired best with desserts.

The wine became so popular, it was traded as far as England well into the fifteenth century. Life took a negative turn when the village fell under Ottoman occupation. Prosperity and freedom would vanish until independence for Greece was won again. The prominent figure Tzannetakis Grigorakis is celebrated to this day for his role in liberating Monemvasia during the Greek Revolution of 1821.

After its liberation, daily life become calmer and relatively uneventful for the remaining inhabitants. Into the 19th and 20th centuries, only a few people lived in the village all year-round. Monemvasia itself is not large in size, but surely grand in detail and history. As you enter the single road toward Monemvasia, it will become clear how popular the village has become in the modern day.

Cars line the whole length of the one kilometer road and it is often a game of luck to find a parking spot. Oftentimes, people will leave their vehicles on the mainland and walk towards the village. There is also a decently sized village on the mainland where the road towards Monemvasia begins, but it does not contain the history you will find at the end of the road. It will be clear when you have finally reached the hidden gem that is Monemvasia by the sight of a large arched stone entryway. An exterior wall of the fortress, which resembles a castle, is a protective barrier to the outside world. This inspired the name of this part of town, which is referred to as the Kastro.

The walls of the old fortress wrap all the way around the village, reaching to the shores of the sea and the heights of the mountain. When you walk through the grand stone archway into town, you are taken back to a medieval fantasy. Everything is made of stone and blends together like a puzzle of buildings and pathways. As no cars can enter past the main archway, there is a sense of escape from the busy-ness of the everyday. The paths inside twist and turn and take you to unexpected alleys and new paths. Unfortunately, this means that the village is not ideal for those who require accessibility and assistance walking or moving about. It was built during a time when establishing dominance through power and creating structures like fortresses were of the utmost importance.

Along the steep slopes of the mountain are a maze of old houses made of matching stone. Now as a result of increased tourism, most of the homes have been converted into hotels or bed and breakfasts. Along the main pathway that leads into town from the arched entrance is where you will find the majority of shops and eateries.

Many have back balconies that hover over the descending blend of structures below, and the endless sea in front of you. Among the handful of churches built in town, two serve as main meeting points and town squares. The Christ Elkomenos Orthodox Church is located in what is known as the upper village. Around it is a stone paved courtyard with strategically placed olive trees and a breathtaking view that is a must capture photo-op. From this elevated lookout point, you can really see the cohesiveness of the architecture throughout Monemvasia.

Another notable church is the of Church Panagia Chrysafitissa at the base of town where the fortress meets the sea. Here you will also find a large square of the same name that sits in the shade of the steep mountain towering above it. While the village seems small on a map, there is in fact much to see. Your walk around town will take you to the sea’s edge and up the steep pathways towards the heights of town.

Regardless of where you choose to stroll, the walls of the fortress are visible all around and distinctly mark the edges of town. If you are really keen for a hike, you can trek up to the center of the fortress and find yet another grand church – the Aghia Sophia – which sits on the plateau at the top of the mountain. From there you can fully grasp how tucked away and inconspicuous Monemvasia is, because the other side of the mountain is completely untouched and undeveloped.

This small village has become a symbol of romance, attracting lovers from all over the world. It is a medieval getaway free from cars and noise that will have you feeling like you traveled back in time. There is something soothing about the small cozy paths and houses that seem to melt together and instill a sense of enjoying the simple things.

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