Nothing really prepares you for the sight of Monemvasia, the romantic inhabited rock that rises straight out of the sea.
This remarkable place, off the easternmost finger of Greece’s Peloponnese region, is only about a quarter of the size of the Rock of Gibraltar (to which it is always compared). But Monemvasia’s vertical bulk, towering about 330 feet over the Aegean sea, is every bit as dramatic. And, no matter how much we’d read about it beforehand, our first view left us gobsmacked.
Driving in this part of Greece is never easy once you stray off the main motorways. Local directions are vague, the maps you can buy (even the ones we bought in top London travel book store, Stanfords) are all in Greek. The safest way to navigate is to make sure you have good coordinates or postal codes, rely on a good SatNav and hope for the best. The trouble with SatNavs, of course, is they don’t give you much of a general picture. It’s all turn left here, turn right there – the micro details that will get you there in the end – but you never get much of the big picture.
Which is all a roundabout way of saying that I’m not terribly sure what town we came from or what road we were on. But we were driving south along the coast road of the province of Laconia when we had one of those oh-my-god-there-it-is-holy-s**t moments and… well… there it was turning all kinds of colors in the setting sun. During the course of the next few days, we got to see the citadel of Monemvasia from every angle and in all sorts of light and we finally got to climb all over it. It did not disappoint.
First a little history of Monemvasia
But just a little history, because the story of this place – and castle – is so complicated you could write a doctoral dissertation about it.
Monemvasia became an island in the fourth century when and earthquake severed its fragile connection to the mainland. It remained an island for more than 1600 years until the building of a short, narrow causeway and bridge connected it to the Greek mainland as recently as 1971.
Byzantine Christians, fleeing marauding barbarians from the east, first settled the rock in the 6th century. After that, the political history of the place is a chaotic feast of battles and rulers. It was a base for Frankish warlords, the Byzantine empire, the Venetians and finally, with the fall of Constantinople in the 15th century, the Ottoman Turks. They held on to it, more or less, until the Greek War of Independence in 1821, when Monemvasia was among the first castle towns to be liberated.
The event is marked all over the Peloponnese on July 23. Here, they commemorate it by re-enacting a pivotal naval battle, culminating with the burning of a boat full of fireworks. In 2017, the event was even more dramatic when the explosives started a fire in the scrub and brush clinging to this giant rock. It looked devastating on that evening’s news – but by next morning the word was Nevermind, no harm done.
So where is the castle?
Locals refer to the modern town on the coast as the city and the island rock as the castle or the kastro. But reset your expectations. The city probably has a few thousand inhabitants at most and the castle has no towers or turrets. It is a fortified village, completely surrounded by its original walls. Built on a slope on the southwest side of the rock, facing Palaia Monemvasia bay, it is totally out of sight of land. A zigzag of a cobbled lane with flights of rough stone stairs leads up out of the castle to the top of the rock where there’s a church and the ruins of a monastery (aren’t there always at the top of things in rural Greece?). Other than that, there is only one way into the village, a gateway just wide enough for pedestrians and perhaps a donkey, at the end of a narrow, paved road about a kilometer from the bridge. Apparently, the name Monemvasia derives from the Greek for this single entrance. To make it even more difficult for invaders to enter the village – or modern invaders like cars and motorcycles – the path from the gateway through the thick castle wall doesn’t go straight through but makes a sharp right turn halfway along.
The only way to get a sense of the castle is to see an aerial view so we are grateful to Alex Manos for making his drone footage available via YouTube: