By Ferne Arfin February 2019
Monemvasia deluxe or on a budget
We look at both options
It’s a long way to Monemvasia, the amazing 330-foot -high citadel rock tethered to mainland Greece by a short, narrow causeway. And once you’ve made your way across a 5-hour mountains and motorways drive from Athens, you’ll want to stay a while to enjoy the view. Do you have to “put on the Ritz” for views of this landmark?
What local people refer to as “the castle” is not the assorted ruins on top of Monemvasia, but the Medieval walled village clinging to its southwestern end. (You can just about see it on the far right in the photo above.) Within the castle there’s a pretty good selection of rooms and small hotels. But unless you are seeking total romantic seclusion and plan to spend your entire getaway in bed – in which case lucky you, have a good time – I don’t recommend actually staying on the rock.
There’s simply not that much to do there. Once you have climbed to the top and wandered the interconnected lanes and flights of stairs of the village (half a day), admired the churches, poked around the tourist shops and dawdled in a café (another half day), you’ve done it. And you can’t laze around a poolside – there are no pools – or on a sandy beach because Monemvasia doesn’t have one. You can’t even see the Gibraltar-like rock itself when you are on it.
Luckily, there are quite a few rooms and hotels just across the causeway or at most a few miles away. So you can have your room with a view within easy reach of several sandy beaches, a pretty harbor and all the other attractions of the southwestern Peloponnese. On a visit in early October, 2019, we sampled a luxury resort in a historic fortified estate and looked around a surprisingly pleasant 1-star lodging with a café and a prime spot next to the causeway to the island fortress.
Five-star luxury at the Hotel Kinsterna and Spa
The Kinsterna, named for an ancient Byzantine cistern at the center of the property, is perched in the hills, about 7 miles from Monemvasia, surrounded by 18 acres of olive trees, vineyards, and fruit orchards. It was a fortified Ottoman estate, dating from at least the 17th century (and possibly earlier). In 1821, with the rout of the Ottomans from the Peloponnese, the Turkish owner, Ibrahim Bey, ceded it to the victorious Greeks and it passed into the hands of two wealthy Greek families who eventually died out, leaving the estate to fall into disrepair. It has now been sensitively restored and offers a selection of luxury doubles, suites and villas.
Landscaped paths winding through groves of whispering eucalyptus and fruit trees ripe for the picking link the original mansion with other accommodations, restaurants and spa.
There’s a fine dining restaurant, a more casual cafe and, in season, an outdoor taverna-style bar near the pool. Much of the food and drink, the wine and olive oil, is produced on the hotel’s own estate. A key philosophy of the owners of this rural retreat is an emphasis on environmental and social sustainability. That’s particularly visible at the exceptionally good breakfast with jams and quince preserves from the trees all around and a good selection of hot and cold dishes, breads and fruits either made by or sourced locally.
Facilities and activities
An L-shaped horizon pool overlooks the estate and long sea views. It’s fed by a spring that comes down through the hotel, emerging into view here and there in gushing little falls. Because the pool is spring fed the water is crystal clear but, in early October, when we visited, very cold. A separate, similar-sized pool is reserved for the use of families with children.
The spa offers a variety of treatments and massages as well as indoor and outdoor jacuzzis, an Ottoman hamam and sauna. Each of these must be booked and paid for separately, including, surprisingly, the jacuzzi and sauna. Guests can also book range of seasonal and year round activities – wine and olive oil tasting, the grape harvest and oil pressing, horse and buggy rides, donkey strolls (the donkey we met was only two years old and considered too young to take a rider) and guided tours of the property focusing on its history, architecture or agriculture.
Some double rooms at the Kinsterna are relatively moderately priced or available in special bargain packages. But if you’re planning to treat yourself to this kind of luxury on a limited budget keep these fees and charges in mind. All those little extras can quickly add up.
And the views
Some of the rooms have views of Monemvasia, though ours did not. Beyond that, there are quite a few good vantage points on the Kinsterna estate from which you can see it. The picture at the top of this article was taken from within the Kinsterna vineyard, for example. For more views, as well as a spreading carpet of the whole estate, climb the hill behind the mansion, through a small orchard of pomegranates (heavy with ripe fruit in October), to the church where the spring that feeds Kinsterna first emerges.
Staying at Kinsterna
We spent three nights in a “Kinsterna Suite” consisting of a generous sitting room, a very comfortable double bedroom with French doors leading out to a vine and palm shaded terrace, an enormous pink marble and stone bathroom (with separate toilet) and a dressing room area. The huge double shower ( a rectangular shaped space nearly as big as my entire London bathroom) was equipped with two separate rain showers and hand showers – one at each end of the same glass shower enclosure. For water fights at ten paces, perhaps? Silliness aside, our room was glorious and well equipped with television, free wi-fi (though a bit slow at our end of the hotel), easy to use room safe, high quality toiletries and hair dryer, slipper and room, fluffy robes. Some of the rooms and suites incorporate historic features, ancient hearths and the like, though ours did not.
If I had any quibble, it arose from a certain unevenness of service. Everyone who helped us was unfailingly pleasant, friendly and quick to act when asked. But too often, there was no one around to ask. It was occasionally time consuming to find staff at reception or in the bar. Several times I found myself searching for someone to pour a drink. On one evening, as I settled in the bar looking forward to a pre-dinner cocktail, the bar tender busied himself cleaning glasses and setting out olives, lemon slices and nuts but never asked me if I needed or wanted anything.
The hotel is also a bit isolated. In daylight, the trip to Monemvasia takes 15 minutes or less. But coming back after a dinner in the village can be tricky on the narrow, unlit mountain road. Returning one evening, with the help of iPhone satellite navigation courtesy of Google, we took one wrong turn and spent an extra hair raising 40 minutes trying to find our way back. If you do go down the mountain plan to return in daylight or take a taxi, bearing in mind that it will add an extra 24€ to your night out.
In the interests of full disclosure, my traveling companion and I were invited to stay as guests of the hotel and our three-night visit was complimentary. For more information about the hotel, its activities, prices and availability, check the Hotel Kinsterna website.
The More Traditional Budget Option
At the other end of the price and luxury spectrum is the Hotel Aktaion, an old fashioned budget hotel with a locally popular cafe. We discovered it when looking for a casual – and traditional – Greek taverna meal.
These days, a lot of moderately priced accommodations and restaurants in Greece smooth their rough edges, at the expense of their quirky charm, to conform to a sort of inoffensive but characterless Euro-standard. During my recent visits, I discovered that you can eat a lot of burgers, omelets and frenchified (but not quite French) food in Modern Greece and stay in a lot of acceptable but boring rooms that could be anywhere in Western Europe or the USA.
It’s probably an understandable effort to compete for a slice of a more affluent, cosmopolitan and demanding travel market. But, to those of us who remember cheaper, more footloose travel in Greece, it seems a shame.
How to cook a kid
We arrived at the Hotel Aktaion in time to witness a bit of excitement in the cafe. A local couple, British and American expats, had brought in a butchered goat they’d received as a gift. Could the Aktaion’s cook prepare it? A lively discussion followed, with much to and froing about the details and the party that would surely follow.
Soon we were all chatting and sharing travel stories – a pair of tourists, a table full of old men – perhaps local fishermen – and the owners of the goat had joined in, along with a woman who seemed to be Madam Arkoudy, the hotel owner. Our lunch of saganaki (grilled kasseri cheese), fried calamari and salad was perfect – fresh, tasty and cheap. And the view of Monemvasia couldn’t have been better. Okay, between us and the sea was the town’s free parking lot. But it was a Sunday and it was quiet and besides, that’s just the way it is sometimes.
Rooms at the Aktaion
We didn’t stay at the Aktaion but we took some time to check it out. The hotel has 17 rooms; singles, budget doubles, doubles, family rooms and triples. There’s also a superior studio suite in another building a short distance away. All the rooms are clean and adequately equipped with free Wi-Fi, television, show or bath (or both), fridge, heat and air conditioning, free toiletries and balconies with sea, port or castle views. With budget doubles starting at 35€ that’s more than reasonable.
Of course, we’re not really comparing rooms at the Hotel Kinsterna with those at the Aktaion. One is a luxury resort the other is provides decent, reasonably priced accommodation for travelers touring the area. One is intensely private, virtually isolated halfway up a mountain with all the luxury features and services its guests could ever require. The other is in the middle of the action, so to speak, with lively bars, cafes and tavernas all around and a short walk to the area’s main attraction.
It’s just worth pointing out that you can visit the remarkable, historic site of Monemvasia even if you are on a tight budget or traveling with a large family.