A Greek Gibraltar stands in the Aegean Sea off the southeast coast of the Peloponnesus Peninsula.
If you’re searching for the flashy night life of Mykonos or the beach parties of Paros, don’t bother to stop. Monemvasia, the “rock’s” only settlement, is for those seeking solitude and echoes of history in a setting of haunting beauty.
Only three hours from Athens by hydrofoil, Monemvasia is an enclave of the past hidden away in the present.
A major commercial center of the Byzantine Empire in the 13th Century, the town was conquered by successive waves of Franks, Venetians and Turks before it became part of the reborn Greek state in 1821.
The hydrofoil docks next to the causeway that connects the rock to the mainland. From there a road edges its way for half a mile along the rock’s southern perimeter.
Suddenly you confront the town’s western ramparts, which climb abruptly from the sea in giant steps for about 220 yards to meet the base of a sheer cliff. All vehicle traffic stops.
An arched portal, its ancient iron-strapped doors fixed open, punctuates the Turko-Venetian wall. Proceeding on foot, you tread a cobblestone lane through a dusky entrance and emerge into a burst of sunlight.
The only hotel in Monemvasia is the Malvasia, a name Venetian conquerors gave the town.
Work teams using pack animals built the hotel from the ruins of 16th- and 17th-Century Byzantine and Venetian houses that once belonged to wealthy Monemvasiote merchants and landowners.
The Malvasia accommodates 40 guests in its 14 suites, which have marbled baths and kitchen areas. Double rooms: 3,500 to 6,000 drachmas (about $25 to $45 U.S.); single rooms: about $20 U.S.
For about $100 a night, four people can stay in the hotel’s Stellakis House, a remarkable structure built about 1700. Researched and reconstructed by Greek architects Alexander and Haris Kalligas, Stellakis House borders on the town’s Byzantine sea wall.
The main apartment covers two floors, with two barrel-vaulted bedrooms adjoining a spacious 30-by-15-foot salon. Off the salon a stone terrace stands out from the house to form an archway with the sea wall.
From the terrace you can look down 100 feet of continuous stone to an ocean bottom of huge boulders covered with sea life. Looking toward the town, the rock cuts a jagged line against the sky. At night the rock is bathed in the cold light of the moon.
The Malvasia is part of Monemvasia’s rebirth following its virtual desertion after World War II. Starting in the mid-1960s, the rock’s ancient homes were rebuilt as holiday villas by rich Greeks, Europeans and Americans.
The Archeological Service is strict about maintaining the integrity of the buildings’ external appearances, but internal function and design are left largely to the tastes and needs of the new occupants.
About 100 dwellings have been rebuilt and 40 or so more remain in a state of ruin. Prices for the ancient heaps of rubble are now in the tens of thousands of dollars.
The villas are occupied only part of the year. Some of them rent out in their owners’ absence. Only about 10 people live on the rock all year.
The few hundred other Monemvasiotes live across the causeway in the mainland fishing village of Gefira, meaning “bridge.”
A normally sleepy village, Gefira comes alive in the summer, offering visitors many kinds of services, including rental spear-fishing equipment.
Wedged between the sheer cliff face and the ocean ramparts, Monemvasia appears much as it must have three centuries ago. It’s a dense cluster of buildings built upward due to limitations of space, and laced by a network of walkways and barrel-vaulted passages.
Toward the eastern wall, collapsed homes form a plain of rubble. In the spring these ruins provide sloping terraces for a dazzling profusion of wildflowers and aromatic spice plants. Open space is rare.
The general aspect is one of small, high windows and short, unobtrusive wooden doorways punctuating continuous, thinly stuccoed stone walls.
Behind these walls lie warm, cavernous interiors or lush courtyard gardens of bougainvillea, roses and carnations set among pine and giant cactus.
But from outside, the architecture is a reclusive one. Even the terraces, built atop the barrel-vaulted roofs of lower floors and invariably facing toward the sea, are generally hidden from public view.
View From the Top
The easy climb to the plateau atop the rock puts the town in map-like perspective. You can alternate contemplating majestic vistas with poking around the crumbled ruins of what once was the upper town.
The only structure still in use is St. Sophia’s Church, whose northern wall is almost continuous with a precipitous drop of the cliff face.
During Ottoman occupation in the 18th Century the Turks used the church as a mosque and whitewashed its walls. Some of the decaying church’s handsome frescoes, however, have been restored.
While a night out requires leaving town, Monemvasia does have a handful of night spots for low-key munching and mingling.
Angelo’s cafe-bar on the central lane is a congenial place to nibble on black olives and sardines while downing a few glasses of ouzo. About $1 a shot, appetizers included.
A favorite with the town’s seasonal denizens is Bobos’ tiny cafe just above main street. A wrinkled and wiry old man with small, intense eyes and thick dark hair, Bobos will, for a few dollars, prepare you a simple meal of fresh-grilled fish, French fries, tomato-and-cucumber salad, feta cheese and bakery bread.
Shades of a Literary King
While sitting on his small garden terrace overlooking the town, you can wash down his feast with half a kilo of local wine. The Malmsey wine mentioned in William Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” however, is no longer produced.
Another much-loved figure is Matoula, the 80-year-old aunt of Yannis Ritsos, arguably Greece’s finest living poet.
Matoula, with thick, white hair tucked beneath a black scarf, a square, smooth face and dark horn-rimmed glasses, owns and cooks for a restaurant on the central lane.
The cuisine is country-style Greek: dill-scented tomatoes stuffed with minced meat and rice or cinnamon-spiced lamb stew with peas in red sauce. A meal can cost less than $5.
Monemvasia is also an excellent base of operations for touring some of the remarkable sights of the southern Peloponnesus.
An hour by rental car (available in Gefira) gets you from Monemvasia to the Mani Mountains and the eastern port town, Gytheion. Crossing the neck of land to the west coast and the main town of Areopolis takes another half-hour.
Nearby are the Dirou caves, a spectacular set of caverns accessible by an underground sea-lake.
The stunning coastal road can then be followed in either direction. To the south you reach land’s end at Gerolimenas and the abandoned tower-city of Vathia. Heading north you reach the increasingly fashionable seaside resort of Kardamyli.
Sparta is also a 1 1/2-hour drive north of Monemvasia. As predicted by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, its classic ruins are unimpressive, but in the foothills just outside the modern city are the substantial remains of Mystra, the last capital of the Byzantine Empire, whose last emperor fled to Monemvasia before Ottoman invaders in 1460.
Ancient Religious Center
Mystra has a dozen ancient churches and monasteries whose vigorous frescoes are a national and world treasure.
The area immediately surrounding Monemvasia also is worth visiting.
If you have not rented a car, a taxi can be hired by the day. There is a broad, sandy beach nearby, reached by following the turn-off for villa Douka on the road to Sparta.
Near Neapoli, about 45 minutes away, boats leave every hour for the short hop to Elafonissos for spear fishing or scuba diving.
Along the road to Neapoli you can turn off to villages such as Archangelos for a meal by the sea, or go a bit farther to Plitra, whose wind-protected beach and fish tavernas are popular with Greek tourists.
Monemvasia is by tradition a place where people have sought refuge. The town was founded in the 6th Century as the last residents of Sparta abandoned their ancient city to the barbarian expansion that marked the end of the Roman Empire in the West.
To make reservations at the Malvasia Hotel, send a deposit of $25 to Fani Antonouli, Malvasia Hotel, Monemvasia, Greece.
For more information on traveling to Monemvasia, contact the Greek National Tourist Organization, 611 West 6th St., Los Angeles 90017, or call (213) 626-6696.