Monemvasia - "The Single Entrance"

Trip Start Jul 05, 2011
Trip End Jul 25, 2011

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Flag of Greece  , Peloponnese,
Thursday, July 14, 2011

Monemvasia means "single entrance," and as you cross the narrow bridge separating this fortified block of land from the southeast tip of the Peloponnesus, you can see why.

Separated from the ancient glories that unite much of Greece, Monemvasia offers a dream life of classical antiquity along a steep mile long rock that look more wild than civilized. To get to Monemvasia you must follow a narrow road edging along tall cliffs past the town's small cemetery and through a "single entrance" into a town that seems frozen in time. Monemvasia is rich with remnants of its reign as a main seaport during the Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman empires.

Today only about a dozen people live year-around in Monemvasia's old city today, compared with many thousands during its 12th-century heyday. Tourism remains the primary source of income for Monemvasiotes and many people want to expand the tourist industry here. So far, the development of hotels, bars and taverns has exploded across the causeway in the newer touristy town of Gefira where our tenders dock. But Monemvasia has resisted the urge to trade its tradition for the lure of modernization, which has trammeled many charming places in this history-rich country.

Monemvasia (pronounced Mo-nem-vah-SEE-ah) was most likely settled by the residents of Sparta in the late sixth century after they fled barbarian invaders. They built homes and churches on the far side of the rock along spiraling lanes, erected giant walls along the lower city and around the fortress on the rock’s peak and crossed to the mainland either through a wooden drawbridge or by wading through the shallow waters. By the end of the 12th century, Monemvasia was a major city in the Peloponnesus. Ships sailing between Constantinople (now Istanbul) and what is now Italy stopped there, giving rest to aristocrats and high-ranking church members and loading Greek exports like olive oil and wine headed for the West. Monemvasia passed through Byzantine, Vatican, Frank, Venetian and Ottoman hands before becoming part of modern Greece.

The upper town has been long abandoned. At turns luminous and menacing, depending on the brightness of the sun, it lies along the crests of the rock. A path of hairpin bends passes the ruins of once-majestic buildings and leads to Aghia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), a beautifully intact mid-12th-century Byzantine church with a sculptured door and marble reliefs. The highest peak in the upper town, accessible by climbing a trail of lush brush, is about 656 feet above sea level.

The lower town’s cobblestoned principal lane is lined with tall, slim earthy-stone houses with arched doorways and vaulted rooms. The narrower buildings have older foundations, while the wider buildings are newer, dating to the 18th or 19th centuries, and have modern touches like wrought-iron balconies. A bell tower is near the main square, which has the medieval Church of Elkomenos Christos (Christ Drawn to His Passion), a museum with artifacts from the town’s early years and an old cannon.

I hiked all the way to the Citadel above the upper town. With a temperature of 95, it made for an invigorating hike. All the work was worth the views that rewarded my efforts.

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