South to Monemvasia

Trip Start Aug 11, 2007
Trip End Nov 08, 2007

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

28 Oct - We have our breakfast in the early morning sunshine on the terrace (muesli and yoghurt eaten out of a small plastic cup plus some fresh fruit) and decide that we won't do the shared bathroom thing again! Today is a public holiday - Ohi (No!) Day - celebrating the famous (at least in Greece) answer that the Greek government gave Mussolini when he demanded their surrender in WWII (didn't stop the Nazi's coming in anyway). The day will have celebrations, speeches and parades and more of importance for us, one of the main roads in the town will be closed to traffic fro several hours because of this and that will black the old part of town (where we are) off from the road out (where we want to go). So we pack up early and leave.

We can drive most of the way to the main castle and fortifications on the rock mountain just behind the old town (and access out of this road won't be affected by the parades). The fortification complex was built by the Venetians in the early 1700's and is said to be one of the great military fortifications. It sprawls across the top of yet another massive vertical rock outcrop and consists of huge thick stone walls that follow the rock contour at the top of the outcrop (with a virtually sheer drop on the sea side!), with several citadels at strategic points. These citadels are independent of each other and even have arrow and gun slits that face each other, so if invaders captured one the others could fire on it. You can reach the fortifications from the town by a steps cut in the rock face (and at least originally covered by a tunnel), but there's somewhere over 800 steps and we weren't going to that much effort! It was all very impressive - even the zebra seemed a little awed by it all!

Today we've decided to head down the eastern coast line for a while, then head off into the mountainous interior in order to arrive at Monemvasia for our overnight stay.
The coastal road takes us past some magnificent scenery - steep rocky mountains plunging into the blue clear sea. The beaches are rocky rather than sandy and are small - forming only where a valley in the mountains makes a small delta, but their setting is magnificent. On the winding coast road there are few places to stop and take photos, but we are really enjoying the drive. There are several small villages dotted along the coast - all looking very picturesque - and we see the Ohi Day celebrations taking place in all of them. There's not much tourism here, just the villages and a few holiday housing settlements that seem to be largely owned by Greeks. Despite its beauty, and probably because it has so few beaches, this coast does not appear to have been "discovered" by the package holiday European crowds that cram the Greek Islands in the summer.

About halfway down the coast, the Badron Gorge has formed a wide fertile plain as its waters empty into the sea. The locals are using this land to the maximum growing vegetables, both in and out of green houses. We are all interested in this and spend a bit of time on a bit of a side trip into the cropping area, before stopping at the main town, Leonidio, for lunch. The Leonidio Ohi Day celebrations are over, but the locals have gathered in the little town square for the post celebration lunch and we join them. We get a small plate each of various nibbles (plus chips - inevitable with any Greek meal), all quite tasty, and something to drink, before heading off into the Gorge itself. The gorge road is not heavily traveled, but intercity buses do use it - which is incredible given how narrow the road is as it passes through Leonidio and some other small villages - our rental only just makes it between the buildings on some corners and we'd hate to meet up with a bus coming our way!

The drive along then up the immense, steep sided Badron Gorge is via a slow, hugely switchbacked road with absolutely fantastic scenery and views - including a monastery perched high on the vertical cliffs above. We are all blown away by it!

We eventually reach the summit and some very pretty, small mountain villages. The route back down to Monemvassia is not nearly as steep and takes us through farming country - although the land does not look very fertile (or maybe it's the water missing?) - but all looks fairly poor. There's a very confusing (bad signposting, but our maps work well) detour for about 30 kms and finally we're at Monemvasia - another massively fortified town. This time the rock mountain that the town is built on is an island just offshore, linked to the mainland by a causeway. There are fortifications all round the sloping base of the island then the village of the Lower Town, then massive vertical cliffs and finally high above, the huge fortifications around the top of the rock, where the Upper Town was built. Only the Lower Town is lived in now and its in very good repair as it's a major holiday and tourist destination, especially for Greeks. The houses and buildings of the Upper Town are in ruins now, but the fortifications are still mostly intact. At its peak, around 50,000 people lived in Monemvasia, mostly in the Upper Town. The fortifications were famous for never being breached and while the town passed from Byzantine, to Venetian, to Ottoman, then finally to Greek control (in the War of Independence), it was never taken by force, only by trickery or prolonged siege.

Its late in the afternoon by the time we arrive at Monemvasia, so we find a place to stay (and this time our first choice has plenty of rooms - all with their own bath!). Our small pension is not on the rock of Monemvasia itself, but in the small, more modern, town on the mainland. Our rooms have balconies that look right across the small harbour to the rock and its fortress - as the sun goes down its very romantic.

We go over the causeway to the Lower Town to have a wander around and perhaps have dinner, but its so dark and the town is not well lit, so we give up after an hour and head back to the mainland side for a meal.
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