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Monemvasia

My lady Monemvasia, my ship made of stone
You have thousands of masts and thousands of sails
Yet you remain still, taking me on a journey throughout the world
Giannis Ritsos, Greek poet


Monemvasia, the homeland that inspired Giannis Ritsos to write some of the best poems in Modern Greek literature is, to the naked eye, a small rocky island off the east coast of Peloponnese, linked to the mainland by a small causeway and surrounded by medieval walls. Yet behind these medieval walls lies a well-guarded Byzantine castle city complete with churches, majestic mansions and picturesque streets ,that we will explore in the third part of our Trilogy of Trips.

The name Monemvasia is derived from the Greek words “moni” and “emvasi” meaning “one entrance”. The island used to be connected to the mainland until 375AD when an earthquake violently tore it off Peloponnese. Due to its strategic location on the naval route towards the eastern Mediterranean sea, the town was often targeted by pirates, hence its fortifications. During the late Byzantine Era, Monemvasia was granted several trade and taxation privileges leading to its financial and spiritual prosperity which declined rapidly during the Venetian and later the Ottoman occupations.

Today Monemvasia is divided into two towns: Ano or Higher Town and Kato or Lower Town. Ano is the original Monemvasia built on higher grounds to avoid pirate attacks and was later fortified by Byzantines and Venetians. Nowadays it is uninhabited but is open to visitors who want to catch a glimpse of its past glory. The only way to explore Ano is on foot as cars cannot fit on the winding narrow paths and alleyways. The best route is to take the path right next to the city’s walls. On your way up you will encounter an old fountain and a large cistern dating back to the times of the Ottoman occupation. The most impressive building in Ano is the Church of Hagia Sofia, one of the most important examples of Byzantine architecture in Peloponnese, which reflects the style of churches built at the same time throughout Greece and in Constantinople. Its location on the edge of a steep cliff adds a bit of drama to the simple, clean lines and light dome of the church inspiring awe among its visitors. Apart from the 14th century frescoes inside the church, you will want to take a picture of the village below when you step outside. The view from the church yard is literally breathtaking. Lovers of history and architecture revel in this town where there are a total of 40 churches within the Castle walls waiting to be explored.

If you follow the central path starting from the gates of Monemvasia, you will reach the central square of its Kato Poli or Lower Town. Contrary to the Higher Town, the Lower Town buzzes with life and energy. Here visitors can rest in one of the many hostels, restaurants, bars and shops that can be found there which also follow the architectural style of the old town. In the square, lies the church of Christ Elkomenos, devoted to the Suffering of Christ. Inside the church one can admire Byzantine icons dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries and marble sculptures from the early Christian and Byzantine times.

The winding stone paths of the Kato are ideal for long meandering walks. Take the path leading downwind towards the sea to find the church of Mary, the Chrisafitissa, built in the 17th century, and drink the Holy Water from the fountain there or visit the house where Giannis Ritsos, one of the most influential Greek poets of the 20th century, was born, raised and buried. Stop at one of the many shops offering traditional products and try heather flavored honey and malvasia wine made from sun dried grapes, which was famous throughout Europe in the medieval times. Alternatively, follow the example of the locals and partake of bread and olive oil. The taste of fresh green olive oil on a toasted slice of bread served on a rock and coupled with the stunning views of Monemvasia from above, manages to redefine, in its magnificent simplicity, the concept of culinary delight and fine dining.