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The Byzantine town of Monemvassia clings to the side of the 1,148-foot rock that was once a headland, but in AD 375 was separated from the mainland by an earthquake. The town was first settled in the 6th century AD, when Laconians sought refuge after Arab and Slav raids. Monemvassia—the name moni emvasia (single entrance) refers to the narrow passage to this walled community—once
enjoyed enormous prosperity, and for centuries dominated the sea lanes from Western Europe to the Levant. During its golden age in the 1400s, Monemvassia was home to families made wealthy by their inland estates and the export of malmsey wine, a sweet variety of Madeira praised by Shakespeare. When the area fell to the Turks, Monemvassia was controlled first by the pope and then by the Venetians, who built the citadel and most of the fortifications. The newer settlement that has spread out along the water on the mainland is not as romantic as the Old Town, but it's pleasant and well equipped with shops and services.
Well-to-do Greeks once again live on the rock, in houses they have turned into vacation homes. Summer weekends are crowded, but off-season Monemvassia is nearly deserted. Houses are lined up along steep streets only wide enough for two people abreast, among remnants of another age—escutcheons, marble thrones, Byzantine icons. It's a delight to wander through the back lanes and along the old walls, and to find perches high above the town or the sea.
West of the isthmus, the countryside opens up into a low-lying coastal plain around the head of the gulf of Corinth. Modern Corinth, near the...