The Byzantine town of Monemvasia 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. Monemvasia—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, Monemvasia 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, Monemvasia 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 Monemvasia 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.
If you walk or drive from the adjoining modern town of Gefira, the rock looks uninhabited until you suddenly see castellated walls with an opening wide enough for one person. An overnight stay here allows you to enjoy this strange place when the tour groups have departed.