Monemvasia Travel Guide

Monemvasia

The eastern "finger" dangling off the southern edge of the Peloponnese is the dramatic setting for Monemvasia (meaning "single entrance"). This Byzantine town clings to the side of the 1,148-foot rock that was once a headland until in AD 375 it was separated from the mainland by an earthquake. The Laconians who settled here in the 6th century were seeking refuge against Avar and Slav raids; it proved such an effective defence that a millennia later, this became the last outpost of the Byzantine empire to hold out against the Turks.

As a port, Monemvasia prospered from the 10th century on, dominating the sea lanes from Western Europe to the Levant. Its golden age came in the 13th and 14th centuries, when wealthy Byzantine nobles settled here in the Upper Town while a thriving market flourished below, where exports of local malvasia (or "malmsey") wine, a sweet variety of Madeira prized across medieval Europe and still drunk today, made merchants filthy rich.

By the mid-14th century, the town had fallen under the control of the Despotate of Morea, a semi-autonomous Byzantine state that had spread across the Peloponnese. When the Morea finally fell to the Turks in 1460, Monemvasia turned first to the papacy for protection, then to the Venetians, who transformed the city, building fortresses and fortifications. It worked, up to a point, and the town held out for 80 more years against the relentless Ottomans.

Centuries later, Monemvasia would be the turning point in perhaps the most important war in modern Greek history, when after a bloody four-month seige in July 1821, Greek forces stormed its walls, claiming their first major Ottoman fortress in the War of Independence. By this point, its decline was in full swing. With the town's fortifications of little modern use, the upper section was left to ruin, and the arrival of the Corinth Canal to the north rendered its port redundant.

During its heyday Monemvasia held thousands; now just ten families live here. When local tourists discovered it in the 1980s, the authorities acted swiftly to protect the city, and the rather ugly town of Gefira, at the foot of the causeway, has taken the brunt of any development. Today, the citadel is wonderfully preserved, with the Upper Town, where most of the great ruins lie, making a tingly hike through the Byzantine bones of a city, winding up to the windswept ruins of its hilltop castle. Below, houses line steep streets only wide enough for two people abreast, as visitors slip among remnants of another age—escutcheons, marble thrones, Byzantine icons. It is a delight to wander the back lanes and along the old walls, and an overnight stay here allows you to enjoy this curious relic all the better when the tour groups have departed.

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