My attraction to Monemvasia was immediate. This hardscrabble chunk off the southeastern tip of the Peloponnese peninsula is a rocky piece of post-antiquity Greece, its back to modernity, its face to the cerulean sea. An earthquake in 375 AD separated the natural rock fortress from the mainland, leaving it to stand on its own as an island stuck in time. Indeed, celebrated native son, Poet Yiannis Ritsos, referred to his birthplace as a “ship of stone.”
We’ve come from marble-paved Nafplio, three hours up the coast, and are headed around the Peloponnese to Olympia. Our stop in Monemvasia hardly gave me pause as we progressed along our route, but now that we’re here, the island has me in its hold. The visual impact of its precipitous cliffs that rise from the sea is astonishing and I’m not prepared for the sheer size of the rock prominence.
The name of Greece’s answer to Gibraltar derives from two Greek words, mone and emvasia, meaning “single entrance.” Indeed, its tenuous connection to the mainland is a narrow, 650-foot causeway. We cross the unremarkable asphalt link, follow the gravelly road that curves around the base of the rock and reach the car-free village’s official entry.
We know little about what we’re about to see, but once we step through the iron gates into a narrow stone tunnel in a massive fortifying wall I’m enchanted, my eyes wide and mouth open. The L-shaped tunnel conceals the town’s beauty until you emerge on the other side. I step down onto the undulating, cobbled streets and feel like Dorothy going from black and white Kansas to Technicolor Oz. The hamlet rises gently from the edge of the sea, nestled in the shadow of the massive stone iceberg on the seaward side of the island, hidden from the mainland. So taken am I by the pristine beauty of this warren of mansions, private townhomes, squares and churches, so colorful and welcoming in contrast to the dusty, craggy approach, I forget that contemporary life exists. The walled village’s medieval maze of constricted cobblestone lanes, some of them cut directly into the cliff, is unlike the whitewashed, blue-roofed islands of the Cyclades. Monemvasia is a tawny-toned blond. A warm, honey-thick blanket of well-being matching the ocher of the bougainvillea-covered buildings envelops me. Why do some places grab our hearts and not let go, while others leave us cold? I hold tight to my husband’s arm with delight and say, “This island is magic. I wish we could stay for weeks.”
But alas, my plea is for naught as he shakes his head with a sigh. We must be in Olympia to meet a friend tomorrow and so our itinerary allows only an afternoon.
I belong in this village, I think as we wander. The more we walk, the more I feel connected to all who lived here before — those who wore these pathway stones to a shine and eroded indentations in the stairs. I picture not ship owners and captains of trade but young mothers with small children, widows whose husbands were lost to the sea and unassuming purveyors of grains, fruits and fish. Thoughts of their daily lives fuel my imagination.
In contrast to so many fortified towns, Monemvasia has sweeping views, with no seaside walls blocking the expanse of the endless Aegean. The imposing rock face is ever-present, looking down on us as we stroll the constricted arteries of the medieval town. I long to peek inside the tall, narrow townhomes packed tightly one after the other that line the winding lanes. I conjure cool interior chambers with afternoon sun filtering through gauzy curtained windows. Through swirled black latticework I glimpse a balcony overflowing with a profusion of rosy cyclamen and stop for a moment to imagine myself a resident, sipping a glass of crisp, Greek white wine on a wooden chair painted royal blue.
The island is 1,000 feet wide, a kilometer long, and rises 300 feet to a rugged plateau. Residents of the ancient region of Laconia seeking refuge from barbarian invaders in the sixth century initially settled atop the rock. When danger subsided, development migrated to the base of the vertical drop, leaving the lofty construction to fall into disrepair. Over the next many centuries, Monemvasia enjoyed a long reign as a powerful commercial port (it was a well-established stop for ships sailing between Venice and Constantinople) and went back and forth between Venetian and Turkish control. During the Greek War of Independence in the early 1800s, the island was finally liberated and became a part of the independent Greek state.
Monemvasia is experiencing a resurgence – this time as a tourist destination. The medieval sandstone buildings in pastel colors have been lovingly restored, many of them converted into boutiques and hotels. There are numerous inviting spots for a drink or a meal and friendly proprietors smile and say hello, kalimera, as we stroll by. The aromas of Mediterranean cuisine — herb-crusted grilled seafood, vegetables and lamb –make my nose twitch and my mouth water. I wasn’t hungry when we arrived, but my stomach is now complaining. We settle on two shrimp skewers to go.
Monemvasia’s rock is daunting but we always welcome a good hike and so up we head to its heights. Behind the town, a series of steep switchbacks flanked by pink and white oleander takes us by the ruins of churches and formerly grand Byzantine residences, through a crooked archway entrance and into the walls of the abandoned fortress at the summit. We wander overgrown grasses dotted with red poppies and scramble over the ruins of the former “Upper Town.” At the far end of the rocks and chaparral, toppled walls and sandy cisterns of the acropolis stands the sole remaining intact church, Byzantine Agia Sophia, hanging precariously over a cliff. We enjoy it from a distance and watch sailboats and cruise ships unhurriedly pass by on the sparkling Aegean.
Before descending, we gaze down on the orange tiled roofs of town. Here and there, blue and white Greek flags interrupt the uneven checkerboard palette. The view from the summit is vast, yet the delights I absorb most deeply are those we discover once back in the Lower Town: bougainvillea blossoms spilling down a rocky wall; the curve of the stony banister at the entrance to a church; a sparrow pecking at an aluminum pail filled with green figs; a perfect square casement framed in beige and set in a tangerine wall. I spy a shimmering slice of the sea through a narrow arch set between buildings, the gentle surf singing in the golden cast of late afternoon.
The lower village labyrinth swallows us as we make our way back to its heart. My usually reliable inner compass fails me in the unpredictability of blind alleys and stairways that lead to locked portals. “It can’t possibly be this hard to get back to the central square,” I sigh. We don’t have a map, never thinking we would need one in such a small town. We backtrack and recalculate, turning in circles, guessing we’re at the edge of town because the streets are now deserted. The late day shadows have lengthened and we really must be on our way. Is my lower lip quivering because we’re lost or is it that we’ll soon leave this Elysian place?
As so often happens in Greece, a stranger comes to our rescue. An older woman in a house dress, sensible black sandals and a baseball cap recognizes our plight. She beckons us across the street with a spirited wave.
“The center of town?” we ask, pointing in the general direction we believe it to be. She nods in understanding, smiles broadly, her mouth and her hands speaking Greek, and waves to us to follow her down alleys and up and down stairs. She leads us under arches, down a narrow passageway and then points us in the right direction. But before letting us go, she invites us into her hotel property in front of which we’ve stopped.
She beams with pride as she hands us her card before whisking us into the breezy, marble-floored lobby. We’re in a renovated monastery we read on a plaque, part of Monemvasia’s castle turned boutique hotel. Our escort leads us through the common areas with vaulted ceilings of blond stone and into an unoccupied guest room. The walls and linens are chalky white, the ceilings, window frames and handmade furnishings dark walnut. We steal a glance into the rustic yet airy bathroom, all modern conveniences at the ready. This is Greek perfection, I think, as I gaze out the window to the terrace below.
The proprietor manages to tell us in halting English that her son studied in the US and that she loves Americans. She excitedly speaks words we do not understand but her message is clear. I am proud of my hotel, and I want you to come back and stay. I so want to stay as well, for a quiet candlelit dinner with my partner to the sounds of the sea under glittery skies. But the westering sun is low, and it’s later than we’d hoped to depart, but the trade-off is a bond with a loquacious local. Arriving on the island, I’d conjured the personas of citizens long gone and now we end our visit connected to a woman in the here and now.
And thus, the beauty I’ll remember most of all is the kindness of a Monemvasian innkeeper. We will return to Monemvasia I vow then and there. To this rocky island. To this inn and its owner. To this place of beauty.
We leave the flower-filled village with renewed conviction that Greeks are the kindest people in the world. The Greek word xenos means both “foreigner” and “guest.” To be a foreigner in Greece is to be an honored guest–especially in Monemvasia.