Monemvasia

A castle town that came out of fairy tales

You can say whatever you want for its crowded places, the bit higher prices and the souvenir shops that fill its central alley. But you can’t compare Monemvasia to any other place in Greece. It’s simple as that.

You will figure it out mostly at nights, when the coaches that are filled with groups of tourists leave and after they leave it is quiet everywhere, when its low light surround it with a golden glow that makes it magical, and when your steps echo on the eerie serenity of its stone alleys.  It’s like you are alone, just you, the few residents and the ghosts of its knights. If there is one place that worth paying a bit more for your accommodation that is Monemvasia, to stay inside the castle. Not only because you don’t have the chance many times to stay in an actual castle, but also because if you see it just in one day, you will have lost half of its magic.

Some history to begin with

The castle of Monemvasia was built in 582 A.C. by the Laconians, who sought refuge from the Avar- Slavic raids.  At first it became byzantine, then Frankish, back to byzantine, Venetian, Ottoman, and then again Venetian, Ottoman, and finally Greek again. It has seen empires rise and fall, it has been sieged, conquered and freed more than ten times, it also had one pirate conquest- from the Catalan pirate Lupo de Bertanga. It makes sense, since if you were also a pirate and saw that castle at that place, you would have wanted it too.  

Every conquest and re-conquest meant a new adding, a new change, a new intervention, so Monemvasia turned out to become today a complex puzzle of historical periods, architectural currents and cultural influences.
If you look closely, you can see it
None of the churches look alike and in none of the buildings can you certainly recognize a particular period- because there isn’t. A typical example is the impressive, but rather odd, building that hosts today the Archaeological Collection in the central square. Originally built in the 16th century, it turned by the Venetians into an institution for Capuchin monks, then in 1715 it was a mosque, later in 1821 it was used as a prison, it even operated as a cafeteria, and eventually transformed into a museum.


Walking on the alleys of the castle town

There are two central roads that will help you orient on your first strolls in Monemvasia: The first one has the name of one of their most famous poet, the Giannis Ritsos Street, which is the road as you cross the entrance of the castle. The second is the one that connects the South Gate, which is the only gate of the castle to the sea, with the Upper Town. On the place where the two roads meet there is the central square with the cannon, the former mosque and current archaeological collection, and the built in the 17th century church of Elkomenos Christos, where the famous Easter ceremonies are held.

Tiny arched alleys (called dromikes or diavatika in Greek) branch around the two central roads, to every possible and impossible direction.
Not all of them actually lead somewhere

Some lead to a yard door, others to a wall that someone decided to add centuries after the road’s construction and block the passage, and others mysteriously lead back a few meters to where they started.

However, this takes nothing out from the rush to walk on all of them, one by one. It will worth it
A carved in hand wooden door here, a flowery yard there, a tufted bougainvillea that climbs on a stone wall a bit further, an abandoned old mansion in the Upper Town and a lantern that atmospherically lit the street, are all small rewards for all the times that you will be lost in an alley which simply goes round itself.
The south wall and the sea

One of the nicest (and most relaxing, since it is the only one that is not an uphill) strolls you can go in Monemvasia is the best reminder that half of the castle town’s grandeur is due to the fact that it looks like it is floating on the sea, as the great poet Ritsos said.

The strolling along the north wall- else known as “the wall of the sea”- is interrupted by two plateaus, the Small and Great “Ntapia” as they are called, and enjoys on the one side the fantastic view to the endless blue of the Myrtoo Sea, and on the other side the view of the castle that rises in full grandeur towards the sky. The route leads to the eastern wall of the castle, and passes by the homonymous Eastern Gate to bring you to the light house of 1896, where you can dive in the waters of the Myrtoo Sea.

Agia Sofia and the Upper Town

You rested enough. Now take a deep breath, pick yourself up and start climbing the Strolls- this helical, stone path that hugs the Monemvasia’s rock at its highest point, climbing towards the Gate of the Upper town. It is worth the trouble for two reasons: First and foremost for the astounding view to the entire castle town and the sea that looks simmering from above till the horizon. And secondly, for the Gate of the Upper Town itself that will remind you the central gate of the castle but more atmospherically: A big stone built arch, with battlements that look directly at the sea, looking like a tunnel leading to another time and space.  

The Upper Town is much different than the Lower Town. On the hand, because here where the houses of the lords (common people lived lower, like in all the medieval towns), which means that its old mansions, although abandoned, are impressive. And on the other hand, because in spring the dirt plateaus turn green and flowery, creating an image that the stone landscape of the Lower Town, no matter how imposing it is, cannot offer you.

After you catch your breath again, a few steps more will bring you to the highest point of the Upper Town, to the byzantine church of Agia Sofia that was built in the 12th century. Rumor has it that it is adorned with impressive wall paintings of the same age- rumor also has it that if you come up here early in the morning, you have a chance to find it open. The fantastic view from up here, and the feeling that you’re on top of the world are enough reasons to climb.

Sights you should not miss

It is peculiar talking about sights in a place like Monemvasia that is… worth seeing as a whole and on its own. The details though, make the difference so besides all the above we’ve mentioned the following also worth a visit:

-The house of the poet, Giannis Ritsos, who was born here on the 1st May 1909.

-The church of Saint Nicholas, which never operated as a church but it was turned into an arsenal, an interdisciplinary and primary school, in which Giannis Ritsos studied.

-The Red Wall, or Mura Rossa, that was built on the top of the rock after the unsuccessful attempt of the Knights of Malta to invade in 1564, from the rear side.

-The citadel, built on the highest point of the rock, which is a byzantine fortress with towers in every corner. It take quite a lot of walking from Agia Sofia to get there.

-The church of Panagia Myrtidiotissa or Kritikia that was built in the 17th century by the Venetians and strongly reminds of western European churches, with its pediment, the decorative cornices and its round skylights.

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