Monemvasia is a Gibraltar-like rocky island off the east coast of the Peloponnese, in Greece, and linked to the mainland by a short causeway. The island is about 300 meters wide and a kilometer long, and rises in a plateau, a hundred metres above sea level. On the slope of this plateau, on the seaward side and hidden from the mainland, lies a small town. This remarkably romantic walled town, nestled under the shadow of the towering rock is a living museum of Byzantine, Ottoman, and Venetian history dating back to the 13th century.
Monemvasia was settled in the 6th century by the inhabitants of ancient Laconia seeking refuge from the Slavic invaders who dominated much of Greece between 500 to 700 AD. The rocky island had been separated from the mainland by an earthquake in 375 AD. Over the next several centuries, Monemvasia changed hands again and again, back and forth, between the Venetians and the Turks, until it was liberated during the Greek War of Independence in the early 19th century.
The name Monemvasia is derived from two Greek words, mone and emvasia, meaning “single entrance” and refers to the narrow causeway which is the only way to enter the town.
Places to visit
A large number of historic monuments are scattered throughout the Municipality of Monemvasia. As in the rest of the Peloponnese, there are numerous reminders of the region’s turbulent history of invasion and wars, but also of its human achievements.
Its past history emerges in the writings of that traveller of antiquity, Pausanias, who described in detail the most important monuments in the region, such as the town of Epidaurus Limera, still prosperous when he visited it, and traces of which still stand facing Monemvasia. Ruins of other ancient towns still remaining include Ancient Kyphanta, at Kyparissi, and the fortress of Zarakas, at Gerakas.
The Municipality of Monemvasia is perhaps one of the only places in the world where there are not one but two submerged ancient towns – the prehistoric settlement of Pavlopetri near Neapoli and the ancient town of Plytra, at Asopos, both now largely under water as the result of seismic activity throughout the Maleas peninsula. The ruins of both are visible to swimmers using goggles and snorkels.
The existence of a number of fortresses shows that the region was subjected to repeated invasions. From antiquity, but particularly in the Middle Ages, the local population was forced to fortify its settlements in order to survive the repeated wars, invasions and pirate raids. The most important of all – and one of the most beautiful medieval towns in the Mediterranean – is the fortress of Monemvasia, for many centuries an invincible bulwark but also a place of prosperity and culture.
Smaller fortresses and fortification works worth visiting include the fortress of Aghia Paraskevi near Mesochori, and the ruins of Palaiokastro at Papadianika.
A military monument from the more recent past is the German Watchtower built during the World War II occupation above the village of Velanidia, near Cape Maleas.
Reminders of more peaceful times include the watermill at Talanta and the folklore museums at Velies and Riechia. Finally, the recently restored Cape Maleas lighthouse is a sight not to be missed.
There are three museums in the Municipality of Monemvasia, the most important being the Monemvasia Archaeological Collection in the Monemvasia fortress, showing the town’s historical development from the early Christian era until the Turkish occupation.
A quite different aspect is presented in the two folklore museums at Riechia and Velies, where the exhibits relate the customs prevailing in the region, the way agricultural communities in the Peloponnese lived in centuries past. Very intrestin is also tha workin Talanta Watermill and Liotrivi (renovated old olive mill)
Also, there is a small but most interesting silver and goldsmiths’ museum in the main street of the Monemvasia fortress.
Shopping & food
Throughout the region you will find stores with a wide range of ideas for gifts. A good place to start is in the main street of the old town of Monemvasia, not only for the variety of products, but for traditional decor of the stores themselves that are a delight to browse in.
Olive oil, table olives, wine and other beverages, sweets, herbs from the surrounding mountains, cheese and cured meats and are just some of the wares on offer.
When it comes to food in Monemvasia, there are two main attractions – first of all the traditional regional recipes and secondly the excellent products from Laconia’s farms and the surrounding seas.
Throughout the municipality are restaurants and tavernas offering typical Peloponnesian dishes of a high standard and at reasonable prices. Don’t miss the tsaitia (cheese and herb pies), goges (home made pasta), and other dishes based on the delicious vegetables and excellent olive oil from the fields of Laconia, meat from local livestock breekders and fresh seafood from the Myrtoon Sea and Gulf of Laconia.
Mani, the southernmost and middle peninsula of the Peloponnese or Morea, straddling the districts of Lakonia and Messenia in southern Greece, is a treasure trove of Byzantine and post Byzantine churches, Frankish castles and stunning scenery.
The isolated aspect of this beautiful area, combined with the independent nature of its inhabitants meant that some traditions developed separately from the rest of the Peloponnese and Greece so that a distinct society made its mark on the landscape. To this day the architecture of the area is famed for the tower houses and fortified family dwellings from the period of the Ottoman occupation of Greece.
Covering the central peninsula in the south of the Peloponnese, the Mani is a wild, rugged region. Greeks from elsewhere will tell you: so are its people, who regard themselves as direct descendants of the Spartans. After the decline of Sparta, citizens loyal to the principles of Lycurgus (founder of Sparta’s constitution) chose to withdraw to the mountains rather than serve under foreign masters. Later, refugees from occupying powers joined these people, who became known as Maniots, from the Greek word ‘mania’. For centuries the Maniots were a law unto themselves, renowned for their fierce independence, resentment of attempts to govern them and for their bitter, spectacularly murderous internal feuds.
The Ottoman Turks failed to subdue the Maniots and largely left them alone, yet Mani became the cradle of rebellion that grew into the War of Independence. Post-Greek victory, though there had been a fatal falling out with the first president of independent Greece over the spoils of victory bypassing the Maniots, they nevertheless reluctantly became part of the new kingdom in 1834.
From the steep foothills of the snow-tipped Taygetos Mountains, the pristine coastal coves and the tiny villages nestling amid olive groves, connected by threads of walking trails, to the arid, desolate scenery in the south of peninsula, speckled with abandoned stone towers, the Mani has some of the most dramatic and varied scenery in the Peloponnese, much of it still wonderfully underexplored.
The Mani is generally divided into the Messinian Mani (or outer Mani) and the Lakonian Mani (or inner Mani). The Messinian Mani starts southeast of Kalamata and runs south between the coast and the Taygetos Mountains, while the Lakonian Mani covers the rest of the peninsula south of Itilo.
Places to visit
These extraordinary caves, inhabited since Neolithic times and systematically explored from 1949, lie 11km south of Areopoli, and are signposted near the village of Pyrgos Dirou.
The entrance to the caves is on the beach. Guides speak Greek, so If you’re with non-Greeks you’ll be treated to a half-hour’s silent, eerie glide by boat through the cave’s many passages, giving you time to admire the beautiful stalagmites and stalactites, many of the latter as fine as gossamer threads. You then walk the remaining 300m on foot.
Abandoned as human habitation in 4 BC after an earthquake, the caves weren’t rediscovered until around 1895. Then in 1949 the local husband and wife speleology team of Yiannis and Anna Petrocheilou began to systematically explore the caves, now estimated to be around 14km long. Underwater exploration continues to this day.
From the car park below the taverna at Kokinogia, at the south of the Mani peninsula, it’s a beautiful 30-minute walk along an uneven rocky path to one of Europe’s southernmost points, Cape Tenaro (or Cape Matapan), where a restored lighthouse stands. The cape has been an important location for millennia and was first mentioned in Homer’s Iliad.
At the beginning of the path are the ruins of ancient Tainaron , once a thriving Roman city (look out for the stunning wave-patterned, circular mosaic), while another short path leads to the ruined church built on the foundations of Poseidon’s Temple . Nearby is a cave rumoured to be the entrance to Hades.
Pikoulakis Tower House Museum
Housed in a restored tower, this museum displays exquisite Byzantine pieces from Mani churches. These include a 12th-century marble templon from the Church of Agios Ioannis in Mina, near Pyrgos Dirou. Upstairs is a clutch of well-preserved icons spanning five centuries. Take the westbound road from the southwest corner of the main square.
Church of Taxiarhes
On the southern side of Plateia 17 Martiou is this 18th-century church. Its four-storey bell tower marks it as the most important of Areopoli’s many churches. The extremely well-preserved relief carvings above the main door look as if they belong to a much earlier era than the 18th century.
Church of Agios Ioannis
The Church of Agios Ioannis, built by the Mavromichalis family on a tiny square west of the main square, contains a series of well-preserved frescoes relating the life of Jesus.
The Mavromichalis Tower, in a little square southwest of Plateia 17 Martiou, was once the mightiest tower in town, but now it stands sadly derelict.