Monemvasia is not at all the superficial and cliché destination that I expected. On the contrary. The commending medieval castle of Monemvasia was one of the most memorable places we visited in Greece during our road trip in the Peloponnese. Hanging on the side of a solitary rock, the fortress seems to be gazing down upon the hordes of tourists that flock daily at is gates. But what is it about this medieval town that makes it so attractive to visitors?
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A Brief History of Monemvasia
In ancient times Monemvasia was part of the mainland, but around 375 AD a massive earthquake shifted the landscape and created this island of rock.
The citadel of Monemvasia was founded in the 6th century AD, during the reign of Emperor Maurice. The first settlers were most likely Spartans who fled here trying to find shelter from the barbarian invaders. The natural stronghold of Monemvasia provided a perfect refuge place, as its only connection to the main land was a narrow bridge. Hence the castle’s name – Monemvasia – which means “single-entrance.”
Over the centuries, the castle-island of Monemvasia was occupied by Arabs, Normans, and Venetians and Ottomans. The citadel was also known by many names, among which the Gibraltar of Greece. Although much smaller than the Rock of Gibraltar, Monemvasia is similar to it in many ways.
The original fortress of Monemvasia was founded on the highest plateau of the rock and only later was extended to the lower level, in the southern part. This side of the rock is only visible from the water, so it provided a good shelter from the coast. This was also a good observation point for the enemy ships that could potentially invade from the sea.
Monemvasia Castle Today
In Ancient Greece Monemvasia was probably home to thousands of inhabitants, but today only a handful of people reside here full time. Many of the old houses on the island have been restored are now boutique hotels, or expensive weekend homes. But in an effort to preserve Monemvasia’s specific architecture, the reconstruction process had to follow very strict regulations.
Due to these efforts, Monemvasia managed to maintain an authentic medieval feel which makes it a magnet for visitors from all over the world.
Things to Do in Monemvasia Castle
The main attractions in Monemvasia are the medieval town inside the castle walls, and the crumbling ruins of the ancient Byzantine fortress perching on the very top of this huge iceberg-shaped rock. Monemvasia was once a very powerful city in Greece, and all these remnants are a proof of that.
Because of the very steep terrain, the Kastro (Castle) was divided into two sections: the Upper Town, which is the Acropolis of Monemvasia, and Lower Town. Each part was a separate fortification.
Like most medieval towns in Europe, Monemvasia is pedestrian-only. So if you drove here you’ll need to park your car outside the walls before entering through the main gate.
Things to Do in Lower Town of Monemvasia
Lower Monemvasia is the newer and better preserved part of the settlement where you’ll find many old buildings turned hotels, low arches, and Byzantine churches. The Lower Town is surrounded by a U-shaped fortification wall with two gates, one on the east and one on the west side.
After you enter the main gate you’ll begin walking on a narrow cobblestone road that pass by funky souvenir shops, tiny museums, and traditional tavernas. Some of the attractions in this part of town are located along this road.
Don’t miss the Archaeological Collection, the church of Elkomenos Christos, Panagia Myrtidiotissa, and the home of the poet Yiannis Ritsos, which is next to the entrance of the Castle. The house is not open for visitation, but you can see the poet’s bust next to the entrance.
The Archaeological Collection of Monemvasia is located inside a former mosque in Monemvasia Central Square. Over the centuries, this historic building functioned as a church, a prison and even as a café. This is a small but very valuable museum which displays artifacts from from the early Christian years.
From the Central Square you can head downhill towards the “sea” walls by passing through ancient archways and a labyrinth of twisting alleyways shadowed by colorful bougainvilleas. Wandering through these hidden corners was my favorite thing to do in Monemvasia!
The bastion walls end at the large Tapia Square, which is home to the white church of The Virgin of Chrysafitissa and a few stylish guest-houses. From the walls you’ll get breathtaking views of the brilliant blue sea below.
Things to Do in the Upper Town of Monemvasia
The Upper Town Monemvasia developed at the top plateau during the 6th century AD. This is a rectangular fortress with four towers, surrounded by high cliffs and a strong protective wall.
The only entrance is in the middle of the southern wall, at the end of a winding road that ascends from the lower city.
As you continue climbing to the top of the plateau you’ll come across different old structures, from houses and churches to cisterns and old tombs. Some of them are buried in vegetation and no longer recognizable, but still interesting to visit.
If you come to Monemvasia in spring, when the weather is still cool, you’ll see a lot of vegetation crawling over the rocks on the plateau. It’s such a delight to watch these delicate flowers growing stubbornly directly from the rock!
At the highest point of the rock is the Acropolis of Monemvasia. This is an archeological site so it’s no longer inhabited. The only structure standing there today is the church of Agia Sofia, which was commisioned by Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos.
Monemvasia’s Agia Sofia is one of the oldest and most important Byzantine churches in Greece. During the first Ottoman rule, the church was turned into a mosque and the frescoes were whitewashed. Despite the extensive renovations that took place some years ago, very few of the survived the Ottoman invasion.
The hike to the top of the castle is well worth the effort. The views from up there are absolutely breathtaking! Also, in the vicinity of Agia Sofia church are the crumbling ruins of the ancient Byzantine fortress.
How to Get to Monemvasia
If you are driving to Monemvasia from Athens, you’ll need to take the Greek National Road from Corinth to Tripolis. After Tripolis follow the route to Gythio and look for the signs that lead you to Monemvasia.
The only way to visit Monemvasia is on foot, since the area inside the castle is pedestrian-only. However, since there is a lot of walking and climbing to do inside the castle itself, you should spare your legs and drive as close as you can to the entrance.
After you cross the bridge to Monemvasia the road starts ascending. You’ll notice cars parked on the left side of the road. Park wherever you can find a spot and continue on foot till you reach the castle’s entrance.
How Long Does It Take to Visit Monemvasia Castle
Monemvassia is a very popular destination in Greece. Even the locals like to go there on their getaways. Most people visit Monemvasia as a day trip from Nafplio, Tripoli, or Kalamata. Some even attempt to visit it as a day trip Athens, but that’s not a good idea as it takes longer than 4 hours to get here.
We only spent a day in Monemvasia and although that gave us enough time to see the main sights, I regret not planning more time in this castle-town. There were so many other beautiful corners I would have liked to explore if I had time. I think you should spend at least one night in Monemvasia, possibly two if you can.
Where to Stay in Monemvasia
There are a few very nice hotels inside the fortress, although not many. I’ve got my eye on Hotel Malvasia, which seem really special and very reasonably priced. The next time we go to Greece I plan to visit Monemvasia and stay there for 2-3 nights.
Another great choice is Likinia, a boutique hotel located in Tapia Square, next to the church of The Virgin of Chrysafitissa. Both hotels have gorgeous views and have breakfast included in the price.
If you are looking for more spacious accommodations, you can check out Castellano Monemvasia, which is located just 4 minutes away from Monemvasia Beach. This apartment is not within the castle walls, but it provides air-conditioned accommodations with a balcony and free WiFi.