(Editor’s note: This post on Monemvasia is part of our continuing series of travel stories by and for Europe-based expats about destinations tourists miss.)
“Where do you recommend we stay in Greece?” we asked our Greek friends. We had been to many of the islands and weren’t looking to repeat the experience.
So when they all said, “Go to the Peloponnese, it’s where the Greeks go for vacation,” we knew we were heading to the right destination.
During the summer the Peloponnese is hot and busy with the Greeks vacationing and, presumably, trying to avoid the hordes of international tourists on the islands.
We visited in early October which couldn’t have been more perfect; the sea is still warm, the weather a comfortable temperature, although a little more unsettled, and there are fewer tourists…. all pluses in my book.
Arrive at night, dazzled with the dawn
Our Peloponnese highlight was the fairytale island location of Monemvasia.
The name means “one entrance” and this fortified, car-free town literally has one way in and out, through an ancient gateway. We arrived on a rainy night, which added to the excitement, as my husband slipped and slid his way around the small cobbled streets trying to find the hotel, and I waited, smirking, with car and luggage.
Parking is an issue here and I’m not sure why the local government hasn’t realized the benefit of a “park and ride.” Having eventually found the hotel and bagged a sought-after parking spot we settled in for the evening.
I will tell you now that I highly recommend arriving at night, for the following day the utter delight that started our day was worth all the stress and curses! We opened the window shutters to be greeted with the sight of the cerulean sea shimmering in the sun, and the vast sheltering limestone cliff wall at our backs.
Monemvasia is an ocean liner-shaped island connected to the mainland by a causeway. The Byzantines, Venetians, Franks and Ottomans have inhabited the island over the centuries, and its natural fortress offers shelter and protection.
Unchanging streets wander much as they must have done during the Byzantines occupation, offering breathtaking views of blue water or yellow cliffs and the atmosphere oozes history. If you want to swim there is a gate or portello leading through the wall surrounding the town to the rocks and the sea, and around every corner is a photo opportunity.
My favorite places
After centuries the main street continues to be a place to share a meal at one of the wonderful restaurants, to browse the small stores or sip a cup of Greek coffee whilst soaking up the enchanting atmosphere and being greeted by the abundant, but healthy, cat population.
One of my favorite spots to eat was To Kanoni where Andreas served us traditional local food, with a twist and recommended superb local wines.
Edodimopolio Honey Shop was a favorite stop off place each day, partly due to the wonderful selection of local honey, olive oil and wine and also due to the lovely owner, Fotini. This charming lady is a great source of local information regarding both Monemvasia and the local products.
Monemvasia was the source of the ancient renowned wine, Malvasia, or Malmsey wine, (mead) which was even mentioned in one of Shakespeare’s plays. The sweet, dark golden wine tastes of honey and sunshine and has seen a revival in production over recent years. Made by fermenting water and honey in oak barrels it is a delight. If you can only fit one thing into your luggage make sure it’s a bottle of this glorious “nectar of the gods.”
Come to Monemvasia ready to get your steps in
History plays a huge part in Monemvasia and its winding streets will take you past magnificent Byzantine homes and numerous churches from the 12th century onwards. There’s even a lighthouse.
If you have sensible shoes then the upwardly snaking path, leading to the Acropolis on top of the rock, will reward you with stunning views of the town’s terracotta rooftops and the azure sea. The town up there was the residence of the rich and powerful but sadly very little remains other than the Agia Sophia church, one of the oldest Byzantine churches in Greece.
The area is peaceful and well worth the climb (take water) but the fortress remains closed for archeological work.
Despite Greece’s economic situation I was impressed that work continues to save these important sites, and whilst we were there paintings in the Agia Sophia were being restored.
Monemvasia is magical and is renowned as a place for romance but I fell in love with the place itself … and the many cats. I imagine the small town could be rather uncomfortable during high season with many tourists clogging the streets, so I recommend off-season so that you may enjoy the beauty of this enchanted spot.
It is truly a gift from the Greek gods and I am only telling you about it as long as you promise to keep it a secret.
I stayed at the Likinia Hotel, a quiet spot in the south of the town. The Likinia is inside the historic Castle of Monemvasia. Rates start about about 80 euros per night and go up to 400 euros.
To get to Monemvasia, you must fly to Athens. It’s a 5 hour drive or bus ride from there.
About the author:
Jackie Harding was born in the United Kingdom. As a longtime expat, she’s lived in Boston for 12 years, and in the Netherlands for the past six years.
Trained as a nurse in the U.K., she worked for nine years in the United States for as a special education teacher’s assistant. Since moving to the Netherlands, she has discovered writing and runs the Hub newsletter and writes for the Eindhoven News.
She’s married to British businessman Martin Harding and is the mother of two international adult children.