Monemvasia: Greece’s actual hidden gem

Monemvasia, Greece
Monemvasia, Greece

Monemvasia: Greece’s actual hidden gem

by Anna Leigh Bagiackas
Stripes Europe

Breathtaking and otherworldly, that is how it feels to step out of the stone tunnel and into the historical town of Monemvasia, Greece. This car-free town is located on the Peloponnese, about a four-hour drive from Athens and was built carved into the rock facing the sea. Visitors and residents park in the modern city on the mainland or on the narrow bridge and then make their way on foot into the medieval town, beautifully preserved and full of charm.

Monemvasia may not be as well-known of a destination, making it a hidden gem in the tourist world. But its history also recalls the fact that it was an actual hidden gem. Prior to 1971 when a bridge was constructed to connect the island to the mainland, Monemvasia stood isolated—which is exactly why it became so valuable and an important place for its residents. Monemvasia means “single passage” and inhabitants would flee to the island where they could hide behind the massive rocks that protected them from invaders and incoming attacks.

Changing hands countless times since its founding in 587, it was an important trading spot and hub for Byzantine, Venetian, Turkish and Greek powers. Its medieval fortress on the top of the island was the powerhouse for the island throughout its history. Residents consider July 23, 1821, its independence day because it was freed from Ottoman rule by Tzannetakis Grigorakis in the Greek War of Independence.

Perhaps you had not heard of Monemvasia, but maybe Malvasian wine rings a bell. “Malvasia” is the Italian name for this island and the name of a group of grape varieties grown around the Mediterranean; it is believed the name of the grapes came from the fact that the island was an important trading port of the wine industry throughout its history.

What to see

While it is a quiet—and small—town, there are still a few must-sees. Meander your way through the Lower Town and Upper Town. The Lower Town is filled with restaurants, cafes, shops and artist workshops. Visit the Church of Elkmenos Christos, built in the 13th century, as well as the Archaeological Museum, which is housed in a Muslim mosque across from the Elkmenos church. You can also make your way further inland to see the lighthouse. The Lower Town is where you will find accommodation. The Upper Town offers 17th-century Venetian mansions, the Agia Sofia church of the Byzantine era, and, of course, magnificent views of the sea.

Today, the town is made up of primarily restaurants, shops and hotels and accommodations, converted from previous mansions. Although there are a few permanent residents, most people live on the mainland. Because Monemvasia is a bit out of the way, it is worth staying the night, if only to experience the feeling of traveling back through time and getting away for some peace and quiet on the sea. Cap your day of exploring off with a delicious meal of fresh Mediterranean dishes and Malvasian wine and then only steps away you can call it a night, while taking in the sea and the stars. You may even wonder, “how had I never heard of this oasis before?”

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