Monemvasia: From Antiquated to Sophisticated


St. Petersburg Times (September 2, 2001)

MONEMVASIA, Greece — Joannis, an old Greek fisherman, has a wistful look in his eye; he’s telling me about the one that got away. The only thing is, as we barrel down the road in his battered pickup, he is talking not about a fish, but a woman.

The bearded man with the formidable black eyebrows has been telling me the story of his first love, who, by his account, seems to have been a cross between a classical sculpture and a saint — a rare catch.

“She was very beautiful girl,” he recounts, with a sigh. “But she was a little strange — and she was from Monemvasia. No one is from Monemvasia.”

That’s not quite true. Rising out of the crags of an enormous, rocky atoll, Monemvasia (mo-nem-vah-SEE-uh) ranks as one of the most enchanting places in all of Greece. Once a powerful seaport of 40,000, this Peloponnesian hamlet today supports only a handful of families.

Monemvasia cannot even command village status: Having neither bank nor post office, it is merely a maze of overgrown and crumbling Byzantine castles, white cobblestone pathways and Venetian churches crowned by sloping, rounded domes.

The layout of the town they call “the Rock” is best described as a kind of zigzag ladder, level after level of ruined, forgotten buildings extending up the side of the mountain until the summit, where sits the Byzantine church of St. Sophia (a smaller version of the more famous St. Sophia in Istanbul).

The place now is, essentially, a tranquil tourist getaway and honeymoon destination. There are a few little hotels (some have the rock face of the mountain as interior wall), a handful of small restaurants and a couple of shops.

Although it can seem quite crowded in summer, owing to its small size, Monemvasia always retains its Venetian serenity. There are no automobiles, and the town is surrounded by water except for the narrow half-mile causeway that connects it to the mainland.

At night, the only sounds are the chirping of crickets and the clinking of glasses from the porch of a gaslit cafe. Waves lap against the rocks, and the breeze whistles in from the sea. There is no air or light pollution to detract from the magnificent sight of the thousands of stars that crowd the sky.

Monemvasia’s tranquility, its roses clinging to the rubble of stone walls and its elegant frescoed churches, all combine to appeal to lovers of beauty and lovers of the past, to romantics and historians alike.

Wandering among the centuries-old, disused cisterns and the remnants of monasteries, one cannot help but feel that the past is just out of reach, haunting every stone and broken-down doorway.

A place of refuge

Monemvasia began as a place of refuge during the Slavic invasions of the 6th century. The Greek inhabitants of the Peloponnesian mainland, unable to check the onslaught of the barbarian hordes, retreated to the safety of the natural fortress they discovered in the Rock.

Its unassailably sheer cliff face (on the land-facing northern side) and its rocky, wave-lashed southern side are the secrets of its defense. There was also a sheltered harbor on the northeastern mainland. The impregnability, safe anchorage and location made Monemvasia a port of strategic importance in Byzantine times.

Indeed, in the long centuries during which Athens was reduced to little more than a village, and nothing but dust was left to attest to once-great Sparta, Monemvasia was the most important maritime town in all of southern Greece.

It was a port of call for all commercial ships sailing between Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Italy, provided a resting point for emperors and patriarchs, and was the place of export for Greek raw materials (including olive oil, wine and wools) destined for the West.

Despite the gradual decline of the Byzantine Empire, Monemvasia (like the Peloponnesian capital, Mystras, a few hours to the northwest) remained one of the most important cities in the Greek world. It was an affluent and cultured port — cosmopolitan, boasting scholars and bishops in addition to the merchants and sea captains.

The remnants of this glorious history are evident everywhere in Monemvasia. In the lower section of the town cluster several stately churches, including the vaulted cathedral of Christ in Chains, built by the Byzantine emperor Andronikos II Komnenos in 1293.

Located in the main square of Monemvasia is the largest surviving Byzantine church in southern Greece. It is directly opposite the small, domed church of Agios Petros, which houses a modest museum of archaeological finds from the town.

The fairly strenuous walk along winding paths to the upper town takes you past ruined fortifications, through an iron gate (in medieval times the upper section of the town was walled off in case of attack), gaping cisterns and the foundations of Byzantine fortresses.

The crown jewel of the whole mountain is the little church of Agia Sophia at the top, its outer foundations crumbled and its floor worn smooth by countless worshipers.

Above the altar, lit haphazardly by a flickering candle, hangs a stern and forbidding icon of Christ. To stand in this church, with the wind whipping against the walls and the candles casting irregular shadows into the building, is peaceful yet unnerving.