We picked up a car in Nafplio to go to Monemvasia, a giant rock island with a medieval town wrapped around it. And of course we chose to drive the scenic route, which combined a windy two-lane road that hugs the coast, a plunge through a Yosemite valley-like canyon, a twisty 1,250 meter mountain pass, then an easy downhill that became a tiring slog through a frog strangler, what we call a torrential rainstorm in Texas.
Highlights of today's drive were the town of Leonidio which is in a dramatic red/brown rock canyon, the quaint stone mountaintop town of Kosmas whose main square is filled with cafes surrounding a pretty church, and a monastary somehow carved into the side of a cliff. A pretty drive, and the road is in good condition.
When you arrive you find that you can't drive in Monemvasia. In fact you can't even see the town from the mainland, it's hidden on the far side of the island. A defensive measure of course. To get to Monemvasia you drive through the mainland town of Gefyra, cross a narrow causeway over the Mediterranean, then leave your car on the road. Well, assuming you find a place to park. From there you walk through a dark tunnel which pierces the city wall. When you come out of the tunnel you feel like you've stepped back into medieval times as you are in an old stone village that is very rough around the edges. This isn't Santorini.
Monemvasia is split between a lower town, which is peppered with hotel rooms, cafes, and a few shops, and an upper town with castle ruins. The lower town is a honeycomb of cobblestone stairs and alleys. Hotels consist of rooms scattered here and there, with no cohesive plan. The chunky cobblestones make for a challenging walk - wheeled luggage won't roll here - and you have to watch your every step, and it's even more challeging in the rain as the round stones get slippery. That said, it is also very cool to look at and explore, with old stone work, low arches, and narrow passageways.
Fortunately the rain has passed, the stars are out, so tomorrow we'll explore the lower and upper towns.
One look at Monemvasia and you think this is one defensible place: the upper town, which was occupied before the lower town, is surrounded by a hundred meters or more of rocky cliffs. Better yet, it's an island. Of course if you're holed up here, surrounded by angry hordes, at some point there is the problem of food and water as the climate is dry and the ground is mostly rock. Nothing's perfect I guess.
We are staying at a hotel in the lower town, the occupied area of the island, and so today we explored Monemvasia's unoccupied upper town. The path from lower to upper takes a series of slippery cobblestone switchbacks that end at a small but foreboding door in a big wall. Think Mordor. Once inside the door you pass through a long dark tunnel that is crooked so as to deny any peek of the town beyond.
Unlike the lower town, which is beautifully restored medieval/Greek chic, the upper has no residents or businesses. Instead it is speckled with ruins in various states of decay and reconstruction. The best two of the many ruins are the vaulted building adjacent to to the wall and the large church, the Agia Sophia, that is furthur up the hill and precariously positioned on a cliff edge. We spent several hours here, walking the sometimes confusing paths, climbing the ruins, and looking over the edges of the hill. The views are expansive but you have to watch your step as there are holes that fall into cisterns and cliffs with no railings or barriers of any kind.
The best restored building is the beautiful church of Agia Sophia which, I've read, combines Byzantine, Ottoman, and Venetian elements. It even has some colorful murals inside; these reminded me of murals i saw at Herculaneum and Pompeii.
After hiking down we explored the lower town, walked along the city wall, and then waved goodbye to the Windstar cruise ship yet again; we also encountered it in Santorini and Nafplio.
I don't usually talk food but we had a great dinner of mezes at Voltes Mezedopolio for 25. Like old town Nafplio, there are no tacky fast food places in Monemvasia, every restaurant on the one commercial street looks pretty classy.
Let's see if I can complete this post before the Malvazia hotel's wifi disappears again ...
We woke to grey and wet weather but soon enough it cleared and it became a good day to wander the delightful island of Monemvasia.
To get some perspective on Monemvasia the first thing we did today was leave. We walked across the causeway to the nearby town of Gefyra where I took the first picture which shows Monemvasia as seen from the mainland. The connecting causeway is on the left of the picture. At one time there was a tower and drawbridge in the middle of the causeway but now there is a conventional bridge, a small hotel and gas station, and piers for small boats.
There's no hint of a walled town visible from the mainland, aside from a few structures sticking out on the top of the rock, which of course made this a more secure and defensible place.
The importance of defense is reinforced time and time again as I travel the old cities of Europe. Cliff-top Ronda, for example, hints at the same isolation as Monemvasia but it's nowhere near as secure. Both towns also shared a weakness in terms of food and water supplies.
As you drive (or walk) the narrow road that hugs the southern side of the island, the island appears to be uninhabited. Then you pass a cemetary and round a corner and suddenly you see the lower town's western wall. A small door in the wall leads to a crooked passageway which then opens on the main street of the town. The wall surrounds the town on three sides, the fourth side being protected by the cliff.
Monemvasia has been a real treat to visit. The narrow cobblestone streets, the ominous cliffs, the city walls, the small atmospheric buildings with their narrow stairs and low ceilings, the stonework and ruins, it's a magical medieval atmosphere. And, of course, the friendly Greek people and delicious food - tasty mezes again tonight! - just add to the pleasure.