The Gibraltar of Greece – Monemvasia
As with my last blog, this blog re-publishes an article I wrote for the Travel Photographers Network, this time back in 2004. It is travel essay covering the town and island of Monemvasia, off the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece. The photos included with this article were all captured in 2003 on slide film, prior to me owning a digital SLR. Several of these images have sold for use in Greek publications. Monemvasia is off the beaten path for most Americans visiting Greece. I highly recommend it; it’s a great place to visit, especially for a photographer.
With the recent Summer Olympics in Athens, there has been a renewed interest in Greece. For many travelers, especially Americans, a trip to Greece is synonymous with a trip to one of the Greek Isles. Popular Greek islands such as Santorini, Rhodes, Crete, and others are wonderful places to visit, but they can add substantially to a trip’s time and budget. For photographers on a budget, either time or dollar-wise, there is a little known, historic and photogenic alternative – the island of Monemvasia.
Compared to most of Greece, Monemvasia is young. The island itself is less than 2,000 years old, having split off the Peloponnese peninsula during an earthquake in 375 A.D. In the 1,629 years that followed, the island went from uninhabited to a powerful city of over 50,000 to the present-day village that has neither a bank nor post office. Over that time span, Monemvasia has survived attacks by Avars, Slavs, Arabs, Normans, Crusaders, Turks, and Franks. It has been ruled by the Byzantine Empire, Rome, Venice, the Ottoman Empire, and independent Greece.
Known as the “Gibraltar of Greece,” the key to Monemvasia’s history is that it is a natural fortress, easy to defend from both sea and land. It is easily accessible to the mainland and at a key location on Mediterranean trade routes. The name Monemvasia means “single gate.” The name applies to both the town, accessed by a single portal, and the island, accessible by land from a single point.
Byzantine Greeks fleeing marauding barbarians first settled the island in the 6th century. They built a double-walled city, with a lower town on the southern slope of the island monolith and an upper town built on its flat-topped summit. The island grew in importance. At a time when Athens was reduced to a mere village, Monemvasia grew to be the most important maritime city in southern Greece – a port of call for all commercial ships plying the waters between Constantinople and Italy. Monemvasia’s strategic importance made it the scene of epic sieges. When the Byzantine Empire fell at the end of the Middle Ages, the Greeks turned to Venice for protection. However, Venice and the Ottoman Empire traded rule of the island over the next several hundred years. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the city sank into insignificance, as many of its Greek families left or were killed in a rebellion against the Turkish government. Monemvasia was freed from the Turks during the Greek War of Independence in 1821 when its Turkish inhabitants were, in turn, massacred following a three-month siege.
Following the Greek independence and even with an influx of Greeks to their former home, Monemvassia shrank even more. In 1911, the upper portion of the town was totally abandoned, and in 1971, the population shrank to its low mark of 32 inhabitants. Today, it looks very much a medieval town with a mix of Byzantine, Venetian, and Turkish influences; a maze of pathways between crumbling ruins, restored house, castle walls, and Byzantine churches zigzagging up rocky slopes. At times it can seem crowded owing to its small size and an influx of weekenders from Athens, yet with its frescoed churches, cobbled streets and paths, and abundant flowers, the town remains peaceful.
A half-mile causeway connects the island to its neighboring town of Gefyra. The causeway is closed to cars between June and September. Even off-season, cars are never allowed inside the town gate. From the gate inward, it is foot traffic only. From the mainland, Monemvasia doesn’t appear to be much, a few rampart remnants on top of its rocky heights. Even from the city gate, not much is visible. The gate is built into an impressive, 20-foot tall castle wall, but nothing is visible beyond the wall or through the gate.
Stepping through the portal into the town is like stepping back in time. Visitors entering the town walk from the small parking area outside the gate into darkness, wend through two 90-degree turns in a short tunnel, and step out into an oddly mixed touch of the 21st century and the Middle Ages. Small shops in 800-year old buildings line the narrow, main street selling tee shirts, souvenirs, soda, and Kodak film. Side streets, barely wide enough for two to walk abreast, branch off without apparent reason leading to restored houses, piles of ruins, churches, and the sea wall. Outside the shops and other commercial establishments, the 21st century is largely absent. The town has been restored with electrical wiring, plumbing, and antennas hidden from view.
The main street leads to the town square, which contains an impressive bell tower, topped with a white cross, an ancient well, and an old cannon overlooking the Aegean Sea. The largest surviving Byzantine Church in southern Greece, the Church of Christ Helkomenos (Christ in Chains) built in 1293 by Emperor Andranikos II Komnenos, also borders the square. The church is a domed, three-aisled basilica with a barrel-vaulted roof. Inside are frescos, portable icons, and an Episcopal throne. Across the square is the small, domed former church Agios Petros (St. Peter), which today houses an archaeological collection dedicated to Monemvasia. This museum was originally built in the 16th century as a Muslim mosque, was later converted to a church, a prison, and a coffee shop. The museum opened in 1999 and is admission free.
After the town square, the main street is seemingly lost among a number of smaller streets leading uphill toward the ruins of the upper town, or further eastward to less restored sections of town. One side street leads southward to a small sea gate through the base of the castle wall. Numerous other churches, in varying states of repair, can be found in the lower town. These include the Church of Panagia (Our Lady) Mirtidiotissa, built around 1700 that today stands as a virtual ruin, though it still houses a small altar with religious offerings and a flickering candle. The recently restored, 16thcentury Church of Panagia Hrysaphitissa has beautifully white-washed walls and overlooks the sea. Others churches are dedicated to St. Nicholas, St. Anne, St. Anne the Catholic, St. Andrew, and St. Demetrois. In total, the former city had more than 40 churches.
A steep, winding path leads from the lower town, though an iron gate, to the remains of the upper castle and town. Most of the upper town remains in ruins, overgrown with vegetation. Maps available at the museum show the locations of old cisterns, houses, churches, and fortifications. At the far end of the island, standing alone among the ruins, is the Church of Agia Sophia, perched high above the Aegean Sea on the edge of a cliff. A smaller version of the more famous St. Sophia in Istanbul, Monemvassia’s Agia Sophia is an octagonal domed church dating back to 1150.
Spending the night in Monemvasia is magical. There are several hotels in town, and all are unique. The largest is the Malvasia, which has rooms scattered throughout town in restored, traditional buildings. Another is the Lazareto, which is built in an ancient hospital. The Kellia is a converted monastery. During our visit in Monemvasia, we stayed in the Ardamis Apartments, a small hotel with five rooms. Our room was built in the 1200s and contained a spotlighted opening to an ancient cistern, converted to a glass-covered coffee table, and a sunken bedroom. The walls were built of local rock and contained fossils. The room had a small patio, with a gate that opened to the sea wall. Nighttime is quiet and dark; there is no air or light pollution to interrupt an evening spent sipping wine on the patios of the few restaurants in town. We spent two nights there, and both mornings we were awakened by the clip-clop of packhorses outside our door, hauling baskets of construction materials from the town gate.
Photographic opportunities abound in Monemvasia. Besides the churches, there are ancient stone walls, castle fortifications, and an endless supply of flowers in the spring and summer. The locals are friendly. Cats and dogs have free reign in the town’s restaurants, gladly posing in exchange for a scrap under the table. The town of Gefyra is a half-mile walk and presents its own photogenic sights. The town has a small harbor and waterside cafes. The day’s catch (when we were there, it was octopus) can be seen hanging from clotheslines on balconies above the cafes.
Monemvasia can be reached in six hours from Athens by car. There are also daily buses from Athens. Hydrofoil service to Gefyra is available in the summer.