Overtourism can destroy every destination.
Once consumed by the arriving masses, the most magical place transforms into a grotesque caricature of its former magnificence, and becomes a lifeless husk deprived of its soul.
And yet, there are places that somehow manage to withstand the relentless onslaught of the global tourism industry and successfully preserve the unique charm that constitutes their exceptionalism.
Monemvasia is such a place.
Hidden away behind a gigantic rock off the Laconian shore in Greece’s far south, this utterly picture-perfect Byzantine town seems to possess an extraordinary endowment to resist outside influence. Nearly 400 years of foreign rule (Venetian, then Ottoman) barely left a mark, and it feels as if Monemvasia will repel this next “siege” as effortlessly as its walls have repelled the crushing waves of the Mediterranean Sea for over a millennium.
Don’t get me wrong, Monemvasia is far from being off the beaten path. It is one of the first places locals will recommend you visit, cruise ships anker in the surrounding waters, and there is even a direct bus route from Athens (that should say it all).
Truth be told, if I had visited during high season, the message of this blogpost might have been vastly different.
However, if you make the journey down south in the shoulder (or even off) season, you would be absolutely delighted by the city’s off the grid feel, its complete absence of the typical Disneyland appearance so many popular destinations nowadays degenerate into, and the overall lack of touristic hecticness.
There are so many warning signs hinting at the masses that will most likely descend on (what might possibly be) Greece’s most stunning and charming municipality, still, once you lose yourself in the labyrinthian maze of Monemvasia’s Lower Town, only disturbed by the distant mew of a kitten, or wander through the Upper Town’s crumbling ruins in solitude, the idea of tour buses loading off their human cargo appears totally ludicrous.
When you rest atop the rocky outcrop, that dominates the islands silhouette, and gaze upon the ultramarine ocean 300 feet below you, all your worries will fade, and this place will appear like the end of the world.
Monemvasia is honestly an oxymoron to me.
If I had to describe it, I would call it the least touristy, touristy place I have ever been to.
GET LOST IN THE LOWER TOWN
If you love the thrill of not knowing what to expect behind the next corner, Monemvasia might be the perfect destination for you!
For those willing to lose themselves within her boundaries, hidden behind her crenelated walls lies a medieval maze of narrow alleys and crooked stairs, ancient churches and charming courtyards just waiting to be discovered. Whether it is the soothing sight of an azure sea crushing against her sturdy walls, the jagged cliffs rising above her rubicund roofs, or a swift cat jumping through an arched doorway framed by white blossom, Monemvasia is a vivid painting conjured into reality.
Step in, explore, get lost.
Though small, Monemvasia is sure to enchant.
WHERE DOES THE NAME COME FROM?
Originally a promontory linked to the Peloponnese via an extremely narrow land bridge, the rock, Monemvasia is situated on, was separated from the mainland following an earthquake in 375 CE.
However, interestingly, the town only received her current name centuries after her inception, when Venetian merchants recognized that the only connection to the mainland was via a stone bridge thus naming the town Monemvasia or "single passage" (moni = single; emvasia = passage).
TAKE IN THE SPECTACULAR VIEWS FROM THE ACROPOLIS
Only accessible via a steep, winding cobblestone street, the remains of Monemvasia’s crumbling acropolis stand testament to the town’s eventful past.
Perched high upon a windswept plateau overlooking the Laconian shore, Roman, Frankish, and Turkish structures alike tell the fascinating story of a town at the forefront of regional politics before she finally vanished from the world stage in the 19th century. Though her glory days have long but gone and her buildings are left to decay, once you ascend to the Upper Town the significance of Monemvasia’s acropolis will be revealed.
A natural fortress par excellence, the views from atop this seemingly indomitable peak are utterly stunning and leave no doubt why many a general wagered his life in her shadow to gaze upon the world from these stalwart battlements.
VIEWS | To get the best, unobstructed view of the Lower Town make sure to wander towards the western-most tip of the plateau.
VISIT AGIA SOPHIA
Sitting precariously close to the edge, the church of Agia Sophia is not only the best-preserved building gracing Monemvasia’s acropolis, but also one of Greece’s oldest ecclesiastical complexes stemming from the Byzantine era.
Constructed in the 12th century CE, this house of God was first dedicated to Panagia Hodegetria (the Virgin Mary who leads the way), before becoming a Catholic church under Venetian rule, and even later a mosque during the Ottoman occupation. Following Greek independence, the church was rededicated to the Orthodox denomination and named Agia Sophia.
Even though the interior boasts beautiful frescoes dating back to the 13th century, the masterfully chiselled adornments on the outside are not less impressive!
Opening hours | 8:30-15:30 (Friday-Monday)
Closed | every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday
TAKE A LOVELY WALK AROUND THE ENTIRE ISLAND
Most visitors to Monemvasia will enter the old town through the main gate. However, in the shadow of looming scarps, the island offers an alternative route, as well.
Encircling the entire rock, an inconspicuous footpath runs along the water’s edge, now and then allowing glimpses of the acropolis, before reaching the small lighthouse at the far side of the town. Although most of the path is undemanding, the last part (right before the lighthouse) will require you to scramble across perforated rocks, so keep that in mind before venturing out onto the trail.
All in all, the pathway is a wonderful opportunity to take in the surrounding scenery and an ideal alternative to the busy road leading to Monemvasia’s principal entrance.
TASTE THE FAMOUS MALMSEY WINE
Long before the Venetians gained control over the port in the 16th century, Monemvasia had already been an established regional centre of trade. One of the city’s main commodities was Malvasia (dubbed after the settlement’s Latin name) a special wine, cultivated on the dry slopes and plains of the southern Peloponnese. In fact, its distinct taste was so sought after that Malvasia emerged as one of Greece’s three major wine exports and wine shops in Venice where soon called malvasie.
Even the dramaturgical maestro Shakespear himself mentions the sweet beverage in no less than three of his plays, most notably in King Richard III, where the Duke of Clarence gets drowned in a “malmsey-butt”.
Therefore, to get a proper taste of Monemvasia, lean back, gaze out to the sea, and treat your tingling tastebuds to the sweet aroma of a glass of Malmsey!