Monemvasia | What to do in Laconia’s most stunning town

by Fabian Jürgens
Published: Last Updated on

Tugged away on an isolated rock off the Laconian coast lies the Byzantine gem of Monemvasia. Long a regional military and commercial centre, the town lay forgotten for nearly a century before affluent Athenians rediscovered her beauty and started to reconstruct her crumbling remains.

First settled in the 6th century CE, by the hardy folk of Laconia’s eastern shores seeking refuge from pillaging Slavs, the ruling Byzantines quickly understood the strategic worth of the settlement.

Supported by imperial coin, Monemvasia became a regional administrative centre, as well as an important berth for the Roman fleet during their operations against invading Arab tribes. Trade flourished and the town’s newfound wealth soon attracted unwanted attention. Where Arab and Norman forces failed, William II of Villehardouin succeeded, and for 14 years (1248-1262) Monemvasia was ruled by Frankish crusaders, before being returned to the Byzantine realm commencing the harbour’s golden age. 

When Constantinople fell to Ottoman troops (and shortly after Mystras), Monemvasia received the unflattering honour of being the last stronghold of this former superpower. Desperate for protection, Monemvasia looked to Venice to fill the power vacuum but the proud thalassocracy too proved incapable of defending the port against the ever-expanding Turks.

Monemvasia remained part of the Ottoman Empire until the early stages of the Greek War for Independence but completely lost her significance in its aftermath being plagued by massive depopulation. Only in the later decades of the 20th century, Monemvasia saw a resurgence as wealth from Athens poured into the decaying settlement. 

Today, owing to a thriving tourism industry, Monemvasia has been completely revitalised and mesmerises through her beautiful architecture, fascinating history, and stunning setting, rightfully strengthening her claim as one of Greece’s most gorgeous towns.

big ceramic pots with plants in them lining a stone wall in a narrow alley in front of an arched thouroughfare

WHAT TO DO IN MONEMVASIA

How to get there | There are no direct buses from Athens to Monemvasia. Instead, take a bus to Sparti/Sparta and then another bus down to Monemvasia. This can be done in a day.

GET LOST IN THE LOWER TOWN

For those willing to lose themselves within Monemvasia’s 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 rooftiles, or a lurking 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.

small cobble stone square surrounded by stone buildings, a bell tower, and a whitewashed church
stone wall seperating the town of Monemvasia from the ocean on the left

WHERE DOES THE NAME COME FROM?

Originally a promontory linked to the Peloponnese via an extremely narrow land bridge, the island was separated from the mainland following an earthquake in 375 CE.

Interestingly, however, 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 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 rock overlooking the Laconian shore, Roman, Frankish, and Turkish structures alike tell the fascinating tale of a town at the forefront of regional politics before her final departure from the world stage in the 19th century. Though her glory days have long but gone and her once glorious buildings crumble, an ascent to the Upper Town will reveal Monemvasia’s former significance.

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 to gaze upon the world from her 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. Head to the eastern peak instead for sweeping vistas of the Peloponnesian shoreline. 

old stone houses on a slope in front of a steep cliff next to the sea
Roman ruins scattered across a plateau on a rocky island

VISIT AGIA SOPHIA

Sitting precariously on 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 no less impressive!

Opening hours | 8:30-15:30 (Friday-Monday)

Closed | every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday

Byzantine era monastery with a red roofed dome sitting precariously close to the edge of a cliff surrounded by ruins
rocky outcrop covered in shrubs surrounded by ocean and fog

TAKE A LOVELY WALK AROUND THE ENTIRE ISLAND

Most visitors to Monemvasia will enter the old town through her town 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 main entrance.  

aerial view of a coastline covered in yellow shrubs
white-barked tree below a towering cliff

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!

weathered, grey wine jug lying on a stone wall sprouting green plants

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