After a few days alone in Santorini, the tiny town of Monemvasia was the first stop on our Grecian road trip for me and my pal Rachel. Located in the South East of the Pelopponese, the large rock that the town feels like it’s carved from is now joined to the mainland by a long causeway just above sea level, with the houses and castle nestled into one side and hidden from view of the mainland. Back in the day this was all part of a clever strategy to hide the townspeople from potential attacks from those pesky mainlanders, but these days it all just adds to the magic of the place and makes you feel like you’ve really discovered a true hidden gem where you seem to step back in time as soon as you enter the stone archway into the tiny cobbled alleyways that lie in secret behind it. Monemvasia has changed hands many times during its extremely long history- from the Spartans to the Turkish to the Venetians and back again, and amazingly it’s actually the only castle in Europe to have been continuously inhabited since it was first built…parts of the area date as far back as to the 6th Century, so basically- it’s really full on old, you guys. After a mildly hair-raising drive up the side of the rock to the castle’s entrance, both me and Rachel were full on enchanted by this beautiful little town; of all the places I have visited in my life, this is definitely one of the most spellbinding.
STAY IN A CENTURIES OLD HOUSE
Although there are a few hotels within the town’s walls, we were all about that AirBnB life for the duration of our Greek road trip, and in Monemvasia in particular this paid off BIG TIME. The rock that holds the little town has been continuously inhabited since around 583AD (now that is one OLD SCHOOL town), although the houses that are still inhabitable aren’t quite as old as that, belonging more to the Medieval era in general. George, our awesome AirBnB host, met us at the arched entrance to the castle to help us manoeuvre our way up the main cobbled street and past an open square to reach our little house, whose front door opened onto a cool narrow alleyway at the far end of all these miniature Greek dwellings. It was full on PERFECT, with only two rooms- one up and one down- plus an outdoor bathroom in a tiny courtyard and a big terrace on the roof which overlooked the rest of the town and calm blue sea. It felt almost like we’d stepped back in time; this is the kind of place that people set stories in.
In combination with this amazing location and peaceful atmosphere, George was probably the best AirBnB host I have ever had the pleasure of renting from! What an absolute legend I tell you! The thing that I love most about AirBnB is feeling like you’re really living in a place as opposed to just viewing it through a tourist’s eyes, and George was so passionate about the place that he lives that I felt like we learnt a whole lot more about this beautiful place than if we’d have stayed anywhere else.
GO SWIMMING IN THE AEGEAN SEA
Now, pals. I love the sea. I love being near it. I love the sound of it. I love looking at it. I love how changeable it is, to the point that sometimes it almost appears to have actual emotions. It’s all very poetic isn’t it? But put me in a situation where my feet can’t touch the bottom and I really am not a fan.
This was the case with Monemvasia; as it is literally a massive rock which broke free from the mainland after an earthquake thousands of years ago, it doesn’t have any kind of beach. (Although the surrounding beautiful blue waters are actually relatively shallow, it turns out). Instead of a beach, there’s a portillo- a doorway in the castle walls- which lead down to a stone walkway featuring a well-placed ladder from which you can step off, directly into the actual ocean. It’s really, really, beautiful. This is where many years ago, before the town was joined to the mainland by road, boats used to arrive with supplies. It’s a beautiful place, although naturally the thought of just stepping off of the ladder into the unknown was completely terrifying for me.
Two factors helped me to calm my fears-firstly, that I knew I’d regret not doing it, especially as it was so hot, and secondly that I really didn’t want to offend George, who had so eagerly and excitedly taken us to see the swimming spot in the first place. And I only went and bloody did it, didn’t I! It was more in the style of a nervous duckling who was just learning to swim than a graceful mermaid, so I had to venture out as far as I possibly could before reversing back towards the castle again to sit in the sun till I was ready for another round, but still. Good one, me!
TRY SOME AWESOME GREEK FOOD
Greek food is just full on amazing, there’s no denying it, and George was an absolute gem who recommended us a restaurant to go to and then called ahead to make sure we got a table that night. The place we went to- Voltes- was tucked just inside the castle’s arched gateway, and I’m not gonna lie, it was so good that we went back a second time the following evening. I’m all for trying new things but when you find something good and there’s a chance you might not be back, I feel like it’s worth making the most of it, you know? One thing we didn’t realise was that it’s perfectly normal in Greece to order a bunch of plates and eat them family-style, and each dish was also such a good price that we thought this would directly correlate to the size of them. WRONG. Just because it only costs €4 doesn’t mean it’s going to be a tiny portion. Oh no siree.
The waiter went into mild shock when we reeled off the list of dishes we wanted to try- dolmades, spicy chicken, mousakka, feta, zucchini fritters, tomato fritters, greens- and then found it all very funny when we had to ask for containers to transport our leftovers home in. I don’t blame him to be fair.
LOOK AT THE STARS
One of the most beautiful things about Monemvasia (aside from the look of the place as a whole), is the fact that it feels so isolated from everything else. The town is facing away from the view of dry land- which itself has hardly any houses to be seen- and the narrowness of the cobblestone streets means that driving cars all over the rock would be a completely ludicrous activity as there’s simply no room. In fact deliveries to the restaurants and shops are typically made by either wheelbarrow or donkey. And naturally this lack of cars means no light pollution, no noise pollution, and no fumes pollution either. It’s a win win situation!
After the sun sets and the majority of the visitors to the rock head back across the causeway to their homes or hotels, a blanket of magical silence descends over the dusty buildings, punctuated only by the odd pattern of footsteps of someone meandering through the alleyways.
On our first evening we sat out on the roof with George, casually watching the sky and listening to George’s favourite radio station which plays only music from the ’30s and ’40s, and let me tell you this is the perfect soundtrack for stargazing in a place where you’ve also potentially stepped through a portal into another era. Once your eyes adjust and you can see even further into the swirling spirals of faraway galaxies, you can be almost guaranteed to spy a shooting star silently whooshing across the night. It’s all rather spectacular. The spell of the time machine was momentarily broken when George produced his favourite app which you hold up to the stars to see what constellations you’re looking at, but actually this only added to the beaut situation as he was just so very excited to show it to us! What a good’n.
When we returned to stargaze the following evening I was so overwhelmed with what tiny pieces of the universe we really are that I suddenly decided it was the perfect moment to tell the entire plot line of Interstellar (you know, the Sci-fi film?), from start to finish and involving every single plot twist. It took about half an hour to explain in great detail and in hindsight I feel mildly guilty that although Rachel seemed to be very gripped by the story, she also will probably never need to watch the film as she now knows exactly what happens, even down to details in the actors’ facial expressions. So I’ll try not to do that again, but I do recommend both the movie Interstellar, and the town Monemvasia to just about everyone.
WAKE UP FOR THE SUNRISE
This whole waking up for the sunrise malarkey was purely accidental on my part, simply due to the fact that my body wasn’t sure exactly what time zone I was in, but it was a very happy accident indeed. The magic of Monemvasia at night spills over into the dawn each morning as the sun pushes up over the sea and paints the rooftops in all manner of changing colours. As soon as I woke up I headed up the outdoor steps to the roof and witnessed such full on spectacular sights, you guys! There always seemed to be a couple of people going for a sunrise swim as you could hear the distant splashes below, and aside from that all you can hear is the twittering and occasional caw-ing of birds waking up and setting off for the day. What a sight to behold!! What a sound to behold!!
CLIMB TO THE TOP OF THE CASTLE (AND DON’T FORGET TO BRING WATER)
Obviously pals, if you’re gonna stay in an actual real-life castle, the least you can do is climb to the top of it. The oldest part of the town sits on a rough plateau far above the part that we were staying in, and back in the day this higher-up part was also where the wealthier folk lived. The cobbled path that leads up to the top is rather on the slippery side from the combination of the heat and having had so many footsteps trek up and down it over time, but let me tell you the steep climb is 100% worth it. The view across the town and outwards over the sea is nothing short of spectacular, and it’s quite an overwhelming sensation to consider how many people have stood on the exact same spot as you since the first buildings went up here. (It was also slightly overwhelming because for some reason every bee in the area seemed to be incredibly attracted to me and only me- as in they literally chased after me every time I ran- which only heightened the whole experience by adding the element of fear to the pot. I found the best way to deal with them after a while was by behaving in the style of a frozen ninja, but I’m sure if you ever get stalked by a swarm of large Greek bees you’ll develop your own technique to deal with them.)
Nowadays most of the buildings are crumbling but it’s still possible to figure out what they once were, with some of them more intact than others, and the most intact structure of all- the 6th century church of Agia Sophia- is in the process of being restored to its former downright splendiferous self. What also really blew my mind about this upper part of the castle is that with the sun beating down and not a cloud in the sky, the air was so dry that we literally began to die of thirst. Seriously. We were on the way out. So if we were dying of thirst from a couple of hours where we forgot to bring a bottle of water with us, the people who used to live here must’ve had some real sticky situations!? There is not a drop of fresh water on this big old rock; the plants were all dry and brushlike, although in every tiny crack in the rocky ground which provided a minuscule patch of shade, small crocuses had somehow sprouted stubbornly. I was impressed.
DISCOVER A CHURCH OR TWO OR FIFTY
Monemvasia is not a big town, so it’s basically impossible to actually get lost, which in my opinion makes it the perfect location for a good old fashioned wander. And the really bizarre thing about this place is that around pretty much every single twist and turn you will find a church, or mosque. It could be one or the other because due to the whole consistent-changing-of-who’s-in-charge thing, these buildings purposes changed regularly as well, from church to mosque and back again. Some of them are in perfect condition, like the one in the town square where we accidentally walked in on a funeral, and some are crumbling to the ground, overrun by wildflowers but home to a solitary preacher cat. (I like to think that the cats that live in churches are themselves very Godly folk, you know?) If you leave the castle walls you can also walk even further along the edge of the rock to find a lighthouse perching casually on the end; what a surprise!
MAKE FRIENDS WITH A LOCAL CAT
Crazy days, pals: there are actually only about fifteen permanent residents of this little fortress town, meaning that cats outnumber people quite drastically. It is amazing! During the middle of the day they line the Main Street, sleeping under tables and in shop doorways to make the most of the shade, and into the afternoon they start to roam the streets like secret rulers, making sure everything is in check. I made friends with one cat in particular who turned out to not be that bothered about our friendship after all when she spied some food elsewhere, but I don’t hold it against her. Surely she’d remember me if we went back?
This part of Greece is definitely not like the postcard landscape of the islands of Santorini, Mykonos and the other locations popular with island-hoppers and instagrammers; there are no whitewashed buildings and bougainvillea draped over walls and archways. But for me, our time in Monemvasia (and the Pelopponese in general), felt like a far more genuine experience…partly because of the people we met there and in part due to the fact that there were far fewer tourists around this area. Of all the places I’ve ever been, this is one that I would return to again and again, pals. What. A. Find.
- In comparison to more well-known parts of Greece, Monemvasia is relatively quiet- however it’s still known to tourists and in the height of Summer (according to George), it can get very busy. We were there in mid-September and although there were tourists around (ourselves included, obv), it felt like a much more more relaxed experience than the first place I visited, Santorini.
- It was still swelteringly (but just about bearably) hot when we visited in September, so in my opinion Springtime or Autumn are probably the most beaut times to visit, for the weather as well as missing the crowds.
- The peaceful magic of Monemvasia means that it’s particularly well-known as a destination for couples. I totes get it, but I hate it when a place becomes so known for this that it puts everyone else off visiting- you should go whether you’re alone or in a group of friends, it is fully worth it.
- It takes around four hours to drive to Monemvasia from Athens- although I’ve heard there’s a bus that connects the two, I’m not sure how reliable this info is.