Somewhere along the stretch between Sparta and Monemvasia, we come to a sudden halt as a Greek shepherd guides his sheep across the road. The scrawny creatures follow their master with an outstretched crook and a whistle to safety. My friends – Fiona, Rosalinde and Liz - and I sit in the car, and patiently wait for the sheep to cross.
It will take approximately four hours to drive from Athens Airport to Monemvasia, we had read on a travel website. When we contacted Toula Georgakopoulou, the owner of Gialos Beach Apartments, we were told “Three and a half.”,
It’s a six hour drive to reach our destination.
Along the spectacular 333 kilometer (207 mile) drive through winding roads to reach the south-eastern Peloponnese region of Greece we conclude that some people must drive really fast in Greece.. Mountains climb and dip into valleys covered with orange trees and grape vines. Bends in the road occasionally bring us to the coastal edge, and as we drive parallel to the blue Mediterranean Sea we see Greek Islands on the horizon. Stopped and waiting patiently for the sheep to cross, we realize there is no reason to complain and we can only smile because we know we have discovered an authentic part of Greece.
We quietly gaze as an enormous rock suddenly comes into view on the Peloponnese coast. Sheer cliffs rise 300 meters (984 feet) from the sea. We have arrived at Monemvasia. It is possible to see why this 7th century Byzantine fortress is known as The Gibraltar of Greece by tourists and Kastro (Castle) by the locals. We spy the narrow causeway connecting the fortress to the village of Gefyra. Literally meaning Single Entrance, Monemvasia’s true namesake is clear.
Although it is possible to stay on the Rock itself, we opt to stay at Gialos Beach Apartments 4 kilometers (2 ½ miles) outside Monemvasia. No crowds, no noise except for humming cicadas, perfect tranquility. For longer than the six hour car ride we had envisioned ourselves sipping piña coladas while lounging on deckchairs in the shade of olive trees. The apartment is basic, but has all we require for a comfortable stay, not to mention the 25 meter (82 feet) walk to the water’s edge. Toula warmly welcomes us when we arrive at our apartment in the evening and, sensing our enthusiasm about trying the local wine, she fills an empty soft-drink bottle to sample.
The next morning we awake to pastries from Toula. After breakfast she opens a map and circles the necessary sights for The Peloponnese novice. Sparta and the Byzantine settlement of Mystras are both highlights, especially for those that love history.
“And,” she says, “If you want a beautiful beach you must go to the island of Elafonissos. It is paradise.”
Our explorations begin in Gefyra. We discover Kamarinos Bakery with piles of flaky baklava. Oozing with honey and nuts, there are enough varieties for us to try a different one each day of the week. The woman at the bakery, points to a mountain of crescent shaped biscuits. “Amygdalota,” she calls them. “Monemvasia is famous for these.” The recipe for these delicious treats made from almonds, rosewater and sour orange trees has been passed down the generations for two centuries.
Our meanderings around Gefyra lead us to a sign advertising glass bottomed boat trips. The owner is difficult to pin down - probably sipping coffee in a cafe we conclude from having already seen a multitude of Greek men chatting and whiling away the hours. Finally we get hold of him by phone and he comes instantly.
“Youse want to go on boat. I takes you. I goes fast and then we stop for good photos.”