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Thursday, 30 December 2010

Monemvasia – The Gibraltar of Greece

Written by Sally Dixon
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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.

Monemvasia 

 

Monemvasia7We 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.

 

 

 

Monemvasia2Although 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.”


Monemvasia5Our enterprising fisherman turned tour guide, certainly goes fast. And true to his word, he stops so we can take photos of Monemvasia from all its impressive angles. It turns out the fortress isn’t the only attraction. Our guide stops to introduce us to a fisherman on another boat. His unshaven friend, cigarette dangling from his lips, proudly poses with his catch of the day while we capture him on film.

 

Later we drive over the causeway to Monemevasia, park the car and walk through the dark, narrow entrance.  We emerge into hot, bright sunshine.  Temporarily blinded, the streets slowly reveal shops filled with jewellery, spices and souvenirs as we steadily climb the sloping cobbles of the lower town. Stray kittens playfully tumble under cafe chairs and curiously sniff at our foreign skin.

 

 

 

 

Monemvasia3Sturdy footwear is necessary for exploring Monemvasia. It is an uphill hike to reach the top, but we revel in the walk. Fragrant jasmine and vibrant pink bougainvillea trail out from crevices of stone and terracotta buildings, paths zigzag up the hill and lead through a tunnel still retaining its original ironbound gates. At the pinnacle of upper Monemvasia and among ruins of houses and cisterns, stands St Sophia (Hagia Sophia) Church. Built by the Bzantines in 1150AD, the church crowns this enormous rock. With a backdrop of blue sky meeting brilliant blue water I scan the ground for a fragment of broken pottery to take home.

 

Later that week, we venture off to Patriko Restaurant situated close to the tiny village of Agios Ioannis. We arrive and choose a table overlooking the still, sapphire Mediterranean. As our waiter approaches, we whisper to each other, “I bet his name is Nick, every man in Greece is called Nick.” That’s our theory anyway. With an engaging smile, the waiter greets us, “Good evening my name is... Nikos.” We snigger softly.

 

It’s a quiet evening and just two other tables are occupied with customers. Nikos circulates, takes a seat at each table and engages in friendly chatter. We find this charming and return a few nights later. Instead of ordering one meal each, we order two of every item listed on the entree menu to share: creamy tzatziki, lightly battered calamari, spinach filled spanakopita and so much more. After stuffing ourselves to bursting point, Nikos comes to chat.

 “Tomorrow,” he announces, “Is my wedding day!”

 

A group of single girls on holiday, our desires are dashed as we realise this gregarious man is not eligible. Our disappointment turns to enchantment when he says, “You are welcome to my wedding!”  

 

We squeal with delight at the thought of experiencing a genuine big, fat Greek wedding, but suddenly remember- tomorrow we return to Athens to fly home. Despite our disappointment, we decide it’s delightful even to be asked.

Monemvasia6 

We begin our drive north at an incredibly early hour the next morning. Saddened to leave Monemvasia and wishing we could stay at least one more week, we watch our holiday disappear as we round the corner. The memories of lazy hours by the beach, fascinating historical sites, colorful characters and fabulous food are still forefront in our thoughts. And as we arrive at the airport, we realize that we have absorbed a bit of Greek tradition. Even with a herd of unruly goats blocking the road, we reach Athens in only four hours.

Monemvasia4 

 

©Sally Dixon

Photos by Rosalinde Joosten and Fiona Wardle

 

 

For further information:

Monemvasia Travel Information:

http://www.monemvasia-online.com/ 

http://www.greeka.com/peloponnese/monemvasia/

 

Gialos Beach Apartments and Goulas Hotel : http://www.gialos.gr/

 

 

 

 

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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