When you approach Monemvasia all you can see is an imposing big rock standing next to the coast, discerning just a few buildings on top of it. The city remains unseen as it is located in the south-east corner of the rock, which is connected to the mainland with a bridge making it the only access point to the city. That’s how Monemvasia got its name: from the words “moni” (μονή) and “emvasi” (έμβαση) meaning single access.
That rock gave to the city the nickname “Gibraltar of the East” due to the similarity to the Gibraltar rock (in smaller scale) and “Castle above the Clouds” as the city was originally built on top of the rock.
The first inhabitants of Monvemvasia got there about 8000 years ago. Back then it wasn’t an island but properly connected to the mainland. In 375 AD a strong earthquake took place making Monemvasia’s rock an island and submerging neighboring cities in the water. The rock was inhabited in 582 AD from local population as the rock was an ideal place to be fortified as it was by the sea and had difficult access. The first inhabitants lived on the top of the rock and around that time the bridge was constructed.
Monemvasia had a prominent role in the Byzantine Empire. Due to its location, Monemvasia’s fate was aligned with the Grand Powers of each time: the Byzantines, the Venetians, the Francs, the Pope and the Ottomans. When the Francs took over the Byzantine Empire in 1204 AD it took them 40 (!) years to conquer Monemvasia…only to lose it soon after to the Byzantines.
The city flourished during the 13th and 14th centuries, which are called Monemvasia’s “golden era”. During this period the city consisted of 8000 residences split among 40 parishes. In July 1821 Monevasia was the first Peloponnesian castle to be freed by the Greek rebels during the independence war (from the Ottoman Empire). After the liberation, fighting between rival factions for control of the fortress led to its decline and depopulation. In the early 20th century most inhabitants abandoned the city for the new settlement, Gefyra that sprang up across the bridge on the mainland. (history source)
Nowadays most of the buildings in the Lower Town are restored and many of them are converted to hotels, stores and restaurants. It is the best preserved medieval town in Greece and a popular weekend destination all year round.
During our visit, my husband and I wandered around the Lower Town and visited a few of the churches located there. The town has many narrow streets and steps and is like a maze but thankfully there are signs to help you get around. There is a hiking path that leads to Upper Town, but access is prohibited nowadays due to ongoing archaeological excavations.
Monemvasia can be easily reached (from Athens) by car or bus. You can opt for the quickest route via Tripoli and Sparti (300 km, 4hrs) or the more scenic one via Argos, Paralio Astros and Leonidio (297 km, 5hrs).