MONEMVASIÁ, standing impregnable on a great island-like irruption of rock, was the medieval seaport and commercial centre of the Byzantine Peloponnese. Its modern mainland service town is called Yéfira, from which a 1km causeway takes visitors out to the medieval site. Divided into the inhabited lower town and the ruined upper town, it’s a fascinating mix of atmospheric heritage, careful restoration and sympathetic redevelopment.

Fortified on all approaches, it was invariably the last outpost of the Peloponnese to fall to invaders, and was only ever taken through siege. Even today, it differs deeply in character from the nearby mainland.

Brief history

Founded by the Byzantines in the sixth century, Monemvasiá soon became an important port. It later served as the chief commercial port of the Despotate of Mystra and was for all practical purposes the Greek Byzantine capital, with a population of almost 60,000. Like Mystra, Monemvasiá had something of a golden age in the thirteenth century, when it was populated by a number of noble Byzantine families and reaped considerable wealth from estates inland, wine production (the Mediera-like Malvasia) and from their own roving corsairs who preyed on shipping heading for the East.

When the rest of the Moreas fell to the Turks in 1460, Monemvasiá was able to seal itself off, placing itself first under the control of the papacy, later under the Venetians. Only in 1540 did the Turks gain control, the Venetians having abandoned their garrison after the defeat of their navy at Préveza.

Monemvasiá was again thrust to the fore during the War of Independence, when, in July 1821, after a terrible siege and wholesale massacre of the Turkish inhabitants, it became the first of the major Turkish fortresses to fall. After the war, there was no longer any need for such strongholds and, with shipping moving to the Corinth Canal, the town drifted into a village existence, its buildings allowed to fall into ruin. By the time of World War II only eighty families remained. Today just a handful of people are in permanent residence, but much restoration work has been done to the houses, walls and many of the churches.

The rock: medieval Monemvasiá

From mainland Yéfira nothing can be seen of the medieval town itself, which is built purely on the seaward face of the rock. Nor is anything revealed as you cross the causeway to the Kástro, as locals call it; but the 1km-long entrance road, used for parking, finally deadends at castellated walls. Once through the fortified entrance gate, narrow and tactically z-shaped, everything looms into view: in the lower town, clustered houses with tiled roofs and walled gardens, narrow stone streets, and distinctively Byzantine churches. High above, the extensive castle walls protect the upper town on the summit.

The lower town

The lower town once numbered forty churches and over eight hundred homes, an incredible mass of building, which explains the confusing labyrinth of alleys. A single main street – up and slightly to the left from the gateway – is lined with cafés, tavernas and souvenir shops.

At the end of this street is the lower town’s main square, a beautiful public space, with a cannon and a well in its centre, and the setting for the great, vaulted cathedral, built by the Byzantine emperor Andronikos II Komnenos when he made Monemvasiá a see in 1293. The largest medieval church in southern Greece, it is dedicated to Christ in Chains, Elkómenos Khristós. Across the square is the domed church of Áyios Pétros, originally a sixteenth-century mosque, which was reconverted by the Turks back into a mosque in the eighteenth century and now houses a small museum of local finds (officially Tues–Sun 8.30am–3pm in winter, till 8pm in summer; free). Unusually for Ottoman Greece, the Christian cathedral was allowed to function during the occupation, and did so beside this mosque.

Access by water is as limited as by land. In peaceful times, the town was supplied from the tiny external harbour, Kourkoúla, below the road as you approach the entrance gateway. While in town, down towards the sea, the Portello is a small gate in the sea wall; you can swim off the rocks here.

The upper town

The climb to the upper town is highly worthwhile – not least for the solitude, since most day-trippers stay down below – and it is less strenuous than it initially looks (20–30min depending on fitness). To get the most from the vast site, it’s a good idea to bring some food and drink (from Yéfira, since Monemvasiá has no proper supermarket), so you can explore at leisure. There are sheer drops from the rockface, and unfenced cisterns, so descend before dusk.

The fortifications, like those of the lower town, are substantially intact, with even the entrance gate retaining its iron slats. Within, the site is a ruin, unrestored and deserted though many structures are still recognizable, and there are information boards. The only building that is relatively complete, even though its outbuildings have long since crumbled to foundations, is the beautiful thirteenth-century Ayía Sofía (usually locked), a short distance up from the gateway. It was founded on the northern rim of the rock as a monastery by Andronikos II.

Beyond the church extend acres of ruins; in medieval times the population here was much greater than that of the lower town. Among the remains are the stumpy bases of Byzantine houses and public buildings, and, perhaps most striking, vast cisterns to ensure a water supply in time of siege. Its weak point was its food supply, which had to be entirely imported from the mainland. In the last siege, by Mavromihalis’s Maniot army in the War of Independence, the Turks were reduced to eating rats and, so the propagandists claimed, Greek children.

Yéfira

YÉFIRA is little more than a straggle of hotels, rooms and restaurants serving the rock’s tourist trade, with a pebble beach; though for a beach day-trip, it’s best to head 3–4km north along the coast to Porí beach, or via a separate road to the very clean, northern, Kastráki end of the beach, by the Cyclopean walls of ancient Epidavros Limira. Snorkellers can see further marble remains from the site, now underwater, as well as the wreckage of a sunken German warship.