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Monemvasia Castle and Town

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With the nickname Gibraltar of the East and bearing a strong resemblance to the Mont Saint-Michel in Brittany, the island town of Monemvasia topped by its medieval castle lies at the end of a 200-metre causeway with a wooden bridge connecting it to the east coast of the Peloponnese.

This only became an island as a result of an earthquake in 375 BC. Before that it was a rocky coastal headland, which the geographer Pausanias referred to as Akra Minoa (the Minoan headland), suggesting it was a Minoan trading post. It seems a logical idea, given that this part of the Greek mainland was one of the closest to the Bronze Age Minoan kingdom on the island of Crete.

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The origins of town we see today are recorded in the texts called the Chronicles of Monemvasia, which tells the history of the events during the Byzantine years from around 587–805 AD, a period when the Slavic and Avaric tribes were colonising the Greek mainland. It was just at the start of this invasion that refugees from Laconia settled on the island, building the town and the fortress on top as a safe haven in 583 AD.

The fortress was in an ideal, self-contained location with its own water sources and the fertile plateau on top where crops were grown to sustain its residents. This enabled it to withstand siege and attacks, and it grew into an important trading centre and port from the 10th century.

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Monemvasia surrendered to the Frankish Prince of Achaea, William de Villehardouin in 1248, but then the unfortunate prince was captured by Greeks after they fought back against the Franks at the Battle of Pelagonia in 1259. Monemvasia was handed over to the Byzantine Palaiologos family as part of Villehardouin’s ransom.

Under the Byzantine rule again until 1460, the port thrived as an exporter of locally produced Malmsey wine, the name of which stemmed from Malvasia, the Italian name for the island. It was also a popular haven for pirates, and the mercenary Catalan Company stopped by on their way to defend the Byzantines in Asia Minor in 1302.

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While much of the Peloponnese was conquered by Venetians in the 15th century, they had little success in Monemvasia at first – with only fleeting occupation in 1419.

During the mid-15th century Ottoman invasion, Monemvasia became the last remaining region of the Despot of Morea. Unable to defend the fortress and city, he sold Monemvasia to the Latin Pope, who was equally powerless to protect the place. As a result the citizens invited the Venetians to help for a couple of years, but this harmonious relationship was rudely interrupted by the Ottomans around 1503. This meant the castle was still ruled by Venetians, but the supplies from the mainland farmlands were controlled by the Turks. The Venetians finally handed Monemvasia over to the Ottomans along with Nauplion in 1540, although they had another go at controlling it from 1690–1715.

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As with the most of Greece, the Ottomans were back in charge again for over a hundred years more the start of the Greek Revolution in 1821, when the town was among the first to be freed on July 23, an event which is celebrated annually here at the port.

Monemvasia, its buildings restored and preserved, is still occupied today. Visitors are welcome to stroll up its winding streets, to admire the historic walls of the upper town, the numerous Byzantine and Venetian churches, and the Turkish mosque. As well as enjoying the views and ambience of this strikingly picturesque town, you can drop in to the Archaeological Museum of Monemvasia which displays antiquities from the various periods of its colourful history.

Entrance cost: Small fee for entry to Archaeological Museum of Monemvasia.
Tel.: +30 27320 61403
Other: Access via the causeway and narrow bridge. Most streets in the town accessible only foot.

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