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Step into a Byzantine world - Monemvasia


Monemvasia's nick-name in Greek is "kastropoliteia".
In English it simply translates to "city in the Castle", but in Greek it's this dreamy, poetic, other-worldly word. This is because there aren't that many "cities in the Castle" to be found around in Greece, let alone one that is fully alive and kicking and has survived the pass of time.
 
When you go through the "Castle" gate - the main gate, the only gate - you descend into a Byzatine world. The cobbled paths take you up and down through alleyways squished between colourful houses with terracotta roofs, that all put together a post-card picture, no matter what season you visit. Monemvasia is beautiful in the sunshine, but it's even more mysterious and dramatic in the rainy and windy days of late autumn. 
 
View of the Old Town and the Rock, towering above our balcony
Our traditional, shabby chic abode at Byzantino Suites

We stayed at Hotel Byzantino's suites, a collection of elegantly restored town houses, with traditional material, exposed beams and shabby chic interiors.
Our room was on the top floor of a traditional house, right off the main cobbled path in the Castle. It felt so great to climb up the stairs and walk into this historic time-capsule; traditionally restored floors and wooden dark windows, dotted with little white curtains and red hand-crafted embroidery. The best feature of our suite was the balcony, with glorious view of the Med. A gorgeous spot amongst the terraces and rooftops of this "City in the Castle".

Breakfast is served at a café down the main cobbled path, overlooking the main square at "kanoni". Space is limited, as the city limits are always restricted by the thick, sandstone walls, cascading down the sides of Monemvasia's Rock. Hence, hotels are spread around different buildings. It's an interesting concept, because you soon get to know all of the loacals running the shops along the main cobbled path in the Castle!
Hotel Byzantino is run by two lovely sisters, very helpful, always keen to offer advice, as well as a late check out for us, lazy travellers!

Breakfast in the sunshine with the local kitty gang, they claimed their territory and didn't flinch once.
 
There are lots of restaurants in the Castle and the one we were happy with for dinner, was Matoula's Taverna. It's on the main road, it only offers traditional dishes and it seemed to be frequented by locals, which is always a good sign. Another one, a bit more upmarket, is Chrisovoulo, they offer twists on traditional dishes.

We got a taste of the local traditional specialities like "siglino", preserved smoked pork usually cooked with scrabbled eggs or served cold, similar to cold ham. Malvasia wine, that attracted French and Venetian merchants here in Byzantine times. And finally, "travichtes", a cross-over between savoury doughnuts and pancakes, fried, served with cheese or honey.

I'll be perfectly honest in saying that overall, we were not that impressed with eating out in Monemvasia. This took us a bit by surprise, because the culture of eating out in Greece is so big and restaurants are good, regardless of the price. It was probably the fact that we had just arrived in Greece and we were keen as ever for home-made food, or that Monemvasia is a tourist destination, possibly tailored to visitors' tastes, or a bit of both. Anyway, nothing a bit of local rosé and "kefalotiri" - salty, hard cheese - can't fix! You can always count on cheese and wine to get you through, in Greece!

Agia Sophia church on the very top of the Rock, amongst ruins of old houses.
Beautiful and peaceful - Agia Sophia interior.
How old would that olive tree be? And how much has it witnessed? 
The "lower square"

On our first day in Monemvasia, after our breakfast, we slowly started ascending the steps to the “Upper Town”. The original town of Monemvasia, was built on top of the rock that forms this other-worldly island. With every step you get closer to a completely different era and with every step the view is different.

First you can look down on the colourful mosaic of rooftops, terraces and secret gardens behind the locals’ walled properties. Slowly, you also get glimpses of the open Mirtoo Sea, that’s the beginning of the Aegean. Endless blue in other words, deep, dark and mysterious.
After 15 minutes you get to the first gate. Enter at your own risk and with your own sense of respect. This is a whole city that was deserted gradually in the 18th century, the local archaeological authority is slowly restoring some buildings but there is a lot more under the dried weeds. So try not to smoke and not to slip down.

Another 5 minutes climb beyond the first gate, you'll find yourself at the perfectly restored, honey-coloured church of Agia Sophia - Holly Wisdom. It is on the very top of the rock, always windy and with amazing views of the surrounding area. It all feels so wild up there. We wondered  around the ruins most of the morning, imagining the houses that once stood here, all white "like swans" as an 18th century traveller once wrote. We felt grateful for being there, able to take time off to just wander around this spectacular heritage site.

Climbing up towards the "Upper City"
Spectacular views of the City in the Castle, such vibrant colours

On our way down, we took a diversion to walk to the Lighthouse, the outer point of Monemvasia's rock, constantly battered by waves, wind and salty water.

Just as we finally got back down in town it started drizzling, so we went straight into the first door we saw and what do you know, they had a covered little balcony at the back, with the nicest view of the sea, beyond the pastel coloured houses. I tried the local rosé, sweet and smooth; my husband had his favourite Athenian beer, Alpha, all served with lovely local cheese and sesame sticks, "kritsini".
Now let it rain!  

Roadtripping in Greece - Nafplio, Peloponnese


A distant scent of pine trees - this is the moment I realise that we've arrived in Greece.
Usually it takes place right outside the airport, in Athens. This is not me being poetic and romantic, I just find that every country has a distinct scent. When we arrive in Delhi for example, I get a scent of burned ghee - clarified butter - and that says "we've arrived in India".  
 
Anyway, back to Athens.
Pine tree scent says that we've landed in Greece and moreover, that we are heading to the Peloponnese. All of the ancient sites around the Peloponnese are covered in pine trees, hence the mental link, I think.
We decided to take a road-trip down the eastern Peloponnese on our last trip. It's an area dipped in history through the centuries; from ancient Sparta, Mycenae and Argos to Byzantine Monemvasia and Mystras, the capital of Morea - that is the byzantine name of the Peloponnese, nothing to do with Lord of the Rings - to Nafplio, the first capital of modern Greece.
 
Looking over Naplio and the Argolicos Gulf from Palamidi
Stone paths and arches inside Palamidi Fort

First stop on our road trip: Nafplio.
Nafplio is a small town, with the older part dotted with neo-classic townhouses, mixed with stone buildings and a few hamams and mosques, left-overs of the Ottoman years. It is guarded by Palamidi, a stone fort, cascading down the hill behind the town. Nafplio is deemed one of the most romantic towns in Greece, where people often propose to their other halves on the seaside promenade, with a view of Bourtzi, the tiny island in the middle of the gulf.

Bourtzi, despite its romantic appearance, has served as fortification for the port of Nafplio, as a prison and lastly as the local executioner's residence. Yet, nowadays, it's all lit up in the evenings and provides a whimsical backdrop for warm, summer nights' strolling along the promenade.

We stayed at Ippoliti Hotel, a pink neoclassic townhouse that has been renovated and converted into a boutique hotel.
The rooms have high ceilings and old furniture pieces, such as dark oak secretaries and wardrobes, reminiscent of 1920's Greek home interiors. The two rooms on the very last floor are built into the attic but offer views of Bourtzi. We picked one of them.

In the morning, after my quick run to the pharmacy to stock up on flu meds, I grabbed my cup of coffee, sat on the balcony and looked over the terracotta roofs of the town, all the way down to the sea and the tiny islet of Bourtzi.

The hotel is in the middle of the town, so parking is just "wherever you can find it", which was not a problem this time of the year, but as it's so close to the promenade, it can be tricky in the summer months. There is also a tiny little garden, with a pool for a quick splash.


Syntagma Square in Nafplio
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The entrance to hotel Ippoliti
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Morning sun over Nafplio's rooftops

Walking around the town in the morning almost brought tears to my eyes. My parents used to bring us to Tolo, a small fishing village ten minutes away, every summer for our two week holidays, hence Nafplio is one of my childhood places. I was feeling terrible, I had the flu and we had landed later than expected from the UK, followed by an hour and a half drive from Athens to Nafplio. But when I passed the Church of Panagia, I caught a glimpse of the lit candles on a stand and just had to go in. It was so quiet and given the 25C outside, the wax and incense scents were really strong, I loved it and it made me a bit nostalgic.

The colours around the town are all bright pinks and oranges, mixed with terracotta and stone, with squares opening up here and there where locals and tourists lazily chat over coffee.The stone and marble alleys around the old town were so shiny and every time I looked up in between the buildings, I caught a glimpse of Palamidi, the fort. This place is still an amalgam of different eras, its beauty and character lies in that. 

If you are up for a bit of history you must know that as Nafplio was the first capital of modern Greece, following the Ottoman years, Ioannis Kapodistrias, a distinguished diplomat in Europe, served as the first elected Head of State here. He was also murdered here, on his way to Sunday mass in St Spiridon church, with one of the bullets still lodged on the church wall.


Bourtzi islet in Nafplio's Port.

Wondering around the Old Town

The port promenade, where book fairs take place on summer evenings

Just before we drove on, to continue with our road-trip down to the south of the Peloponnese to the uber-romantic Monemvasia, we had two tasks set out.
Firstly, to get a "tiropitta" for a quick snack and secondly, to drive up to Palamidi.  "Tiropitta", is a velvety cheese pie wrapped in buttery & flaky shortcrust pastry filled with sharp, salty feta and it came from Chocola Patisserie, close to the port. On to Palamidi.

If you are up for a hike, you can climb the 999 steps all the way up to Palamidi.  With every step you just turn back and look over the town, it's spectacular.
We drove up instead, because we were pressed for time and also I had this disastrous flu that made me feel miserable. Entrance to Palamidi is 8 euros and you are free to wander around the bastions, taking in the spectacular views from every corner. We caught glimpses of Argolikos Gulf and the plains of Argos, with the ancient town still sitting on top of the hill; we looked down over the terracotta roofs and church domes of Nafplio town and then just around the corner from the port, we spotted Arvanitia, a rocky promenade, over emerald green waters.

Beautiful! Now on to Monemvasia!
  
© Life Love London

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