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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!  

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