Monemvasia: pretty in the Peloponnese

by Robin.Gauldie

With a ruined castle, medieval walls, and Venetian mansions turned into chic places to stay, Monemvasia, perched on the coast of the Peloponnese, must be one of the most romantic places in Greece

Monemvasia is a time machine. Walk through the arched entrance, with its massive, iron-studded wooden doors, that leads into an almost forgotten fortress city, and you’re walking in the footsteps of Byzantine despots, Frankish freebooters and Venetian merchant-princes. If you have a shred of fantasy in you, your right hand drifts towards the hilt of an imaginary rapier.

To indulge that fantasy, you need to come here (by car, bus or hydrofoil from Athens’s Zea Marina) in spring or autumn, and avoid weekends and Greek public holidays. Smart, gregarious Athenians rediscovered Monemvasia in the 1990s. At peak Greek vacation times, gaggles of them throng the handful of cafes and restaurants inside the walls of the Kastro and their SUVs are parked in serried ranks just outside the gates. This rather detracts from the air of medieval romance. On the other hand, it has brought life back into a ghost town.  

Perched on a Gibraltar-like crag a few hundred metres from the mainland, this is a natural stronghold. In its Venetian heyday, more than 30,000 people lived here in a town that occupied the entire top of the rock. Today, it’s no more than a honeycomb of ruined walls, overlooked by one surviving Orthodox church. The area now called Kastro, built around the foot of the rock, was its warehouse district, and while much of it is still in ruins, many of the old Venetian buildings have been converted into smart holiday apartments and boutique hotels.

The doyenne of these is the lovely Hotel Malvasia, which is stonkingly good value - from around €65 for rooms in a clutch of old Venetian buildings, all with polished wood floors, high ceilings, antique wooden furniture and striped wool and cotton rugs. The Malvasia is the first and still the most romantic of all the places to stay in the Kastro (fabulous Greek breakfasts, too) but it gets a run for its money from the Ardamis, where a double costs from around €130 (get the fabulous tower room in this 800-year-old building for the full effect – it will melt the stoniest heart), and from the rustic Kellia Inn (formerly a monastic dormitory, now for those with more worldly things on their minds), where doubles start at an affordable €65. Well away from the Kastro’s (occasionally noisy) café society, it’s perfect if you want peace and quiet above all.     

In the Kastro, eat (for €15-€30) at friendly Matoula’s, on the main street, or Kanoni, almost immediately opposite (overlooking the church square) with its terrace tables overlooking the sea. We’ve seen King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain (she’s Greek) lunching here while their enormous yacht waited for them offshore; Monemvasia does attract a trickle of in-the-know celebs. Other options in the Kastro are To Botsalo and the summer-only Vythos, where you can lunch for less than €20.

For swimming, follow the signs to the Portillo, a tiny sally-port through the walls that leads to a patch of flat rock and a bathing-ladder giving access to clear water (but watch out for spiky black sea-urchins). Or cross the causeway to the mainland, only 20 minutes' walk away. After Greece gained its independence, the Kastro gradually became deserted, and a newer settlement grew up around the fishing harbour opposite, at Gefira. If it lacks the medieval romance of the Kastro, it nevertheless has its own raffish charm and if you’re watching the pennies it’s a good deal cheaper to stay and eat here, with half a dozen psistarias (grill restaurants) and psarotavernas (fish taverns) where you can eat from as little as €12.

There’s even a small patch of pebbly beach for a dip, though for a proper beach you need to head about 2.5 km north to Pori, where you’ll find a vast stretch of sand and shingle. It’s mostly undeveloped (bring lots to drink), but if you want to stay here you’ll find Villa Douka at the south end, with a handful of two- and three-bedroom apartments in a rambling pink building, sharing a pool, tennis and basketball courts, and a small bar. Back in Gefira, Villa Diamanti is small, cosy, modern, only 30 metres from Gefira’s small beach and 200 metres from the harbour, and is the best value in town, with eight double rooms and two apartments, all en-suite, starting at €40.

The same family owns the Topalti Village, with a cluster of self-contained studios and bungalows around a pool on the outskirts of the village – also great value from €65 euros a night, with a €10-a-night discount if you stay seven nights or more. Panorama, with doubles from €70, is another great value pick. Stay here, and you can still bask in the romance of the Kastro at night and lounge on the beach all day.

 

 

 

 

 

Robin.Gauldie

When Robin Gauldie first visited Greece in 1973 it was love at first sight, and he spent the next four summers island-hopping, walking, swimming and picking up the occasional drachma by part-time grape-pricking. After graduating from Edinburgh University in 1976, he became a local newspaper journalist, then in 1979 joined the travel industry newspaper Travel Trade Gazette, a job which allowed him to travel all over the world at other people’s expense. He became a freelance journalist in 1989, and has written for numerous national newspapers, including the Sunday Telegraph, for which he writes the annual Insider’s Guide to Greece, and the Sunday Mirror. He also writes for National Geographic Traveller, Greece Magazine, and a number of inflight magazines including EasyJet and Ryanair. Robin now divides his time between his home in Edinburgh and a ramshackle village house near Carcassonne and spends several months each year travelling in Greece. He has written a number of guidebooks to Greece, including the new (just out) HotSpots Halkidiki and HotSpots Skiathos, Skopelos & Alonnisos guides, published by Thomas Cook; the Thomas Cook Traveler’s Guides to the Greek Islands and to Mainland Greece; Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Top 10 Crete; Charming Small Hotels & Restaurants Greece; and the Footloose Guide to Greece, as well as guides to Amsterdam, Egypt, Estonia, Goa, Ireland, Jamaica, Morocco, Peru, Scotland, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. With his partner Zoe Ross, he also runs the online image library www.sargasso-travelimages.com