97km (60 miles) S of Sparta; 340km (210 miles) S of Athens
In the Middle Ages, Monemvassia was nicknamed "the Gibraltar of Greece" because of its strategic importance overlooking the East-West sea routes. Centuries of decline followed and Monemvassia had become a virtual ghost town by the early 20th century, remembered largely for its once-famous sweet wine, Malmsey. (For some information on one of today's local vintners, check out www.vatistas-wines.gr.) Today, this rocky island just off the easternmost tip of the Peloponnese has a new lease on life: For some years, wealthy foreigners and Greeks have been buying and restoring old houses here. Furthermore, word is getting out that in addition to its medieval fortress, handsome churches, and beautiful sunsets, Monemvassia has several of the most stylish small hotels in the Peloponnese (and increasingly good restaurants). Consequently, Monemvassia draws visitors year-round; I've made several spur-of-the-moment midwinter trips here only to find both the hotels and restaurants crowded.
In addition to independent travelers, a number of round-the-Peloponnese bus tours stop here for an hour or two. Try to arrive in the late afternoon or evening, so that early the next morning you can have a swim, relax, and do your sightseeing before the first bus arrives. And try to pack light for your visit: no cars are allowed here and even wheeled suitcases are hard to transport on the uneven cobblestone lanes.
Although Monemvassia is an island, it's connected to the mainland by a causeway across which you can drive or stroll. Once you step through the massive Venetian Gate that is Monemvassia's only entrance (mone emvasis means "one entrance" in Greek), you're in a different world where everything you see was carried here either by people or on the backs of donkeys. The main street is just wide enough for two laden donkeys to squeeze past each other. Beware that the donkeys seem to enjoy letting tourists know who has the right of way here!