An Odyssey to Monemvassía
A cruise along the southern tip of Greece’s Peloponnesus brings a crew to this walled and mysterious city
From the harbor in Gefyra, it’s only a short walk over the bridge to the single (moni, in Greek) entrance (emvasia) from which Monemvassía gets its name. The road curves around the side of the rock and leads to a tunnel. The narrow passageway was dark and cool as we entered through the wall. Every few feet there were sharp angles where guard posts were carved into the stone. I could imagine bodies piling up here and felt the blood running over my feet. Once inside, however, the alleys and walls were lit pink and gold by the warming sun. Red, purple, and yellow flowers climbed the walls and hung out of open windows. We made our way upward on cobblestones worn smooth by centuries. We came to a courtyard where a few tables had been set up and smelled coffee and baked bread. Vasilis, always gregarious, struck up a conversation, and we were invited into one of the homes to see the view. From the veranda, the prospect was stunning: terra-cotta roofs, blinding-white walls, and sparkling church domes that were the same color as the sea.
After a second breakfast of coffee and fresh rolls, we proceeded farther into the city, always moving upward as the alleys became narrower and steeper. Wealthy Greeks have converted these old stone-walled relics into exclusive residences and guesthouses, but as we climbed higher and higher, we seemed to leave the modern world farther and farther behind. Eventually, the restoration gave way to skeletal walls, and we climbed on stairways of worn stone until we’d made our way up onto the summit of Monemvassía. I fought off a wave of vertigo as I turned around and looked back down the route that we’d just ascended. Here on the heights of the rock, all was desolate ruin. The wind whistled through collapsed walls and crumbling domes. Following an uneven, overgrown path, I ducked through an entrance into a cavernlike room with a single window facing out to the sea a thousand feet below. From this dark place, someone must have waited and watched apprehensively for the approach of an enemy.
Eventually, we found the solitary church we’d seen a few hours ago when we sailed on the waters far below. This was Agia Sofia, meaning “holy wisdom,” built by the Byzantine emperor Andronicus II in the 13th century. It’s a domed octagonal church patterned after the Dafni Monastery in Athens. It sits isolated and perfect among the ruins. We entered and let the heavy doors close behind us, shutting out the sound of the incessant wind. The light shafted through the narrow slotted windows above and lit upon the walls, casting everything in pale radiance. We were unprepared for the force of this place. The quiet and the light were both alive. It was as if all the ghosts of Monemvassía were there with us. We stood for a long time listening to the silence. Stepping back out into the sound of the wind and the glare of the sun, we exchanged looks that left no doubt that we’d all shared the same experience. Behind the church, a solitary wooden chair sat facing south, the way we’d come. I had the feeling that this timeless place had watched us arrive, as it would watch us depart, but I knew that some part of Monemvassía would always remain with us.
Until 1997, E. Christopher Iliades had a private medical practice on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts, where he still lives with his wife of 34 years. He’s a freelance medical writer and journalist.