The Rambling Writer’s Greek Travels, Part 10: Monemvasia

This series started on Oct. 15 and continues every other Saturday. I’m taking a trip back in time to my 4-month backpacking rambles around Greece in the early 1980s, which planted the seed for my recent novel The Ariadne Connection. Now, as I work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect, I’m reflecting on the ways a writer’s experience can be transformed into fiction. I hope you find the journey illuminating, or at least entertaining. Again, I apologize for the quality of the few photos I’ve been able to recover from storage; a couple of these below are borrowed.

When my partner Jim and I left wild and wonderful Crete to visit sites on mainland Greece, we took a 10-hour ferry ride through the islands, with multiple stops at Kithira and the south Peloponnese as we basked in the sun on deck. When I tried to explore the ferry solo, I was thwarted by an amorous Greek fellow who spoke no English, but kept following me and trying to get me to sit with him. Having heard many such tales from other women travelers, I had to admit that it was still a man’s world. (Sadly, that message has been hammered again at us over the past year; I still join those who Resist.)

Disembarking at the medieval fortress town of Monemvasia on the east coast of the Peloponnese, we were enthralled by another magical place steeped in history. This small island, a chunk of rock a kilometer long by 300 meters wide that was split off from the nearby mainland by an earthquake, rises steeply from the sea to a flat plateau, and was an easily defended trading port since Minoan times. It apparently wasn’t actually settled until around 500 A.D., by refugees from the mainland who wanted protection from Slavic invaders. Over many centuries, Monemvasia was occupied by the Byzantines, Venetians, and Turks, who kept capturing it back forth from each other. Finally the Greeks gained control during their War of Independence in the early 1800s.

The island is now connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway; the town’s name is a combination of two Greek words: mone and emvasia, meaning “single entrance.” Its medieval fortress and steep rock walls made it a safe haven for trading, and apparently also a base for pirates at times. Monemvasia was one of the biggest trade centers of the Byzantine Empire, famous throughout Europe for its Malmsey wine, featured by Shakespeare in Richard III.

By the time Jim and I had found a room in the mainland, and slightly more modern, town, night had fallen. We walked over the causeway in the dark, pulled by the “unspeakably romantic” old village built in steep tiers clinging to the rocky walls of the island. At that time, in the early 1980s, the old buildings were mostly uninhabited, many falling into disrepair, but a few had been renovated as hotels or restaurants in advance of a tourist surge to come. We entered the historic realm through an arched tunnel in the guardian rock walls, lit by the golden glow of a torch in a metal bracket. Flickering lights and shadows beckoned us through a labyrinth of narrow cobbled lanes, passing crumbling tall  houses and a few inhabited buildings with glowing windows. We caught glimpses of the nearly-full, yellow-misted moon past dark silhouettes of tiled roofs. It could have been minutes or hours that we wandered in a magical suspension of time.

The next day we returned to the old village and entered the tunnel through the rock wall again, past heavy wooden gates with rusting iron armor and spikes. The maze of cobbled lanes heated up as we finally found a road leading upward and lined by high rock walls of the fortified town, switchbacks bringing us through another tunnel to the fortress at the top. From that vantage, we could see that the entire island was an impregnable citadel with protective rock walls clinging to the cliffs to block the few slopes that could possibly have been climbed.

Most of the remains of the “upper town” were only jagged ruined walls, except for a restored Byzantine church. Around it were scattered a few marble columns and lintels from what may have been a temple. Built into the church were pieces of carved-relief marble—an especially charming one featured rabbits.

As we wandered the lower town on our way back, we realized that there was more  reconstruction going on than we’d thought. We learned that the buildings were well-built of sturdy masonry and mortar, supported with the use vaults, and many still retained tiled domes. Cisterns between the foundations had originally collected rainwater, with a network of wells and pipelines starting on the house roofs. At foundation level there had been domed storage areas mostly for olive oil and wine, as well as small enclosures for animals. At one point in history there was apparently also enough cultivation of fields outside the walls to support a garrison of around 30 soldiers.

Since we were traveling on a very limited backpacking budget, we decided to find a deserted field to pitch our tent, as we’d done often on Crete. But here the Greek hospitality came to our aid once more. We had struck up acquaintance with the owner of Taverna Nikolaus the night before, and Niko had confided that he’d moved back to this quiet town after living in Australia, where he’d “lost too much on the ponies.” When we returned to the taverna for lunch, we asked Niko where we might camp nearby. Alarmed, he told us that we could not risk sleeping on the ground because of poisonous snakes, and he insisted on meeting us after dinner that night to drive us to his home where we could pitch our tent on his raised porch. The next morning, he gave us breakfast and drove us to the bus stop to continue our journey north.

I raise another glass to Greek spirit and friendship!  Chairete! Rejoice!

A question for my readers: Now that I’m writing a sequel set in Greece, if I set a scene in Monemvasia, what would be the mood?  Romantic? Suspenseful? Ominous? Mystical? Wistful?

Next time: An eerie boat trip through a labyrinth of flooded caverns.


You will find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here on alternate Saturdays. Sara’s newest novel from Book View Cafe was recently released in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction.




The Rambling Writer’s Greek Travels, Part 10: Monemvasia — 8 Comments

  1. Oh my gosh. Romantic suspense–of course!

    Love the evocative descriptions and the luscious photos.

  2. P.S. — I had forgotten to include an interesting bit about the famous Malmsey wine exported from Monemvasia and featured in Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” so I just added that below the boat photo above.

  3. Yes, along with a dash of the Mystical – as you noted, there are ruins of an ancient temple.
    Great pics, by the way.

  4. Such a beautiful place. I am awed by the cultural and historical richness of these little enclaves. What a great trip this must have been.