The rock among the waves: Monemvasia, Greece

Madeleine Janssen

Rugged, mystical and enchantingly secluded—this Greek island of Monemvasia has it all and more. Madeleine Janssen takes us on a travel adventure.

Cat paradise

Cats in Monemvasia
Image via Curious Cat on the Run

The lower part of the island town of Monemvasia is the domain of spotted and striped beasts. Dozens of stray cats pad along the stone alleys and sidle through narrow flights of steps between the houses.

The aroma of fried saganaki cheese and fresh herbs wafts out of the tavernas, where the cats gather in hope of scrounging a bite to eat. Occasionally, a tourist throws them a morsel, while genial waiters drop leftovers on the ground.

Monemvasia is situated at the southern tip of the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece. Once you have finally arrived after journeying down the zig-zagging, rocky mountain roads, it’s easy to fall in love with this mystical lump of rock.

The locals call it Kastro (the fortress). For 1,400 years its walls have enclosed an entire town that has warded off attacks from the Normans, Arabs, Ottomans and Franks.


Meet the locals

Parts of the old town are navigable only on foot

Hordes of cats now lounge around on the ground. “Come along, then!” calls Kastanias. She scatters dry cat food at the corners of the houses from the bag tucked under her arm. Kastanias, 45, is an animal welfare worker.

At her animal refuge 10 minutes north of the town centre, she and her assistants look after more than 600 stray dogs. She hasn’t yet been able to take the cats in—she has neither the money nor the space. In Greece, animal welfare is largely a matter for private volunteers.

Kastanias really loves what she does. “It’s different here, so peaceful and romantic”, she says. Whenever she can, she prefers to walk across the 440-foot-long causeway that connects Monemvasia to the mainland village of Gefyra. 

Once she has finished her cat round, she likes nothing better than to climb up to the Matoula restaurant to order a plate of meze and a glass of white wine. Matoula is Monemvasia’s oldest restaurant—it was first opened by the grandmother of the current proprietor, Venetia Abertos. From the terrace, guests can enjoy views over the sea some 110 feet below.


High in the sky

 The island of Monemvasia in Greece
The view of the walled town of Monemvasia below and the Sea of Crete is worth the sweaty climb up to the old citadel, 330 feet above sea level

You shouldn’t visit the upper town unless you have a head for heights. There’s just one narrow path leading up to the old citadel, perched 330 feet above sea level on Monemvasia’s high plateau. 

In the middle ages, the citadel contained a cornfield and cisterns for collecting and storing water. This was enough to support around 30 people during a lengthy siege. Today, a handful of people still make their home on this rocky outcrop.

The medieval town is so charming that the mainland seems rather uninspiring by comparison. But only at first sight. The Laconia region has its fair share of hidden treasures—including Kastania Cave, which is an hour’s drive south. According to Greek mythology, the cave was home to Hades, god of the underworld.

The more energetic traveller will enjoy the steep limestone rock faces and network of signposted trails in the Cape Maleas-Zobolo rock climbing area. With its remote stalagmite caves, deep rock crevices and nearby sandy beaches for chilling out after a hard day’s climbing, there’s certainly plenty of variety in the region around the jewel that is Monemvasia.


A day in the life

Soula Kastanias in Monemvasia
Animal-welfare worker Soula Kastanias takes a stroll in the orange grove behind her house

Kastanias rarely ventures that far afield. “On a Sunday afternoon, I like to take one of my seven dogs for a walk”, she says. They will happily wander together for hours through the Mediterranean countryside behind her house, with its lemon and orange groves and herds of goats.

Afterwards, she might stroll down to Gefyra harbour. There, she may treat herself to a sugar-dusted almond crescent biscuit from the Café Colonis and find a nice sunny spot in the fishing harbour to eat it. The region is famous for its almond cookies (known as amygdalota). 

For those summer days when the temperature can soar to 40 degrees, Kastanias has a final recommendation—a refreshing dip in the sea. There are plenty of steps around the coast to climb down, and you can swim right around the rock if the mood takes you. “Make sure you don’t get a fright if you happen to come across a turtle”, says Kastanias. “They’re everywhere!”

For more great features, subscribe to Reader's Digest