MONEMVASIA: AKRA MINOA

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Monemvasia is a town in Laconia, Greece. The town is located on a small island off the east coast of the Peloponnese. The island is linked to the mainland by a short causeway 200m in length. Its area consists mostly of a large plateau some 100 metres above sea level, up to 300 m wide and 1 km long, the site of a powerful medieval fortress. The majority of the island’s area is a plateau about 100 metres above sea level, and the town of the same name is built on the slope to the south-east of the rock, overlooking Palaia Monemvasia bay. Many of the streets are narrow and fit only for pedestrian and donkey traffic. A small hamlet of about 10 houses lies to the northwest. The town walls and many Byzantine churches remain from the medieval period.

The town’s name derives from two Greek words, mone and emvasia, meaning «single entrance». Its Italian form, Malvasia, gave its name to Malmsey wine. Monemvasia’s nickname is the Gibraltar of the East or The Rock.

While uninhabited in antiquity, the rock may have been the site of a Minoan trading post. Pausanias, the renowned Greek traveler and geographer, referred to the site as «Akra Minoa», which translates to «Minoan Promontory».

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The town and fortress were founded in 583 by inhabitants of the mainland seeking refuge from the Slavic and the Avaric invasion of Greece. A history of the invasion and occupation of the Peloponnese was recorded in the medieval Chronicle of Monemvasia.

From the 10th century D, the town developed into an important trade and maritime centre. The fortress withstood the Arab and Norman invasions in 1147, farm fields that fed up to 30 men were tilled inside the fortress. William II of Villehardouin took it in 1248, on honourable terms, after three years of siege In 1259 William was captured by the Greeks after the battle of Pelagonia and in 1262 it was retroceded to Michael VIII Palaiologos as part of William’s ransom.

In more recent history, the town has seen a resurgence in importance with increasing numbers of tourists visiting the site and the region. The medieval buildings have been restored, and many of them converted to hotels.

In 1971, Monemvasia became linked with the rest of the outside world through a bridge on the western side that connects to GR-86.

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According to the myth, near the seaside settlement of Plytra was once the ancient town of Kyparissia, which suffered from a lack of fresh water.

According to legend, ancient Kyparissia once had a king who had two children, a girl and a boy.

When it was time for his daughter to marry, she put her two suitors (each a prince from a different kingdom) to a test.

In those days, members of the same royal family, that is a brother and a sister, were permitted to marry each other. So one of her suitors was her own brother, but the other was her beloved. The one to win her hand, she decreed, would be the one who would bring water to the kingdom. Naturally, to be sure that her favourite would be the victor, she sent him to bring water from the Molai area, where the ground was flat, thinking that it would present him no problems.

Her brother, on the other hand, was sent to the place where the village of Talanta now stands, in rocky, mountainous country.

Her beloved began to dig a channel, through which the water began to flow, but it was soon brought to a halt on the plain where it formed a lake, and never reached ancient Kyparissia.

Her brother, however, let the water run downhill in the direction he wanted to dig, so it reached its destination without any obstacles.

When his sister heard the news, she ws so embittered that she went and hid in an oleander plant and asked it to take her beauty and to give her its bitter sap (which is poisonous).  So the princess died and the plant acquired beautiful flowers.

The people who lived near the source of the water were paid in the currency of the time, the talanton, which gave its name to the town that now stands there.

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PHOTOS: VASSO KAKAVIA

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