The Gibraltar of Greece

The Gibraltar of Greece
W. Ruth Kozak on the poet Yannis Ritsos
Monemvasia, Greece

I know that each one of us travels to love alone,
Alone to faith and to death.
I know it. I’ve tried it. It doesn’t help.
Let me come with you.

– “Moonlight Sonata”


The towering rock of Monemvasia rises from the sea on the southeastern coast of the Peloponnese. Known as the Gibraltar of Greece, it has been a fortified settlement since ancient times. Its name, which dates to the sixth century, means “sole entrance”–so named because the only access is through a fortified tunnel.

The scenery is as harsh as silence.

Lying on an important trade route, Monemvasia was repeatedly besieged. The Franks occupied it until 1200, when they were expelled by Byzantine troops and the town became a naval station for the Byzantine Empire. It was later occupied by the Venetians when inhabitants asked for their help against pirates. When Venetian power began to wane, Monemvasia fell to the Turks. The city was recaptured by the Venetians, but it wasn’t until the Greek War of Independence in 1821 that the town was liberated.

Ritsos was born here in 1909. An aristocrat by birth and renowned in Greece as an actor and director, he was one of the country’s most beloved poets. He was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize, Russia’s highest literary honor, in 1956, and he was named a Golden Wreath laureate, the most prestigious award of the international Struga Poetry Evenings festival, in 1985.

I arrived in Monemvasia early one morning by bus from Athens. At first it seemed not much more than a quiet coastal town dominated by the steep rock offshore, which is connected to the town by a long causeway. Boats crowded the harbor and small shops and tavernas lined the shore. I found a pleasant pension overlooking the sea and set out to explore.

I took the causeway out to the rock to find the walled, medieval old town, which is invisible from the shore. As I approached through the vaulted stone gateway, I found myself in another age. The narrow cobbled streets wind up the side of the rock, which is topped by a castle fortress. Many of the old buildings are restored and house boutiques, bed and breakfasts, and small bistros. A relative of Ritsos owns one of the tavernas. Many of the old buildings still have the crests of Venetian noble families on the old wooden doors.

Monemvasia truly is a step back into the glorious age of Byzantine Greece. I lost myself in the past as I edged my way down the narrow cobbled streets or rested in a shaded courtyard. It was easy to imagine what life was like here, hidden away on the rocky slope of the mountain, with the teal-colored sea churning below. Although much of the old “lower” town is in ruins, the family home of Yannis Ritsos has been restored and turned into a museum. A monument to the poet stands outside the house.

Misfortune visited Ritsos’s life. He experienced the death of his mother and oldest brother from tuberculosis when he was young, and his father was committed to a mental institution. He too contracted tuberculosis and spent four years, from 1927 to 1931, in a sanitarium. In later years, because of his leftist politics, he was imprisoned and exiled and his poetry banned in Greece. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, his suffering, he poured his heart into his work, writing more than 100 books over his lifetime.

The sun finally reaches the backroom window. / Someone shouts outside in the street. / These things seem different to the loveless.

During the 1980s, Ritsos wrote nine novels, compiled under the title Iconostase of the Anonymous Saints. Written in his poetic style, they are filled with a sense of sadness and loss. Ritsos died in Athens on November 11, 1990. He is buried in the cemetery outside the walls of Monemvasia.

W. Ruth Kozak is an ardent traveler who has lived in, and often visits, Greece, where she spends time browsing archaeological sites and doing research. She is fond of the Greek writers and poets, both ancient and modern. Ruth edits and publishes her own online travel magazine, Travel Thru History (www.travelthruhistory.com). She is a published travel writer and writing instructor. Find her at www.ruthkozak.com.

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