I seem to have many hours in recent days climbing up stone steps to reach once impregnable cities which are now in ruins.
My overwhelming sense (as one climbs to the castle in Mistras, shown here, high above the valley where modern Sparta now lies, or the Upper Town of Monemvasia – where I’m currently staying – which once held 30,000 people and now has nine permanent residents) is of just how frightening the world must have been to necessitate living on top of a very high rock, and locking oneself in behind a succession of gates and then for safe measure, a further array of thick walls. And yet those gates, those walls, that height, failed again and again to protect the inhabitants. Even if an all-out military assault was deemed too wasteful by whichever power coveted the city, it was just too easy to lay a siege, and starve the people out. And so Mistras and Monemvasia were both kicked like a football between the Byzantines, Turks and Venetians – not to mention the occasional Corsican or Arab opportunist.
And now Monemvasia is a Byzanto-Disneyworld. At least, the Lower Town is. The Upper Town is currently off-limits, as things gear up for its restoration. Workmen are building a terrifying hoist up the side of the sheer rock so that work can start. In just a week, they have nearly reached the top. But given the scale of the ruins, and the length of time those ruins have been left undisturbed, not to mention the sheer difficulty of reaching them – despite the hoist – it’s hard to know when the Upper Town will be accessible again. It was a magical place to wander: I can only hope that their is neither the money nor the will to restore it to Knossos-esque perfection. As for the Lower Town, and its nine permanent residents, building after building has been restored to within an inch of its life, all for the likes of me, wealthy tourists dipping in for a few days of peace and quiet.
I was last here in what feels like another lifetime, with my then young daughters, the self-styled Cat Girls of Monemvasia, who relished the freedom to wander around the streets without cars, whilst I relished the freedom of not worrying about them wandering. Now I find the cats at best irritating, at worst unhygienic, menaces, and the carefully manufactured silence of the cobbled lanes slightly unnerving.
The surrounding sea retains its lure, however. Early this morning, I watched the sun rise over the waves crashing in upon the old, old walls. And the not-quite geometric lines of the buildings, crowding shambolically but purposefully up the slopes of the rock, have a beauty that I have rarely found elsewhere.
But enough is enough. I thought I’d stay here four weeks, but I’m off tomorrow, after only 9 days. I know it’s just plain wrong to be unhappy in paradise, but that’s the truth of it. I’ve tried to forge a connection with my surroundings, listening to, and thinking about, the music of the ninth century Byzantine nun, Kassia. And I’ve kept working, churning out the words. But I’m not sure the words make any sense and Kassia’s probably only going to get a paragraph in the book. So, despite knowing that ‘doing a geographical’ is never an answer (‘it’s not about where you are, Anna, it’s who you are’ – thanks for that my inner therapist), it’s goodbye Monemvasia.