Monemvasia, Greece

We're sitting on the top deck of the ship after a very active, and surprising excursion on the mainland. We are in Monemvasia, Greece, referred to as the Greek version of the rock of Gibraltar. Greeks fleeing the Slav invasion of Laconia sought refuge here, and at one time, Monemvasia controlled sea travel between Levant and European shores.

None of our travel research, nor information provided by the ship led us to think this would be an interesting port. How unfortunate, or not if you look at it as the unexpected surprise it is.

The main adventure to take here is the hike to the top of "the rock", which is basically a large, rocky outcropping sticking out of the sea about a mile offshore, and rising to a height of 985 feet. It's necessary to cross a causeway to reach the main gate of what is known as the old city. A local bus makes the transit every 30 minutes for 1 Euro each way. We opted for a round trip ticket, knowing our energy would be better spent on the hike.

The Old City is really a small village, developed to accommodate visiting tourists. It's not as commercial as more mainstream travel destinations, but it does have its share of souvenirs the discriminating shopper will overlook. The jewels to be found include local artisans, restaurants and shopkeepers with their uniquely local feel and offerings.

Take the time to wander the streets of the old city, which are pedestrian only and typical narrow walkways like those found in other Greek locales. The views overlooking the sea from many spots are breathtaking. Calling it picture postcard perfect is cliché, but true.

Finding the start of the path to hike to the top proved challenging for our party of 4. We backtracked our steps several times before finding the start and beginning our climb. Ask a local to point you in the right direction, and plan about 40minutes for the hike on cobblestone trails to the top. Plan your venture accordingly to avoid midday and the hottest hours since shade is limited. Also have plenty of water, take your time, and enjoy the changing views looking down on the old town and out to sea as you reach higher plateaus. Your prize for reaching the top is a stunning panorama and the Hagia Sophia, a cliff side mosque.

The mosque is designed after the famed Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. It is part of a larger complex comprised of a hum man, cisterns and citadel. The mosque is in excellent condition, while the other buildings are crumbled shadows of themselves.

We explored the area around the mosque, taking in cliff-edge views from rocky outcroppings. A five minute pause left us with nothing but sounds of seaside breezes and an occasional deep, thunderous rumble we never positively identified, but later assumed to be wind or water hitting deep caverns within the rock. The sounds initially sounded like the deep earth thuds of an earthquake, but there were no physical vibrations.

Touring the top of the rock provided a nice rest from the steep hike up. And it prepared us for the hike back down, which was not as strenuous, but still a good workout to keep our footing on cobblestones polished smooth by much foot traffic.

Back in the old town, we stopped into Malva Gallery, featuring the work of a local artist who created works appearing simple and graphic at first glance, but proved extremely complex and intricate upon closer inspection. We purchased a beautiful print the artist had created depicting the rock with the old town at its base, and the steep climb to the Hagia Sophia at the top.

We finished off our visit of Monemvasia waiting for the bus for our trip back across the causeway. We waited. And waited. After more than half an hour of waiting, we decided there must be a lunch break, or slower than advertised Greek bus service and began the walk back. The walk was nice, but under direct sun, making the water on either side of us more appealing for an impromptu swim, if we'd had bathing suits.