This is Nafplio, one of the most beautiful towns on the Greek mainland, and a paradise for people who enjoy walking around. It is off the beaten track and at the same time a place that needs no introduction to Greeks. It is a place frequently visited by Athenians, who consider the trip not to be a big deal, as it is an easy two-hour drive from Athens.
Located by the calm waters of Argolicos bay, Nafplio has many things to offer: from serene picturesque bougainvillea-covered little back-roads, to sunlit busy squares full of cafés and taverns; impressive castles with breath-taking views and award-winning beaches; but, most importantly, an easy-going, relaxed rhythm of life.
The History of Nafplio
The secret to its good looks is that it was spared the concrete-development devastation that afflicted most other Greek cities after the 2nd World War. On the contrary, it has been blessed architecturally, as it served as the first capital of the modern Greek State between 1823-1834; the urban development that was necessitated due to its new role was, thankfully, conducted within the more aesthetically-sound 19th century architectural lines. On one of these little colorful streets, the country’s first governor, Ioannis Kapodistrias, was assassinated, setting once again the wheel of history in motion, right after the country’s liberation from the Turks. The Bavarian prince Otto was appointed to rule the country as King and soon after Athens became the new capital, due to its symbolic status and historical connotations that linked the present to the glorious past. And Nafplio was saved…
Nafplio’s existence is equally old to that of Athens, as its origins are described in mythology, rather than recorded history: Its founder, Nauplius, was supposed to be the son of god Poseidon and the Danaide Amymone. The Byzantines valued Nafplio for its prominent position on most of the important commercial routes, while the Crusaders went out of their way to conquer it. To make a long story short, its position and its natural harbor were strategically important to everyone; Romans, Byzantines, Turks, Franks, Venetians, all of which held its fortresses at different times.
The influence of all those distinct occupiers is evident all around, making it a town where a stroll brings one face-to-face with many different layers of history and representative architecture; preferably with an Italian-style gelato in hand, as the place is famous for this specific treat.
What to do while at Nafplio
One of the main dilemmas posed here is whether one should try to climb up Palamidi Castle or not. Well, apparently there are 900 stairs to climb – or so they say, I was too short-breathed to count, to be honest – but on the other hand you don’t find such well-preserved medieval castles every day. You see, the Venetians loved the place. They called it “Napoli of the East” and decided they would never let anybody take it away from them. So, starting in 1686, they commissioned specialized Swedish architects to build a set of castles and fortifications. And they did a pretty good job, considering that nobody took these walls – featuring 97 heavy cannons which covered the entire area – on their watch. The Ottomans succeeded them as rulers, through siege and treason rather than conquest, but eventually lost the castle to the Greek rebels, that astonished Europe, capturing it less than a year from the start of the Greek Revolution, in 1822. You can do it too, with a good pair of comfortable walking shoes and a good camera to shoot all the views from up there; and water and sunblock of course; and a hat; and …determination. Just go easy on your way down or your knees will hate you.
Upon coming down from the castle, several options unfold: You can either go swimming to Karathona or Arvanitia beaches, to rest your feet in clear blue waters while looking up at what you just accomplished. Or …raid the town for drinks, food and souvenirs. The place is famous for its “komboloi” – worry beads – artisanal production and there is even a museum dedicated to them, apart from all the shops that sell them in every possible version. In addition, there are interesting antique shops and cozy little places that sell hand -made pottery, shadow-puppet figures, handicraft items etc. There are even pottery lessons for the whole family.
A foodie’s paradise, Nafplio has so many restaurants and taverns compared to its population that one might think that cooking and eating at home simply does not happen here. Not the case. It is just that there is a year-round, constant flow of domestically-sourced visitors to Nafplio, who value traditional Greek cuisine of a certain quality rather than the speed-oriented service that tourist crowds usually get in other places.
Another thing that is not to be missed is the tiny naval fortress of Bourtzi. Especially during sunset, and after nightfall when it gets lit up, it looks like it has jumped out of the pages of a fairy-tale, perched on the islet of Agioi Theodoroi, just off the shore. The Venetians built it to protect the city and its harbor from the pirates that were pillaging the Aegean waters and especially rich coastal towns like Nafplio. It later became the residence of the executioners of Palamidi prison and more recently, up until 1970, it functioned as a hotel. You can visit it by boat from the harbor or, ideally, during a sea-kayak day-tour.