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A Visit to Nafplion

Nafplion, GreeceDriving into Nafplio several years ago my first impression was that this can't be the place. I read that Nafplio was a charming city with a spectacular waterfront, small streets and historic buildings crowned by a fortress that looks over another fort in the middle of the harbor. But driving into Nafplio is like entering a suburb of Athens, with congested traffic, apartment buildings and a feeling of disorder as if the city was not planned but allowed to spring up wherever anyone wanted to place a building. There was chaotic traffic like you would find in Athens and I wondered if I had not slipped into a worm-hole and been magically transported, car and all back to Greece's current capital from Greece's first capital. Why would so many Athenians spend their weekends here? Because it reminded them of Athens?

Nafplion, GreeceOk. To be totally honest I was not in the best of moods. I had driven down from Pelion on back roads, cutting across the Gulf of Corinth on a small ferry that went back and forth between Agios Nikolaos and Egion, and then driven the coastal road that hugs the northern shores of the Peloponessos through the rush hour traffic of Corinth, in a great little Honda Civic that my friend Elias at Swift Car rental had given me because some other tourist had totaled the brand new Hyundai Accent I should have been driving. The Honda was a good car, in fact it saved my life a couple times along the way by responding when I had to get out of a tight situation, once on the National Road (near head on collision with a cement-mixer) and another in Evia (almost rear ended by a truck full of goats). But as quick and maneuverable as the Honda was, it lacked a critical element for me and my less tolerant family. It had no air-conditioning and this was the middle of a heat wave in Argos, one of the hottest regions in Greece. The only relief was the movement of the hot air through the open windows, though this had to be fought for since my family (my wife and daughter) would rather sweat than have their hair messed with by hot wind. A swim and late lunch east of Egion helped us gather our strength and enabled us to continue all the way to Nafplio, arriving at sunset, but this first glimpse of the city did not make me want to spend any more time then it took to find an air-conditioned hotel with satellite television. With my handy Greece-Travel-Phone I called Kostas at Dolphin Hellas Travel and before we reached the city he called back to tell us we were booked at the Byron Hotel.

Nafplion Syntagma SquareLuckily for me there was more to Nafplio than the modern commercial  neighborhood we had to drive through to reach the old city, the true center of the town and the reason many people include it on their itineraries. By following the signs to the port we found what  was the biggest parking lot I had ever seen in Greece, hugging the waterfront between the sunset colored sea and the beautiful historic buildings of the old city. Once we parked the car, located the Byron Hotel and then drove the car close enough to unload the baggage before driving down to re-park it and then walk back up to the hotel, I knew that if I did not turn the AC as high as it could go and take the best shower of my life, that I would write a scathing review of Nafplion and nobody would ever want to go there again. But whichever ancient Gods look over the city were smiling on her that day and by the time I  got back to our incredibly luxurious room, Andrea and Amarandi had it cooled down, and while my computer downloaded five days of e-mail (for some reason the phones in Pelion were not AOL software friendly), I did actually take the best shower of my life in a bathroom suitable for royalty, made of marble and bronze. From then on the city was ours. 

Syntagma Square, NafplionNafplio is like a bigger version of the Plaka in Athens, only more beautiful. The main platia called Syntagma (Constitution) Square, is paved in marble and is on a much grander scale than anything you will find in the Plaka and surrounded by historical buildings including a Turkish mosque, several very popular cafes, shops, a bank that looks like an art-deco version of Knossos, the well-stocked Archaeological museum, and the Xenon Inn Hotel, housed in an impressive historic building. The square it one of the best preserved 19th Century platias in Greece. The streets approaching it are well lit, closed to automobile traffic and filled with people casually strolling, looking at the jewelry shops, bakeries, tourist shops and the many bars and restaurants. One of the places in the old town of Nafplion that still retains the character of Greece in the fifties and sixties is the Ellas Taverna which claims to be the first taverna in Greece. It is an old unpretentious working class estiatorion that just happens to have a great location and has stuck with its roots. The Odyssey book shop is also in the square with an ample supply of English language books, guidebooks, maps, best sellers, CDs and all your favorite newspapers, plus some locally published books that you may not find anywhere else though recently it has become more of a tourist shop.

Bouboulinas Street Nafplio, GreeceThe big square at the waterfront and the sidewalk that was once Bouboulinas Street which follows the harbor is a place where people watch the sunset, walk off their evening meals or just enjoy the air. It can be very festive as town squares often are with vendors selling hot nuts, roast corn and even cotton candy. I was dying for an ouzo but by the time we had gotten our act together and my family found me (I got so mad at them I disappeared for awhile so I could torture myself rather than have them torture me) it was time for dinner. There are a couple cafe-bars in the square including the one owned by the Hotel Grande Bretagne. If you don't smoke you may not want to spend much time indoors in one of these places. Everybody smokes. I lasted about 5 minutes before I was carried out coughing and wheezing. Luckily they have plenty tables and chairs outside even in the winter. Along the waterfront cafe-bars alternate with fish tavernas and you can have a drink or two and then move next door for dinner. They have done a nice job of landscaping with green grass, flowers, palm trees and exotic plants and bushes. It was a necessity because the parking for the old town is actually on the waterfront.

nafplio greeceOnce you pass the parking area the cafes are on the water and have a nice view of the Bourtzi. What is the Bourtzi you may ask? A Bourtzi is a fortified islet. The Bourtzi in Nafplion was built by the Venetians in 1473 and protected the entrance to the harbor from Pirates. In the 19th century this is where the executioners for the prison at the Palamidi fortess lived since it was bad luck to have them live in the city itself. The Bourtzi is more or less the symbol or mascot of the city. There are probably more photos taken of this pint-sized castle than any building in the Peloponessos. It has at various periods been a prison, a hotel and is currently a musical venue for the Nafplio Folk Music Festival which is held in May and June and features Greek and international performers. There is also the Maritime festival which is a week long and is celebrated every two years beginning the last Sunday in June. The fortress is reached by small boat from the harbor. It has in the past been open as a snack bar in the evening but you may want to check that. Those who stay in the Nafplion Palace Hotel and Villas will become quite familiar with it if you spend any time at all on your balcony. I have dozens of photos of the Bourtzi at different times of day and in all sorts of weather.

palamidi fortress, Nafplion , GreeceThe Palamidi Fortress, which sits above and dominates the city, is actually three separate fortresses walled together. It was built by the Venetians in 1714 and then taken by the Turks the following year and held until they surrendered it to Kolokotronis after a 15 month siege during the 1821 Greek War of Independence. There are 999 steps leading up to the fortress but you can just take my word for it and not count them and instead take a taxi to the top or if you have a rental car just follow the signs. The Palamidi is open from 8:00 am to 7:00 pm. During the summer if you decide to take the challenge and walk go early in the day if you wish to survive the trip and be able to tell your grandchildren about it. This is one of the greatest attractions in Greece, right up there with the Acropolis so don't miss it. There is a spectacular view of the city and much of the entire bay and the eastern Peloponessos.

Acronafplia, Nafplio, GreeceThe Akronapflia is the oldest part of the city, in fact up until the Venetians and the Franks arrived in the 13th Century, it was the city. Now, unbelievably there are two sixties-style concrete hotels on it, built by the Greek government during the dictatorship. One is presently deserted and a haven for birds and secret lovers. The other hotel is the Nafplion Palace Hotel and Villas which is actually pretty nice and boasts some of the best views of the city and the bourtzi. In fact we stayed in a room that had such a great view I did not want to leave. You can drive or walk up past the fortifications and the views of the town and harbor to the north and the rocky shore and the Peloponessos to the south. For a real thrill take the elevator from the small square just below the hotel. You enter through a long cave. Once you get to the top follow the stone streets through the castle and back down where you will end up at the newly rebuilt old city gate. 

nafplio, greeceBelow Acronafplia is the Psaromahalas or fisherman's district.The streets of the city are generally small and steep, some of them actually stairs rather then streets. Like many popular towns in Greece the main streets have been taken over by the high-end businesses. But there are still a number of unique shops with art and crafts that you won't find anywhere else. Look for the shops that sell Greece's national pastime: worry-beads or as they are called here komboloi. When I visited the town in 2000 there was the famous Komboloi Museum which is still there, but in 2015 when I made my last visit  there were several others. Also look for the Lathos Bar which looks more like an eccentric's antique or junk shop, though it is indeed a bar and an entertaining bar at that. Of particular interest to musicians is the shop which makes bouzoukis and other stringed instruments. If you are in the market for an aoud, baglama, guitar, bouzouki or even a hand-made flute, then this is where the pros go. It has moved from its near central location but it still exists, though I never found it again. Look for the shop that sells hookahs too. They make a great gift for those adventurous teens though if you are American who knows if they will even allow you to bring it into the country. Anyway they are beautiful to look at even if you don't buy one.  There are also a number of galleries with original art. Its not surprising. If I were a Greek artist this is where I would be. Everywhere you look there is something to paint.

Nafplion, VespaOld Nafplio is a timeless city. Streets that are barely if ever used by automobiles, shops, restaurants and cafes selling the same things they have been selling all century (with the exception of the tourist shops) and people who have a kind of homegrown sophistication. Nafplio is a hip little city that will certainly remind you of a more romantic age than the one we are in now. Look for the Church of Agios Spiridon where Greece's first Govorner Ioannis Kapodistrias was assassinated in 1831. The first shot missed him and is still lodged in the church wall. There are a number of important churches in Nafplion and even a mosque or two. The old town is made up of Venetian buildings and neoclassical mansions, while the new town has the concrete apartment buildings that we who spend a lot of time in Greece know so well. There is a funny little train that cruises around the city similar to the one in the Plaka of Athens which you may want to take a ride on to get a feel of the city or to make your kids happy. But near the park is an old historic train and the three museums, the Archaeological, the War Museum and the Folklore are all worth a visit

Fishermen in NafplionThe best time to walk or ride bikes around the old city is in the morning until about 11, and then in the early evening when everyone else does and it has the feeling of a county fair in July. Nafplio can be hot in the summer as is much of the Argolis since this is where they grow oranges in the winter. In the day people go to the beaches. Behind Acronapflia is a mountain covered in cactus and a view of the coast that is pretty spectacular. There is a pedestrian road that goes around the acropolis to the town beach on the other side. You can also get to it by taking the road that goes up to the hotel. If you are a morning jogger you will be in paradise. The path winds around the coast starting at the end of the harbor just below the walls of Acronafplia. The swimming is fine here, surprising for such a big town but once you see the lay of the land you will understand why. The town is separated from the beach by the mountainous peninsula which keeps the dirty stuff in the harbor away from the swimmers. I didn't go in but if you like to snorkel the diving looked pretty good on the rocks along the path around Acronafplion. Two miles east there is a beach at Karathona where most of the locals go. Its a long stretch of sand and has a nice fish taverna and even some trees for shade. At the end of the beach is a small church and a large old house that is being converted into a holiday hotel for retired seamen. Five miles further the town of Tolon has a very long sandy beach and many hotels, bars and restaurants. Buses leave from Syngrou station, every half hour from 7am to 7 pm. After that you can take a taxi. It's about a 20 minute trip.

Bourtzi, Nafplion, GreeceThere are enough interesting archaeology sites in the area to make Nafplion a good place to base yourself from, though if you are the type who likes a hotel right on the beach so you can easily take an early morning or evening swim you may want to stay in one of the other smaller towns along the coast. Astros is an option, with more of a Greek island feel to it, as is Tolon. From any of these places the entire Argolis peninsula, Myceneae, Epidavros, Argos and Corinth is accessible by local transportation, tours or rental car. The Argolis itself is agricultural and known for its citrus fruits and there are stands all through the area where you can buy oranges, artichokes, wine and whatever else is in season. On your way out of town towards Tolon don't miss the carved lion in the new town below the Palamidi fortress. It was built for the officers and soldiers of the Royal Bayerisch Brigade in 1840 by Christian Stegel with a grant from Ludwig, King of Bavaria. Ludwig helped the Greeks in their fight for independence and his son Otto became king of Greece in 1832.

Nafplion is a great place to visit especially in the off season when it is cool enough to explore, the tourist hordes are gone, and you want to do nothing but shop, eat, drink and watch life in this small city, the first capital of modern Greece. There is a reason why Nafplion is so popular with Athenians regardless of what season it is. Come and check it out. Like me you will probably be back again.

Matt Barrett

Wandering in NafplionWandering in Nafplion: A Lover's Guide
by Keith Sturgess

"This is an unconventional book: a mix of history, memoir and tourist guide to the delightful Peloponnese town of Nafplion and an appraisal of the much cherished element in the writer's life of the past 15 years. "Keith Sturgess's book is the first and only guide to the city which captures its magic and its place in Greek history." John E. Fischer, Emeritus Professor of Classics, Wabash College, USA. "An informative yet entertaining book, beautifully written and clearly presented with a wealth of illustrations. The Walking Tour leads you on a fascinating and leisurely walk round the town, revealing much that might otherwise be missed." Vanessa Gardiner, landscape painter, UK. "This is simply wonderful writing, full of wit and wisdom and it has a delightful humorous and ironic style."
John Benington, Professor of Public Management and policy, Warwick University, UK.

Look for it in your favorite Nafplion bookstore or at the Peloponnesian Folkore Foundation Museum shop and the Fougaro Art Centre or on

Delphi-Olympia tour


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