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Travel

My Great Greek Adventure: Nafplio, the First Capital of Greece

December 19, 2020

The Peloponnese region has three peninsulas that point out from its southern half. Some people call these the ‘feet’ of Peloponnesos and on the easternmost point of the feet is the city Nafplion or Nafplio. A little over an hour-and-a- half drive from Athens, Nafplio is a small town with a big history. As you travel out of the capital region of Attica past the Corinthos Canal and into Peloponnesos, each small village may have an intricate story to tell. 

Along with its neighboring cities, civilization in Nafplio dates back to ancient pre-history and the time of Gods and myths. It has family ties to Poseidon the God of the sea. Mentions of the ancient city have even been found on Egyptian funeral tombs, showing the influence and reach of this small sea port. Ties to Egypt present themselves in other ways, as you will find when visiting the ruins of a pyramid-like structure just 20 minutes outside of the city. It is formally called the Pyramid of Elliniko and it is located more inland in the small village called Elliniko. The story is that in this municipal region called Argos there were important roads leading to neighboring municipalities, and the road passed by this pyramid. The structure is nowhere near the size of the great pyramids in Egypt, and in its function it may have served more as watch towers or storage centers. Consensus seems to lean towards these and other ruins of pyramids throughout the region being used for communication and security.  

The extra security was needed because Nafplio was the main port for the whole region. In between sparks of war, ancient civilizations came and went from the area, occupations from outsiders like the Romans, who evolved into the Byzantine Christians, Greek Orthodox culture staying put since the Middle Ages. Each power that occupied the city continued to build on the fortifications and walls of those that came before them. The fortress that was Nafplio would become symbolic well into the modern day, serving as the capital of the new Greek Kingdom for over a decade when independence was justly after the Greek Revolution began in 1821. A notable figure in the fight for independence Ioannis Kapodistrias, would give Nafplio its title and also mark its history with his death by assassination on its streets. Peace would not come back to Nafplio until the first king of modern Greece, Otto would move the capital to Athens.  

Step into the history of this ancient place by visiting its most deserving sites, the ruins of its great fortresses. There are two structures built on the steep hills surrounding the city, Akronauplía down below and Palamidi towering above. The smaller of the two, Akronauplía is much older in age, with parts of its structure dating back to the Bronze Age. The land where Nafplio is located is a peninsula, serving as a bonus safety feature for the fortresses protected by the steep cliffs. Palamidi is bigger in size and is situated higher up on the hillside. It was constructed by the Venetians but became of utmost importance to Greece when it became a starting point for the Revolution against the Turks. Because of its secluded construction along the steep cliffs, Palamidi fortress was used as a prison for a full century. Despite its past, it gifts you the best views of the town below and the surrounding sea and mountains. You could either walk the almost 900 steps from the town up the hill to Palamidi fortress or you could drive to the parking lot located on the opposite side by following the road Odou Nafpliou-Frouriou Palamidiou. The smaller fortress Akronauplía can be accessed by a lift starting at street level in town. 

Another castle graces Nafplio, but this one is a sort of man-made island right across from the main port. Bourtzi Castle takes up the entirety of the small island with just enough space for a boat dock. The castle’s history starts with its construction in 1473 by Italian architect Antonio Gambello, and has ranged from being everything from a prison to a luxury hotel and restaurant. Now it is a tourist and cultural site which occasionally hosts music festivals. The castle can be easily accessed by small boats from just across the water at Nafplio’s main port.  

In town, away from the water, there is just as much to see. Along the port there are plenty of cafes and restaurants with front row views, but the hidden pathways are where you will see the heart of town. As you walk past the shops on the path crossing Syntagma Square and Tria Navarchon Square you will see the Archeological Museum, the very first Greek Parliament building, and even a museum dedicated to the male accessory known as the ‘komboloi’, the famous Greek worry beads. Get happily lost in the winding paths full of colorful buildings that seem to get older the more uphill you climb. A hidden treasure of Nafplio is a walking pathway that wraps around the entire peninsula which houses the fortresses upon its cliffs. The path begins at the Five Brother Cannon Monument right along the water’s edge, and continues on until it reaches Arvanitia Beach on the other side of the peninsula. It is a narrow but organized beach with lounge chairs but also a concrete platform built along the water for sitting and sunning with an adjoining beach bar and restaurant. Both the Akronauplía and Palamidi fortresses can be seen from the beach and protect it from both sides. Imagine our ancient and modern ancestors sitting on this beach protected by their fortresses, and striving to create the Greece that we know today. It is a sensible day trip but also great for a full weekend getaway with a selection of accommodations in town and around it. Whether it is the history that pulls you in or simply the view from high up in the castle, Nafplio is worth the trip. It was after all the first official capital of modern Greece, and so holds a powerful place in our legacy. 

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