Nafplio, Venetian City By the Sea

A Venetian city in Greece, you ask? Yes, this city was once part of the powerful Republic of Venice, but I'll talk more about that later.

For now, I am heading to Nafplio from Delphi. There is no direct way to get there from here. Either I go east to Thiva (ancient Thebes), head south toward Athens, then turn west to the Peloponnesus. Or, I can drive west along the Gulf of Corinth, cross to the Peloponnesus over the newly built Rio-Antirio bridge near Patra, then head east along the water to Nafplio. Six of one, half a dozen of the other—let's see this famous bridge.

The Rio-Antirio bridge is awesome, a work of modern, architectural art. A bridge at this location was proposed over 100 years ago, but it was not until 2004 that the cable-stayed span was completed.

Still mindful of my cash flow problem, I was shocked at the €10.90 toll to cross (that's about $15!). The bridge crosses the Strait of Rion, the western entry to the Gulf of Corinth.

Now I turn east along the southern coast of the Gulf of Corinth. The road to Corinth is mostly two-lane, but people drive like it's a four-lane highway. It is customary to ride in the shoulder of the road so faster drivers can pass.

I was a little concerned about finding my hotel in Nafplio. It's in the old part of town, where it's not really prudent or possible to drive. After a detour, I arrived in Nafplio and followed the signs to the old town and parked beside a large town square.

I walked into the old section and, with some difficulty, found the Hotel Byron. The hotel is named for Lord Byron, the 19th-century Romantic poet from Britian whose most famous work is Don Juan. He is well regarded in Greece for his participation in the War of Independence from the Turks—there is a monument to him in Nafplio. He traveled throughout Greece, looking for love and adventure. Besides a hotel in Nafplio, he has an asteroid named for him (thought I'd bring us back to astronomy for a moment).

I showered and set out to explore the town. Along the way, I spotted the couple I'd met in Meteora on the street and looking at their guidebook. "Are you lost?" I asked as I snuck up on them.

Soon I found a place to eat, but I was the only person in the place. It came recommended from my Lonely Planet guide, so I knew it must be okay, but it was odd to be the only one in the restaurant. I had the pork stew, which was yummy. After dinner, I tracked down the Italian homemade gelato parlor which also came highly recommended by my guidebook. It is divine.

I strolled around town while I ate my ice cream, then turned in early. Tomorrow I will explore the town and the surrounding fortresses.

As I mentioned before, Nafplio was once part of the Most Serene Republic of Venice (yes, that was its official name). At their apex, they held land in Italy, down the Croatian coast, in Greece and Turkey, and occupied the island of Cyprus. They funded explorers like Marco Polo and backed the Crusades, earning favors around Europe.

Nafplio was occupied by the Byzantines, then the French, and in 1377 the Venetians arrived but were soon ousted by the Ottomans. The Venetians returned in 1685 and fortified the city, but this was the last gasp of the Venetian empire. In a little over 100 years, the 1,100-year empire would be divvied up between Napoleon, the Austrians, and the Turks.

Today, the city resembles a quaint, Italian town with pastel houses and white-washed alleyways. During the Greek War of Independence the city was under siege for an entire year. Its fortifications are so strong, it was made the first capital of Greece after independence from the Turks in 1829. After Ioannis Kapodistrias, the first head of state of independent Greece, was assassinated here, his successor moved the capital to Athens in 1834.

I woke up this morning and looked at my watch. It said 10.15, but it was still pretty dark outside. Was it going to be a rainy day? A ship arrived over night, its lighted masts towered over the terracotta roofs. I got up, showered, and prepared to hit the town. Then, I looked at my watch again. Turns out I was looking at the date and it was only 8:30 in the morning. Damn! Well, I was awake now, so I may as well venture out.

I walked up to the lower fort today called the Akronafplia Fortress. It sits on a ridge that shelters the town from the south. In fact, Nafplio is one of the best harbor cities in the world, which is why it was a prized military target. The town faces north toward a small harbor that opens up to the Argolic Gulf to the south. The ridges and mountains are placed perfectly to watch the water to the south and the land to the east and north.

The Akronafplia Fortress rests on the ridge that hugs the city; it was the acropolis of Nafplio. The earliest fortifications date from the 2nd century BC, but most of the remaining structures were built by the Venetians in the 15th century. To the south is the beach and gulf, and to the north is the town.

Much of the ridge is covered in prickly pear cacti and, as I walked the length of the ridge, I discovered that they are covered with snails.

Because this is a relatively recent construction, there are no limitations to where you can explore. I walked into rooms, through tunnels, and onto ramparts without ropes or restriction. And, I was completely alone, not a soul around.

From here, the city appears as a clustering of continuous terracotta. I returned to town and walked around awhile before lunch. Frankly, the town isn't all that big, something I would come to realize by the end of the day.

It is said that Nafplio is one of the most beautiful cities in Greece, and I can see why. Quaint, narrow streets and alleyways lined with pastel houses and couples strolling. And the quintessential cat around each corner.

I ate lunch at a restaurant called Mezedopoleio O Noulis and, in typical fashion, I was the only one there—tourist season is certainly coming to an end. When I walk into a restaurant, the chef's break is over. After lunch, I will climb the steps to the Palamidi Fortress, the state-of-the-art military compound built in the 1710s.

Local lore says there are 999 steps to the top. I did not count, but I'd say that's about right. The stairs begin in town and continue to the top of the 700-foot mountain. I hoofed it up there; it's really not that difficult. Stopped along the way to take in the view (and catch my breath).

The fortress was the last major fort built by the Venetians before their empire collapsed. Palamidi and Akronafplia Fortresses were used as political prisons into the 20th century.

I sat on a wall overlooking Nafplio for some time. I wrote in my journal and people-watched. It was a cool, breezy day and there was one group of Russian teenagers touring the place—an invasion of another kind. After being chased from my solitude, I explored the fort, creeping through tiny crawl-spaces that open up into stone-walled, windowless prison cells. I found a large, underground room down some steps, but it was kind of dark and spooky; the floor was muddy with a large pool of stagnant water and there was only one small window near the ceiling.

Soon I descended the 1,000 steps back to town and explored the streets. Around 4 o'clock, I heard chanting and prayers from one of the churches in town and headed over to see what was happening.

I continued to walk around town. To the main square, down to the pier, and around the narrow alleyways. I settled on a place for dinner and asked the waiter what was happening at the church this afternoon. He then asked another waiter who said that the head of a saint had arrived in town and was on display in the church.

Night fell and I snapped a few more pictures.

Truthfully, I was a little bored this evening. Maybe I've seen all that Nafplio has to offer; maybe I'm lonely and desire a quality conversation, something I've not had since leaving Athens days ago. I thought about going to a bar, but decided against it. I went to bed early and looked forward to getting on the road tomorrow morning.

The clouds finally cleared this morning, motivating me to run around town and take some photos before checking out of my hotel. I visited a bakery and grabbed a fresh apple turnover and some juice and took some last shots of this lovely town.

I packed my things and lugged them back to the car, which was parked outside the old town. The birds had not been kind to me over the past day; the car was covered in poop. As I drove out of town I stopped to get gas, another €35, and tried to remove the poop from the windows. The attendant was telling me I needed hot water, but we did our best.

Nafplio was a wonderful town, unlike anything I've ever seen. I have yet to visit Italy, but this town is probably the closest I've come. The town's quaint streets and alleys remind me of a quieter existence, where life's pace is slower. I wish I had someone here to share it with.

Today, I'm off to Epidavros to see the best preserved ancient theater in the world, and then I'm heading for the Temple of Poseidon, where I will spend my last night in Greece.