The first capital of independent Greece, but only for a year from 1833, Nafplio is a gem.
It’s a Venetian port town in a fabulous location at the head of the Argolic Gulf. Its superb Palamidi fortress resembles Edinburgh Castle in the way that it dominates the town, although it is considerably bigger. If you think the drag up through the old town to Scotland’s finest is hard work then perhaps the 900 steps to Nafplio’s castle aren’t for you!
The old town is a compact network of attractive tall shuttered houses and neoclassical mansions.
There are shops that sell things that people don’t really need! That’s a novelty to us after weeks of seeing nothing other than occasional bars and scratty little mini markets.
It’s a stop off point for cruise ships and so there is a range of gift shops, galleries, restaurants as well as the best looking ice cream we have seen to date. The most reknowned Italian Gelateria has a twenty person queue whenever we pass.
We were disappointed by Kalamata but delighted by Nafplio. Two nights became three, and slipped into four. I still didin’t want to leave, but was given the order to drive!
Eating out, and eating well.
Starved of interesting food options for a while we were up for the challenge presented here. We had the best lunch of the trip to date (Mezedopoleio Noulis only open from 13.00 – 16.00 daily), one good dinner and one superb dinner (Pidalio), none of which broke €35. The simple Greek salad rarely disappoints, but sometimes reaches exciting heights, the superb oil at Noulis helped it achieve that.
The first two nights we camped at the port with many other motor homes. It was a good spot and near to town, but it was also worked by some seriously aggressive Roma kids.
On Saturday morning we moved to a new spot near the delightful town beach which was a bit more of a crusty traveller hangout with ancient German, Polish and English vans in a mini-commune by the sea.
The new spot is the mid point of some beautiful walks used by the first fitness seeking Greeks that we have encountered. The skinny Greek is an oxymoron. Scores come to swim (it’s still chilly as I have found out), walk and jog. The paths are traffic free and lead on to another large horseshoe beach. In the other direction it’s a pleasant stroll around the headland under the fortress to the old town.
Nafplio is deservedly popular, and it’s only a couple of hours from Athens – weekends are busy!
Old Stuff. Tiryns.
Only a few kilometres from Nafplio there’s the prehistoric site of Tiryns, a citadel that had importance from as long ago as 2500BC, and perhaps functioned as the port for Mycenae (Mycenae will be tomorrow’s history lesson).
Another pile of old stones? Yes. But there are enough to get a feel of the drama of this site. The walls are generally 7m thick and in places 10m. That means that the walls are far wider than most peoples’ whole houses – and it’s 25m high. The rocks the walls are built from are bigger than cars and many weigh 6 tonnes.
We wandered around this huge site with just one other family and a small tour group as we tried to imagine the impression it would have created on the peasant population of the land.
Today we (people) are not truly blown away by anything. Life advances at such a pace.
If it’s not twice as big, twice as small, twice as fast in a year’s time then why bother? Even the Greek goatherds often carry an iPhone.
I tried to picture coming across this structure as if all I had ever seen was the most rudimentary building, and I myself lived in a cave with my animals. Of course I can’t put myself in that position, but the exercise helped me appreciate the place.
More old stuff. Epidauros.
Another 20kms and we were at Epidauros, one of the marvels of Ancient Greece.
This was a place of healing, where early medicines were practised. Here sleep was central to recovery when the god Asklepios might visit you and take your ills from you. The place was begun in the 6thC BC and reached its zenith by the 4thC BC.
Health was taken seriously and there is a stadium for athletic performance as well as dormitories for the sick, temples, baths and probably most important – clean fresh water.
The Theatre of Epidauros.
All of this is interesting, but what most visitors will remember is the utterly massive and still beautiful theatre. With only light restoration this theatre looks almost perfect. The acoustics are spot on, standing in the centre of the stage it wasn’t necessary to project at all to be heard at the very top seats.
It seated 12,000.
Even more so than today, the theatre wasn’t for those scratching a living with a few olives and goats. It was pursuit of the elite.
12,000 of the rich and famous. That’s huge by any 21stcentury standard.
Today the population of Greece is only 11 million. When this place was built in the 4thC BC the population was around 600,000. If it was full I imagine that it would have held every rich or important person not only in Greece, but from surrounding friendly nations as well. Move over Davos!
Mycenae. Oh yea!
It’s good to build up to things.
Tiryns was a hellofan achievement.
With imagination it becomes an incredible place.
Even those seriously lacking in imagination ought to be blown away by Mycenae.
When dates stretch long into the centuries before Christ I get a little confused.
Just believe me when I say that this city was a thriving, sophisticated civilisation long before Christ had been born, or even thought of.
A long drive up a narrow road, and a modest €6 entrance fee gets you to the most awe inspiring site of our journey so far.
Even the magnificent theatre of Epidauros will find it hard to hold a candle to Mycenae.
Start at the museum and read as much as you can.
For decades I’ve looked at pots in museums and galleries and thought “OK, so it’s an old pot. Mum’s got a load of old pots at home”.
Today though it all clicked. Clay was man’s first manufactured substance. And here there are many examples of the oldest uses of clay. Not crude pots such as we might have used in Britain, but fine pieces with intricate decoration. Both functional and decorative.
I was particularly interested to read that it was peaceful accord between civilisations that allowed trade to develop, followed by cultural pursuits. These were later dashed when wars in the near east removed trading partners and the advanced civilisations slipped away, their like not to be seen again for centuries.
At Mycenae it’s the burial tombs that leave the longest lasting impression. There are four examples of tholos tombs. These resemble honeypots, rising in a circle to a conical roof 10 metres or more from the ground. The most magnificent is the probably mis-named Agamennon’s Tomb 500m down the road from the main complex. Each stone is huge, each is shaped and dressed. Go there last. You’ll thank me.
Tombs. And the cistern.
There is one particular cistern that’s 18m below ground, at the bottom of a remarkable corridor. It’s roped off, but easy to access if you take the Greek approach of “if it’s illegal it’s more fun”. Slippery steps take you down and down until you reach the water level. This water meant that the community could withstand a far longer siege than many other city states.
I overheard a guide telling her group that the city served the day to day needs of as many as 10,000 people from the surrounding area. Back then such a number must have included everyone within a few day’s journey, but I guess if it was the only option available then that’s probably realistic.
Greece is a place where myth and history blends (it does everywhere, but does it with more flair here). Both the citadel at Tiryns and the outer wall of Mycenae were built by the one eyed giants who used to live around these parts. It’s easy to see why – no man could possibly shape, let alone build, with such large stones. Could they? I wonder whether our St Just giant Archavon knows anything about them.
After our gentrified stroll around the remains of a civilisation that ceased to exist more than two and a half thousand years ago we dived deep into our own adventure. I was determined to take the mountain route back to Patra. For days I’ve been watching the weather on the high points to be sure it was safe (ish) to cross the high passes. I knew these roads were old routes that might not even be tarmacked in places, and the likelihood of snow was high.
With the weather deteriorating in the coming days it had to be today, or next week some time.
When we started climbing I immediately wished for a decent OS map.
We had no way of telling where the extreme high points lay.
Past the village of the wonderfully named Fountain of Curry the road started climbing steeply.
ArchieVan will climb almost anything in 2nd gear, but on this road we’re in first a lot of the time.
There’s a town ahead, at about 10 miles distance, called Nestani. 10 miles sounds nothing, but at the rate we’re going it’ll take at least an hour. It’s already after 5pm and I don’t fancy tackling this road in the dark.
A tumbled boulder blocked our path and forced us to within a foot from the edge.
The snow is gathering higher at the sides.
When the metalled surface breaks I decide to stop and take a walk to see what’s ahead. I think it demonstrates how slow the going is when a walk seems a good idea.
Around the next bend the north east facing section is deep in snow. It’s probably only a 20 foot stretch, but with rear wheel drive and racing slicks it’s not worth the risk.
Oh. Did I forget to mention that the narrow road, with no barriers, also had a 2000 foot drop to the right? I’m certain that it’s the deepest drop that I’ve ever stood on the edge of.
We turned around.
Wild mountain camp site.
We’re now only a mile back down the mountain and it’s one of the greatest overnight spots that I’ve experienced to date.
At sea level only a few miles away it’s still 16 degrees.
Here it’s fast plummeting towards freezing.
The wind blasts the van from every angle.
Pouring a drink is a risky business. We are swaying as if on a stormy sea.
The driving rain will surely wash away a month of grime from the outside.
Tsiporo (local grappa), diluted with Minty’s excellent Christmas sloe gin gives us Dutch courage.
There’s a wild night on bare mountain ahead.
The weather got worse. By midnight hail accompanied thunder and lightening. The scared guard dog was up on the bed.
As the light of morning gathered, and after not a lot of sleep, I lay there listening to the rain get thicker, sludgier. It was only 2 degrees and we were very high. Rather than risk getting stuck if the weather deteriorated (and it did) we got up and left, inching our way back down the mountain.
It still wasn’t easy. There was a raging river to ford, and we were both relieved after we’d done so.
The rain continued to lash us through the day, occasionally turning to sleet, but thankfully we didn’t see any more snow on the roads.
It seems so strange to write this now. By late afternoon the rain eased, stopped and a weak sun appeared to drag the temperature up sufficiently for a pleasant evening. It’s only 7pm now, but we can’t wait to get to bed. Without signal we don’t know quite where we are, but we know that Patra is only 60km away.
A few weeks ago we drove over the stunning Charilaos Trikoupis Bridge to reach the Peloponnese. To repeat the crossing in the other direction we took the ferry. It’s only a 15 minute journey, but exciting in its way, and certainly you get a better view of the bridge.
The journey east along the coast of the mainland is one that deserves time. The road winds along through tiny bay after tiny bay, usually with a sweet little harbour or beach, and the characteristic hills and mountains soaring behind. Across the Gulf of Corinth snowy mountains gleam. The sea sparkles in the warm low sun.
But we were on a mission. We absorbed all this as we drove on to the mining town of Itea (open cast bauxite mining, not pretty!) then headed high into the hills again to reach Delphi.
The Sanctuary of Apollo.
Delphi would be beautiful even if it didn’t house the most significant Sanctuary of Apollo. It’s a sizeable village perched on cliffs that overlook an extremely deep valley, and the coast.
And the Sanctuary? Wow!
We feel very fortunate to have visited sites in the order we did. It wasn’t planned, but it seems that each built on the last, in both the grandeur of the sites, and our (limited) understanding of their significance.
The museum at Delphi preserves some of the most complete artefacts from the 4thC BC period. On the extensive site the sympathetic reconstruction of a few key pieces helps our imagination.
I could write for hours about it.
Instead let me leave you with this.
This is a small section of the polygon wall, the base of the Temple of Apollo. The huge wall is created with tightly interlocking cut stone. Stone cut with accuracy that would be impressive even were it laser guided.
Not only that – most of the stones are then intricately carved with dedications. The workmanship shown here has probably never been repeated. Yet in the scheme of things the cult of Apollo was fairly short lived. It was around for a few hundred years.
If you have any interest in history, ancient religion, architecture, or just a great view then do try to get to Delphi. There can’t be a single high point of a trip like ours, but Delphi will remain in our memories.
Next week we’ll wind back towards, and hopefully to, Lefkada.