NÁFPLIO (also sometimes known as Nauplia or Navplion) is a rarity among Greek towns. A lively, beautifully sited place, it exudes a grand, occasionally slightly faded elegance, inherited from the days when it was the fledgling capital of modern Greece. The town is a popular year-round weekend retreat and remains by far the most attractive base for exploring the Argolid.
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There’s ample pleasure to be had in just wandering around: looking around the harbourfront, walking the coastal circuit, and, when you’re feeling energetic, exploring the great twin fortresses of Palamídhi and Akronafplía. Náfplio also offers some of the peninsula’s best restaurants and shops, plus facilities, including car rental. In the town itself there are a few minor sights, mainly part of its Turkish heritage, and some good museums. Platía Syndágmatos, the main square of the old town, is the focus of most interest. The nearest good beach is at Karathónas, and closer to the town is the one at Arvanitiá.
The town’s past certainly stretches back to prehistory, and parts of the Akronafplía wall bear witness to that fact, though little else remains dating to earlier than the Byzantine era. From the thirteenth century down to the early nineteenth, it, as with the rest of the region, became an object of contention among invading forces. Finally came the Greek War of Independence, and the city was named the first capital, from 1829 to 1834. It was also in Náfplio that the first president, Kapodhistrias, was assassinated by vengeful Maniot clansmen, and here, too, that the young Bavarian Prince Otho, put forward by the European powers to be (briefly) the first king of Greece, had his initial royal residence from 1833 to 1834. He is now commemorated by a locally unpopular statue.
The Palamídhi, Náfplio’s principal fort, was a key military flashpoint of the War of Independence. The Greek commander Kolokotronis – of whom there’s a majestically bewhiskered statue at Platía Kapodhistría – laid siege for over a year before finally gaining control. After independence, he was imprisoned in the same fortress by the new Greek government; wary of their attempts to curtail his powers, he had kidnapped four members of the parliament.
The most direct approach to the fortress is by a stairway from the end of Polyzoïdhou street, beside a Venetian bastion, though there is also a circuitous road up from the southeast end of town. On foot, it’s a very steep climb up 890-plus stone-hewn steps (in shade early morning) and, when you near the 216m summit, you’re confronted with a bewilderingly vast complex. Within the outer walls there are three self-contained castles, all of them built by the Venetians between 1711 and 1714, which accounts for the appearance of that city’s symbol – the Lion of St Mark – above the various gateways. The middle fort, San Niccolo (Miltiádhes), was the one where Kolokotronis was incarcerated; it became a notorious prison during the 1947–51 civil war.
The Akronafplía fort, to the west of the Palamídhi, occupies the ancient acropolis, whose walls were adapted by three successive medieval restorers – hence the name. The fortifications are today far less complete than those of the Palamídhi, and the most intact section, the lower Torrione castle, was adapted to house hotels.
A fork in the access road to Akronafplía brings you down to a small beach, Arvanitiá, an enjoyable enough spot to cool off in the shelter of the forts. It gets very crowded in peak season and is more pleasant in the early evening with only a few swimmers. Continue along the path from just past the beach entrance for a few minutes, and you can take steps down to some small stone platforms by the sea, or take the attractive paved path around the western end of Akronafplía, to the main town harbour. A dirt road to the southeast of Arvanitiá leads to Karathónas beach, a 45-minute walk.
The town’s third fort, the much-photographed Boúrtzi, occupies Ayíou Theodhórou islet offshore from the harbour. Built in 1473 by the Venetians to control the shipping lane to the town and to much of Árgos bay, the castle has seen various uses in modern times – from the nineteenth-century home of the town’s public executioner to a luxury hotel in the early twentieth century. In her autobiography I Was Born Greek, the actress and politician Melina Mercouri claimed to have consummated her first marriage there.
Near Platía Syndágmatos, three converted Ottoman mosques survive: one, the Trianón, in the southeast corner of the square, is an occasional theatre and cinema; another, the Vouleftikón, just off the southwest corner, was the modern Greek state’s original Voulí (parliament building). A third, fronting nearby Plapoúta, was reconsecrated as the cathedral of Áyios Yeóryios, having started life as a Venetian Catholic church. Nearby are a pair of handsome Turkish fountains – one abutting the south wall of the theatre-mosque, the other on Kapodhistría, opposite the church of Áyios Spyrídhon. On the steps of the latter, president Ioannis Kapodhistrías was assassinated by two of the Mavromihalis clan from the Máni in September 1831; there is a scar left in the stone by one of the bullets. The Catholic church, which has also been a mosque, on Potamiánou, has a monument to foreigners who died in the War of Independence, including Byron.
Náfplio’s archeological museum occupies a dignified Venetian mansion at the western end of Syndágmatos. It has some good collections, as you’d expect in a town near the Argolid sites, including a unique and more or less complete suit of Mycenaean armour, the Dendra cuirass from around 1400 BC, wonderful, birdlike Mycenaean female figurines, and reconstructed frescoes from Tiryns.
Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation Museum
The fine Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation Museum features gorgeous embroideries, costumes and traditional household items from all over Greece. The exotic verve of both women’s and men’s finery is nothing less than dazzling, and there are also entire period rooms re-created, down to the last detail.
The War Museum has weaponry, uniforms, illustrations and other military memorabilia from the War of Independence to the civil war, including a series of portraits of the heroes of the War of Independence, enabling you to put faces to all those familiar Greek street names.
The closest proper beach to Náfplio is at Karathónas, a fishing hamlet just over the headland beyond the Palamídhi fortress, which can be reached by a short spur off the drive going up to the ramparts. A more direct dirt road, theoretically closed to traffic, around the base of the intervening cliffs, can make a pleasant 45-minute walk; however, women alone are occasionally pestered by local scooter drivers. There are four morning bus services from Náfplio in season. The narrow sandy beach stretches for a couple of kilometres, with a summer taverna at its far end. Karathónas attracts plenty of Greek day-trippers in season, along with windsurfing foreigners in camper vans; in summer, cafés compete to provide the loudest music.
Palamedes – cleverest of the Greeks
Palamídhi fortress takes its name from Náfplio’s most famous and most brilliant legendary son, Palamedes. According to mythology he was responsible for a range of inventions including dice, lighthouses, measuring scales, an early form of chess and military formations for soldiers. He was killed by the Greeks at Troy, on charges of treachery trumped up by Odysseus, who regarded himself as the cleverest of the Greeks.