Nafplio and the Peloponnese
Oct 1, 2015
Today we bade farewell to Athens and, after a quick taxi ride to the bus station (there are two, so you must be careful to pick the right one) and slight confusion as to where to buy tickets since all bus systems operate independently, we started the 2.5 hour trip to Nafplio on the coast of the Pelopennese peninsula. The peninsula is actually separated from Attica, where Athens is situated, by the Corinth Canal, a cavernous narrow trench constructed relatively recently to allow a shortcut for ocean-going vessels. We were fortunate to catch a glimpse of it as we crossed. Nafplio is a charming old Greek city which was briefly the first capital of Greece after it shook off the Ottoman rule in the early 1800's. It is now a popular weekend getaway for residents of Athens. Upon arrival in Nafplio, we headed to a nearby car rental operated by the husband of the lady who runs the small "pension" or apartment we had booked. He drove us around the port, through town and up the hill towards the Akronafplio, one of three fortresses that protected the town. The Akronafplio's lower base walls are some 3000 years old, around the time of the Mycenaeans. The other two are a fortress on an islet in the bay (old, but not as old) and the Piramidi, a Venetian fortress on a promontory high above the town which can be reached by walking up about 999 steps (but who is counting?). It is a mere pup, being only 300 years old.
Our room, the Angelina Pension was operated by a high school teacher named Despina, an outgoing Greek lady from northern Greece who was warm and animated, passionate about her adopted home and the history and sites of the region. Our quarters were in a very old building on the slopes of the ancient fortress, but we're very spacious and nicely refurbished. No one else was staying at the pension while we were there, so we had the entire outside terraces to ourselves, with gorgeous views of the rooftops of town, the port and gulf and the fortress offshore.
After settling in, we headed down the steps, lots of steps, to the main square for a drink, after which we ventured out on an exploration walk to see the sites of town. The town itself is a quaint but very tourist-oriented town, with many outdoor restaurants, but it was obvious that the peak tourism season was over, particularly as it was not a weekend. We wandered the mostly pedestrian streets, then followed the harbour around the old fortress, the Akronafplio, for a mile or so to the local beach, where a few people were enjoying the surf. We returned via a saddle road between the old fortress and the hilltop fortress, explored more of the old town and found a great recommended Italian gelaterie operated by an outgoing fellow named Marcello. We then crashed for a couple of hours and grabbed some gyros from a nearby eatery which we took back and enjoyed on our terrace with some red wine given to us by our hotel in Athens as a welcoming treat.
Tuesday, September 29
Nothing much to report today. We had plans to rent a car from Despina's husband and tour nearby historic sites, or even trek up the Palamidi fortress and its hundreds of steps, but it was not to be. Lorraine was feeling out of sorts and stayed in bed all day and I caught up on Internet, travel research and our blog. Despina and her chambermaid even had to clean up quietly around her. Despina showed much concern for her condition, but we assured that she just needed some down time and rest. We did arrange to rent a car for the next day.
Wednesday, September 30
After a quick breakfast at what appeared be a popular spot on the way to the car rental, we picked up our vehicle from Paris, Despina's husband. His has a local car rental, and this was no Hertz or Budget. It was a one man show, with his sister helping out. He Just took down our drivers licence information from our International Drivers Permit, hand-written on triplicate form, took our payment and gave us the keys. We had asked for what was probably the only automatic he had and he gave us a ridiculously low rate as we were staying at their pension. He said the car had 10 euros worth of gas, which would be enough for what we planned to do, so we would not have to re-fuel. And we could keep the car overnight if we wanted to, it was our choice.
With our GPS in tow we headed for site of Mycenae about 45 minutes from Nafplio. The terrain was rugged with rolling, rocky hills. The site was clearly visible as we approached and it commanded an impressive view of the valley, Nafplio and the Gulf of Argolis. With its massive proportions the fortress city was home to a highly developed culture, rich and sophisticated in its murals, jewelry, pottery and architecture which thrived almost 3,000 years ago, a thousand years before Athen's Golden Age. Highlights included the renowned Lion's Gate
and the Grave Circle A, where Schliemann, an Indiana Jones type character discovered precious artifacts ( the gold death mask of Agamemnon ), many in splendid gold and the domed Tomb of Atreus, a short 300 years away from the main site. The igloo like tomb, built into the hill has survived for 3300 years and remains intact to this day. You get an eerie sense of history walking in its hushed dome and taking in the earthy smells. Truly a marvel.
Next stop was Epidavros a fairly short drive from Mycenae.Both archaeological sites can be easily visited in a day and the truly ambitious could add the site of Tiryns. Epidavros, nestled in a leafy valley, was known as a famous healing Center. Epidavros attracted renowned doctor-priests on behalf of Asklepios, the God of medicine who treated their patients in spa like facilities. The theatre however is the main attraction. And what an attraction it is! Once we paid our admission and strolled along the stone path, we crested a small butte and there it was in all its stunning beauty. Built almost 2300 years ago and still in amazing condition, the theatre with its sheer size, breathtaking symmetry and phenomenal acoustics is an engineering marvel. In its heyday it could accommodate 15,000 theatre patrons.
Several visitors ventured to stand on a raised disc in the center of the stage and try out the acoustics. One lady sang a Broadway song and garnered an appreciative applause. A gentleman boldly recited a part of Hamlet's famous soliloquy, "To be or not to be..." While sitting there and taking in all the historical meaning of the place it is not difficulty to imagine the Ancient Greek crowds enjoying a favorite comedy by Aristophanes in such hallowed surroundings.
On site is a small museum noted for its elaborately decorated eaves and drain spouts with paint colours still visible on the fragments. One interesting artifact was a beautifully preserved capital in the Corinthian style found buried just beyond the theatre. Also on display were some eerily familiar surgical instruments that conjured up visions of torture rather than healing. Patients who had been healed had inscribed in Ancient Greek script on tablets, their thanks to the gods and healers.
Before returning to Nafplio we decided to make a final stop at the Palamidi Fortress. This imposing hilltop fortress is new by Greek standards at just 300 years and was built by the Venetians and affords sweeping vistas of the town and the surrounding terrain. Just as we arrived and paid our entrance, a rain shower hit, so we quickly toured the best preserved part, took a few panoramic shots of Nafplio and suffering from ruin fatigue decided to end our tour and head back to our pension. We parked the car for the night and took a well deserved nap for a couple of hours before heading to old town for a fine Italian meal ( my first meal in two days ) and a final walkabout in old Town Nafplio. Tomorrow we depart for the Isle of Hydra.