Nafplion: Greece’s Venetian City
Sometimes it’s nice to just do some plain old sight-seeing and not think about how it fits into my understanding of ‘the Greeks.’ Last Saturday, we walked around Nafplion / Nauplion (Drop the ‘o’ if you so desire, no one seems to mind. Note that upsilons often become ‘f’ in modern Greek; find this particularly strange as a pronunciation of ‘autos,’ the ancient and modern Greek word for self). By walked, I mean climbed. And by around, I mean up. 999 steps lead up the Palamidi Fortress that we can see from our terrace. The steps begin about two tenths of a mile away. Legend has it that the the fortress / castle, which
has 9 separate bastions, originally had 1000 steps that led up to it but some horseman was really excited when they defeated the enemy and charged his horse up the hill breaking the first step. It’s not clear there actually are 999 steps — we didn’t count, we were too busy walking.
From the bottom of the fortress, the steps look cool and you can see something of a fortress wall, but there is little to prepare you for the vastness of the structures at the top. There are three separate areas of the fortress that cluster different bastions. Some guidebooks and travel sites say that it’s not that impressive. I don’t know what they are talking about. At the first place you come to from the steps you think this is it, and it’s a relief. There’s a landing that then opens into another wide space, like the center of a fortress with a wall that is remarkably well-preserved. But from the top of the wall you can see a much farther upper bastion to the right / straight ahead and then another cluster of buildings including a building where Kolokotronis, the general who defeated the Ottoman Empire in the Greek War for Independence in 1822, was imprisoned. The first picture below has me up on the high wall — it’s at the center of the fortress. From that high wall you can see the last two pictures on that row and the last picture on the row after that.
I am slightly kidding about how I didn’t think at all about what this meant for my understanding of the Greeks, because I did, but with a focus on modern Greek history. But it turns out that Nafplio does have a place in ancient Greek history and literature, too. The quick and dirty is that Nauplios founded Nauplio / Naflplio, whatev. He was thought to be a son of Poseidon. His son was Palamedes, namesake of the fortress, and is thought to have invented lighthouses, navigation, measures and scales, the games of dice and knucklebones and the Greek letters ΥΦΧΨ (I am getting this from my trusty Blue Guide which sometimes, as in these moments, sounds like an episode of Sesame Street where this episode is brought to you by the letters Upsilon, Phi, Chi and Psi). Palamedes led Nauplion into the Trojan War where he was killed because, according to Apollodorus (he isn’t mentioned in Homer’s Iliad), Agamemnon sent Palamedes to get Odysseus who promised to go to war but Odysseus didn’t want to go so he plowed his fields with salt. I’m a little baffled about how that was to keep him from going to war, but Palamedes figured this out and made Odysseus come anyway and Ody was pissed he had to go so Ody set Paly up as a traitor to the Trojans by planting a letter from Priam in his tent which then led to the stoning of Paly.
The actually quite impressive two-story Nafplion Archaeological Museum housed in an old Venetian armory attests to the existence of human beings in Nafplion and its environs extending back at least to the Mesolithic Era around 7000 BCE. Nafplion sided with Sparta again Argos around 625 BCE and when Argos won, Nafplion became the port for Argos and this is why artifacts from around that time can be found here. But it wasn’t really much of a town by the time of Roman antiquity in Greece. Nafplion didn’t re-emerge until the Venetians took an interest in it in the 11th century and then continued to fight with Turkey over it for several hundred years. At one point in 1540, it was the Turkish capital of Morea. It was recovered by the Venetians in the late 17th century when they finally said, we gotta build a fortress. So Palamedes went up between 1711-1714, just in time to fall to the Turks in 1715 (clearly not as well situated as the Mycenaean palace). Briefly in around 1770, Nafplion was occupied by Russia — I don’t really know anything about how / why Russia got involved but Nafplio has several harbors and some prime real estate, and well, then it had a big fortress too
so I guess everyone wanted a piece of the action. Finally, the Greeks defeated the Turks in Nafplion by penetrating Palamedes in the same exact way that the Turks had penetrated the fortress when the Venetians held it a little more than a hundred years before. Nafplion would become the first capital of independent Greece in the 19th century. Today Nafplion seems like a place for tourists who want to get out of Athens and have a launching pad to see archaeological points in the area of which there seem to be many, or Athenians who like the beach. We noticed a considerable number of sleek yachts in the harbor on our sight-seeing day, including this one above that looked very gangster to me, complete with the Porsche parked outside the yacht. My usually quite amenable travel companion would not take this shot because he thought it was embarrassing. Fortunately, I do not feel this way about selfies.
I didn’t realize this until we did our focused sight-seeing (which made me think I should do more sight-seeing in places I am living, because when you actually start looking at things in the place you are living, you see it more and differently) but this town has lions everywhere. The Lion of St. Mark was a symbol of the Venetian Republic and they carved it into walls and gates wherever they could. These pictures are of four of the lions we have found around town, but there are many more.
There are two other fortresses in Nafplio, one is pretty much immediately above the place we are staying. It’s not so much a fortress as Nafplio’s acropolis, and it is actually called Acronafplion. We got some good shots of it from Palamides. We walked up and saw some churches that seem to not be very old but already in decay. Then we saw a couple taking wedding pictures at the end of the road, which seemed odd because it was just a parking lot and not one of the most beautiful places, but I think it must have been for the view of the sea. This sighting prompted me to go on my tirade about the unromanticism of taking pictures in your wedding clothes on a day other than they day you are getting married, which was either the case here or these were the most chilled out and unhurried newlyweds I’d ever seen. Hey, it’s Greece, that is possible. I’m not sure you can see them but they are in the third picture. The last picture here is of more lions on the side of the acropolis wall.
Finally, there is a fortress in the middle of the harbor called Bourtzi, which we want to take a trip out to on a ferry but have yet to do. The first picture of this post is a picture of Bourtzi from Palamides.
If you walk around the harbor beyond the lighthouse there is a walkway toward the beach. The first high wall to your left has five cannons delicately sticking their noses out to the sea. We did go and look at the cannons, called “Five Brothers,” which were pretty amazing and for instruments of death, strangely beautiful. They had dates from the late 17th century carved into them. Then we went and watched a World Cup game. Yesterday, we finally made it to the beach, which I don’t yet have pictures of. It’s beautiful and very clear and very green, but the rocky seashore hurts my feet. For the first time in my life, I think I might need crocs.