For a thousand and one reasons, many of us head for the Greek islands. Whether it’s the Cyclades or the Dodecanese, the Ionian or the Sporades, they draw us back year after year. Crystal clear sea, golden sands, warm salads with ripe buffalo tomatoes and rich feta cheese, clear and pungent retsina and wall-to-wall sunshine.
However, I don’t think enough of us head to the mainland to enjoy a slightly different Greek experience.
And so, we headed to Napflio, or Napflion as the maps tend to have it. It’s a small town in the Peloponnese area of Greece; situated on the eastern corner of the Argolic Gulf. Originally called Napoli de Romania, it’s lost most of its title, but none of its history and charm.
The easiest way in is a flight to Athens. My tip would be not to loiter in Athens; save it for a couple of days before you fly out. It’s a manic place. Best to pick up your hire car and head west, through Megara and Isthmia, then head south through Monasteraki to Napflio. They are good roads all the way; 138km and all done in a little under two hours.
We stayed in a small family-run hotel on Fotomara Street at the Pension Dafni (http://www.pensiondafni.gr/en/), We arrived at around about lunchtime, so everywhere was very, very quiet. Napflion is quite pedestrianised, so we left the car across from the main square and headed to the hotel. We’d booked late, so room choice wasn’t an option open to us.
Mite’ra met us at the door and her son helped us up two steep flights of stairs and on to a very dark landing. No doors? No rooms? We looked up. A fire ladder led to what looked like a large loft hatch. This was it? We’d booked the ‘suite’ but this wasn’t really what I was expecting.
Pushing the loft hatch open I strained to make out anything in the gloom. The young son, probably about eleven and without a word of English, beckoned me upwards and inwards,
Suddenly, he ran to one side and threw back curtains on three sides of the room. Light poured in and we realised we were right at the top of the house in a self-contained apartment. Kitchenette, industrial-sized fridge, small living area, bathroom, wardrobes, double bed and windows absolutely everywhere. A door in the corner opened up onto a private terrace with a view cascading down over rooftops, across the harbour and out to sea. It was panoramic. To the right was a hill leading to the Palamidi fortress. At night, the fortress was floodlit and our very private room meant that we could lie in bed with the curtains pulled right back and be gently washed in pale orange light.
The balcony was an ideal area for looking down across the Old Town. I spent hours watching people hanging out washing, preparing meals, sitting quietly having a glass or two before bed. Children played on the balconies and cats slept in the heat of the day.
It would be an ideal home for our fortnight in Napflio.
It’s a beautiful town. It looks and feels very Italian. In ancient times, it was a sovereign naval nation-city. Napflios was the father of Palamidis, hence the connection. The town survived invasion by the Franks, the Venetians and the Ottomans. Eventually, in 1829, after the Greek War of Independence, it became the capital of the new state and the presidential palace was on the main town square until the capital relocated to Athens in 1833.
The influences of Venice are evident in the neo-classical architecture and the decorative balconies. The town is split into two, typical of many large towns in Greece. The Old Town retains its charm with many fine mansions, squares and a pavement-cafe culture. The New Town is away to the north and the east, home to the main port, housing development, shopping malls and the bulk of the population. As a base, it was ideal. We wandered into the new town, but soon wandered back to the beauty and splendour of the older, more refined areas around the main Syntagma Square.
Palamidi fortress lies to the east of the town. It’s built on the crest of a hill some 200 metres above sea level. Now, this doesn’t sound particularly high, but in the heat of the day, with summer temperatures often in the high 30s, it’s certainly a trek up the winding 913 steps to the summit.
It was built during the second Venetian occupation in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
The view it commands from the summit makes the journey more than worthwhile, even in the heat of the day. We climbed it in the morning and in the afternoon. However, at night, steeped in early ouzos, retsina and Domestica, it was a case of looking up to it in its full floodlit glory and only imaging the view from the top across a moonlit gulf.
Epidaurus lies 35km east of Napflio. It’s about forty minutes by car.There are regular buses that make the journey from the main bus station. Greek buses are the same whether you’re on the islands or the mainland. They run more or less to time. The driver usually subjects everyone to his choice of music or local radio, which can be equally not to everyone’s taste. He will take you around hair-raising bends with komboloi, Greek prayer beads, swinging in the front window along with photographs of his mother. Sometimes there is a photograph of his wife; but there’s always one of his mother!
Having been educated in a 1960’s grammar school, it was natural that Classics would be part of the curriculum. As young boys, we struggled our way through both Latin and Greek for nearly five years.
Greek study focused on a series of primers, titled Thrasymachus, presumably named after the character in Plato’s Republic. Strangely, the book is still in print and the 1991 new edition is still available from Amazon, albeit for a princely sum. We recited , ad infinitum, words, phrases and sentences about Thrasymachus listening to his dog barking, coming home for his dinner and popping out for the odd war or two. However, five years of turgid study left me with two indelible assets.
The first is that I can still recite the alphabet and still read Greek, at least phonetically, even if the meaning escapes me. Modern Greek carries many of the features of the Ancient form, so it’s ‘read what you see’ and away you go.
The second led me into studying Classical civilisation as an undergraduate and developing a real affection for Greek theatre.
That’s what draws you to Epidaurus. Originally it wasn’t part of Argolis and was home to Asciepius, son of Apollo and a great healer.
Epidaurus has two centres. One one side is the asciepeion; the largest complementary medicine centre in the ancient world, built around healing springs. It was still trading as late as the 5th century AD, although by this time managed by Christian healers.
The second centre, and the one that draws the tourists, is the theatre. It is huge! If you’re fortunate, and this means during either early morning or towards twilight, you’ll have the place more or less to yourself. The theatre seated 14,000 spectators and offered almost perfect acoustics. It’s staggering to think this when you consider it’s built in stone and out in the open air and, even today, with the evident ravages of time, you can still stand at the skene, the central spot, and your whispers can be heard from every single seat.
Before you leave, look back and consider that it was here in 67BC and it’s still a thing of architectural beauty.
North of Napflion lies Mycenae. It’s 55km on good roads and a little under an hour away. It’s close to the ancient capital of Argos and you can visit both at the same time.
Mycenae has been inhabited since Neolithic times. It was a military centre and also the burial place of Clytemnestra, wife to Agamemnon. (Year 2 Thrasymachus Bk. 2 ‘The Trojan Wars)
It’s an extensive site but its draw is the Lion’s Gate. The first thing that strikes you is just how much of the original city walls has survived. That’s partly because they were built in carefully engineered boulders that are absolutely huge! They lock together without a trace of mortar and tower above you. Central to all this is the Lion’s Gate, the oldest surviving monumental piece of Mycenaean sculpture. It was built in the 13th century BC and its relief of two confronting lionesses is still clearly visible today.
It’s been excavated, rather than reconstructed and this makes it all the more impressive. OK, there has been a little work done to it, but it’s been cosmetic rather than massive.
No visit to this area of Greece can be complete without a trip to see the Corinth Canal. It’s an hour’s drive north-east from Napflion and north of the town of Isthmia.
The canal separates the Peloponnese from the Greek mainland and joins the Gulf of Corinth with the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea.
It’s four miles in length and seventy feet wide at its base. This makes it too narrow for most large modern ships so, as a consequence, it has little economic importance. However, the fact that it was dug in the late 1880’s at sea level, therefore requiring no use of locks, is certainly worth celebrating. Periander first considered cutting a channel through as early as 7th century BC. Caligula had the idea as well, but was put off by the erroneous advice that the sea on one side was higher than the sea on the other, therefore the ships would have to sail uphill. No doubt, the purveyor of such useless information soon made himself scarce.
These days, the canal is mainly used for recreational and tourist traffic. The limestone walls stretch up 90ft from sea level and it’s a good deal wider at the top than it is at the bottom. The main highway crosses the canal at the highest point . You can leave the car in the cafe’s parking area, cross the road and take some fabulous photographs down the length of the canal.
More interesting, however, is is you carry on south a little way further to Isthmia. As you drive along, you come to a set of lights and gates, reminiscent of a railway crossing. This is where the canal crosses the roadway. There is another identical set on the other side of a thirty foot gap.
We waited five minutes or so and then noticed children getting out of cars and walking to the edge. We followed. Bells started ringing and lights flashed. Looking down into the water, we suddenly realised that the road was down there, deep in the water. Slowly, ever so slowly, winches started turning and hydraulics gasped as the road gradually appeared, complete with its no-overtaking white line. It rose out of the water until it was level with the banks on both sides.
Flapping fish covered the tarmac. Exposed and gaping for air, they were targets for the hordes of children who ran onto the road to gather them up before the cars were allowed over to the other side. Never mind about Health and Safety, the fact that the barriers were still in place or that the sirens were still sounding – this was too much of a good chance to pass up. It’s fascinating. I’d love to go back and see it all again! Friday night, fish for tea.
Another reason for heading to Isthmia is that it lies temptingly close to Old Corinth itself. New Corinth lies a few kilometres away. It was built in 1858 after a massive earthquake totally destroyed the original town. In 1928, another earthquake destroyed the new town and it was rebuilt again in 1933. It’s a pleasant enough town to visit in its own right. The ruins at Corinth can be visited, but they are not remarkable. You can easily become blasé about ruins; they are there aplenty and millennia merge into each other. However, this is Corinth, for Heaven’s sake. It’s as ancient as ancient can be. From a bit of a backwater in 8th century BC Greece, its status rose throughout the next centuries and by 51 AD and Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, it became the centre for Christian ‘tentmaking’ (Tentmakers were Christians who dedicated their lives to the Ministry without any other source of income. They were, in reality, the first evangelistic missionaries. Paul went to visit them, and he stayed and worked with them because they were tentmakers by trade, just as he was (Acts 18:3)
You pass Tiryns on the main road to and from Napflion. It’s a small, unassuming town with yet another archaeological site behind a wire fence. A small tent had been erected in the field and an elderly gentleman in rolled-up shirtsleeves and wearing an Indiana Jones leather hat was sitting in the shade enjoying a glass of wine in the noonday heat. A couple of local workers were wheeling barrows to and from a covered site further off.
It was begging to be visited and explored. In 1876, Heinrich Shliemann had had the same idea. He’d come across what he thought was a medieval site and was about to wreck it in favour of the deeper Mycenaean antiquities. Obviously, someone told him to be careful but it wasn’t until Dorpfeld and other German archeologists in the late 1930s that work proceeded with the usual Teutonic efficiency.
Of what has been excavated and survived, the most striking feature is a masonry tunnel, some six feet or more high with a completely mortar-free rock formation on the sides and overhead. The sheer size and weight of the rocks kept them in position for millennia.
Well, it’s Greece, so no holiday would be complete without a surfeit of golden, sandy beaches and clear, blue water.
Napflio doesn’t leave you wanting more, except perhaps, when you can sense the end of your holiday and the English papers forecast hail, rain, doom and gloom, back home.
Napflio’s own beaches lie on the other side of the town, away from the port. This ensures their quality. Many are easily reached on foot, by a short bus ride or a quick trip in the car.The coastal walks are well worth the effort and the return journey just arduous enough to warrant a few cold Mythos beers before that well-earned pre-prandial snooze.
Arvanitia, Karathona or Neraki. The choice is entirely yours. They are all family-friendly and popular at the usual times. If you want it slightly less busy in the middle of the season, head there the early side of lunch-time and plan to stay until about five o’clock. The busy times are immediately after breakfast and early evening. It’s a little cooler then; but, hey, we’re British. Noon-day sun is perfectly fine!
Seventeen minutes by car, first east and then heading south, lies the village of Tolon. The bay of Tolo is first recorded in Homer’s Iliad, as Tolon was one of the cities that took part in the Trojan Wars. Over the centuries, the bay gave refuge to fighting ships from all over the city-states.
Today, it’s a popular tourist resort with a long, busy beach in the height of summer. However, it feels like a proper resort and the hotel business is thriving but tasteful.
At twilight, the sunsets are marvellous and the road back in the dark to Napfilo is both safe and wide.
After nearly a fortnight, we drove back to Athens. Two days sightseeing and then the flight home.
Athens defines a metropolis. It is sprawling, busy, noisy and, at times, rather grubby.
However, there’s no denying it is significant and, whilst it might not have the splendour of Rome, it can’t fail to attract. Perhaps, the tale of the rat on the hotel balcony should give way to a few of the sights that shouldn’t be missed, even if, like us, you’re really only passing through.
The Olympic Stadium: built for the 2004 Olympic Games, it’s standing the test of time far better than the ‘Bird’s Nest’ Stadium in Beijing.
The Changing of the Guard: at Syntagma Square, the Evzones, the Presidential Guard, change their guard at 11 a.m. every Sunday morning. In between, minor changes happen and, although not as spectacular, are still interesting enough not to be missed. The Evzones, are a special unit of the Hellenic Guard stationed at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in front of the Hellenic Parliament and Presidential Palace. The distinctive uniform has a precise meaning. It combines the uniform of the Kleftes and Armatolio, two groups who fought during the Greek War of Independence in 1821.
The uniform comprises:
- a phareon, which is the Evzone’s hat, made from red baize with a black tuft ,
- a white shirt with loose sleeves,
- the phermeli, the waistcoat. This is the most difficult part to construct, it’s handmade from many small shapes,
- the Greek kilt (foustanella), its structure requires 30 metes of white cloth
- the tsarouchia, the traditional shoes of Evzones which are red, made of leather, with a small tuft in front. Each shoe weighs three kilos
- the fringes, blue and white standing for the Greek flag
- the garters which are made of silk
- the leather belt
- the inside garnet, and
- the gun which is the most difficult piece to carry, not only because of its weight but also for the physical pressure that it exerts on the soldier’s bod
All in all, they look sightly comical as they goose-step along. However, when compared to the Swiss Vatican Guard, the Coldstreams and other ceremonial units around the World, they are every bit as impressive. I’m still not sure about the pom-poms on the boots. Somehow, I can’t see it catching on….
The Acropolis: perhaps the best known landmark in Athens, if not the World. It’s in surprisingly good condition, although when we were there, scaffolding prohibited a ‘clean’ view and unspoiled photographs. Climb it and admire the view. Athens from afar, as far as the eye can see….
Heck, we could go on about Athens for chapter after chapter. It needs a blog all to itself. For that, I fear I must return. For now, it was a matter of packing and driving to the rental return depot at the airport.
Next stop, rainy Manchester.