Nafplio in Greece's Peloponnese region picture-perfect

Local colour: A street musician adds to Nafplio's atmosphere.
Local colour: A street musician adds to Nafplio's atmosphere. Photo: Effie Mann

Strikes notwithstanding, Nafplio, the chosen site of modern Greece's first capital in the early 1800s, has many charms.

"The Greeks love three things more than anything," our taxi driver confides of his countrymen. "Drinking coffee, socialising and protesting."

Barely in the country an hour, we're navigating a wild roundabout, legs sweaty against leather seats, the gentle click-clack of worry beads that swing gaily from the rear-view mirror a constant companion. From under deep-set brow the driver holds our gaze, the road ahead seemingly an afterthought.

As bare-headed scooter riders in sandals zip past, we round a bend and columns loom from the hot, summer earth. Our once-lavish, now dated, 1980s hotel faces the Temple of Zeus. This is Athens.

Ancient redoubt:The tiny fortified island of Bourtzi.
Ancient redoubt:The tiny fortified island of Bourtzi. Photo: Effie Mann

It's a fleeting visit. Our plans in fact lie further south, where a little hire car and a local map provide freedom to explore beyond this country's well-documented juxtaposition of economic fragility and booming island trade. With sights set on the historic harbour town of Nafplio, we blunder our way to the highway, our destination 140 kilometres south-west, across the Corinth Canal in the Peloponnese.

We detour through the sharp, green hills of the Nemea region, where wine-making season is in full swing. Trucks piled high with crates of grapes hoon around the countryside, the fruit bouncing, plump strays scattering across the laneways. Ancient ruins line the tourist trail – a few columns here, an athletics stadium there – reminders of a great but unfathomable past.

We reach Nafplio with little fuss, save a close encounter with a herder and his flock who share the dusty country roads. 

Steep price: After climbing a reputed 999 steps, the writer found a note on the door of  Palamidi Fortress stating that it was closed due to a strike.
Steep price: After climbing a reputed 999 steps, the writer found a note on the door of Palamidi Fortress stating that it was closed due to a strike. Photo: Effie Mann.

Buildings tightly packed together, the town huddles on a small peninsula, wedged between a historic port and several ancient fortresses, a legacy of  ancient battles between Nafplio's conquerors: in turn, Franks, Venetians and Turks. At times it feels more movie-set than real life, with the forts of Palamidi and  Akronafplia rising majestically above, the tiny fortified islet Bourtzi sitting just offshore. 

In the evening light, "old town" Nafplio is Euro-perfection, all terracotta tiles, cheerful paint and balmy al fresco dining. Music plays faintly, but of course. 

As the chosen site of modern Greece's first capital in the early 1800s, following the war of independence against the Turks, Nafplio harbours, quite literally, great cultural significance. King Otto's decision to move the capital to Athens in 1834 may have bruised some egos, but it also inadvertently preserved Nafplio's authenticity and small-town feel, as proud locals will attest.

Suckered in: Freshly caught octopus.
Suckered in: Freshly caught octopus. Photo: Effie Mann

Venetian houses, neoclassical mansions and boutique hotels step up the hillside. Bougainvillea climbs over balconies and through laneways, hanging low over restaurant tables where waiters sit together, chatting, rising only to scrawl meal orders.

We wander the guesthouse-riddled streets, our off-peak visit allowing us time to ponder, and settle for a comfortable double room with a ceiling fan, ensuite and wrought iron balcony for a mere €20  a night. We are delighted, although not as pleased as our Greek-Australian host, who's up for a lengthy chat!

Breakfast is included: fresh yoghurt, stewed fruit and cake, as is a discount deal on a bottle of wine brewed by the hostel's handyman, Yanni. It's biting, if not unpleasant. "He's my cousin," our host informs us of the vintner. "He's lazy with his work here but he's passionate about the wine-making, of course."

With such a fascinating past, Nafplio draws history buffs and has a number of museums worth exploring. Unfortunately for us, our tour has coincided with widespread demonstrations and the museums are closed. But there's plenty more to see.

Under the shade of market awnings, freshly netted octopus stretch out on ice, sucker-side up. There are pyramids of tomatoes, buckets of black, green and brown olives and recycled plastic bottles filled with home-pressed olive oil.

Again, the market serves as a platform for socialising – stall-holders take the opportunity to catch up, pausing only to scoop produce into bags. Picking out traditional treats, we're aware of a commotion. A crowd is snaking toward us, carrying placards and chanting slogans. We assume there is a link between the museum strike, but cannot be sure.

Wandering the lively laneways, where stray kittens dart between table legs – "Don't tell her, but I feed them," says Petros, the potter, who makes turquoise ceramic ashtrays and vases in a studio next door to our rooms and hopes his neighbours don't realise he is to blame for the growing feline population.  We browse posh boutiques. Some keepsakes worth taking home are handmade leather sandals (a tourist must) and komboloi (worry beads), complete with a lesson in how to "flick" them like a local – your bead of choice could deliver happiness, courage or love, we're told.

Financial worries and government disenchantment hang heavily in conversation in this part of the world. Many say they will not bother voting in the forthcoming election. Men pore over newspapers, seated at tables outside the few remaining kafeneia – traditional Greek coffee houses – while a younger generation are drawn to the waterfront's contemporary coffee haunts, their drink of choice a frappe-style beverage. Curious, we sample but discover something akin to a Nescafe slurpee, and decide to stick to ice-cream.

Later, doused in sunscreen, we trek the seemingly endless steps (the figure is contentious: 999, say locals, and we didn't bother counting) to explore grand Palamidi Fortress, built by the Venetians circa 1711.

Arriving at the top, an A4 sheet of paper is crudely fastened to the heavy entrance with tape – the fortress is closed due to the strike. Thankfully, from 216 metres above the town and surrounding coast, the views are simply spectacular and a reward for the exercise. A dip at pebbly Arvanitia Beach following the descent tops things off. 

With the peak season waning, there is just a hint that the locals could take us or leave us. Wealthy Athenians are heading home, and Nafplionians are looking to draw breath. That said, attempt to order some delicious rabbit stew in Greek ("stifado") and the waiter may waive that second carafe. Bother to ask what the protests are in aid of and they'll grab a coffee, pull up a chair and give you the full history. As with any memorable trip, it's a journey of give and take, and one well worth making.  

Getting there:

Numerous airlines fly daily to Athens, from $2200 return.

Don't miss:

Palamidi Fortress, +30 27520 28036, admission: €4.

Archaeological Museum, +30 27520 27502, admission: adult €3/concession €2. 

Traveller tip: 

With good bus connections and services, the town is an ideal base from which to explore many ancient sites, such as Tiryns, Mycenae and Corinth.

More information:

visitgreece.gr

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