Hooked on a classic

With its crossroads heritage, welcoming locals and excellent tavernas Nafplio is just the place for a novice traveller, writes Kate Armstrong.

FOR Greeks from Nafplio, it's all about the capital. I don't mean of the money kind - locals are disenchanted by Greece's flailing economy. But rather, about the status of their stunning town itself.

Nafplio - 140 kilometres south-west of Athens, across the Corinth Canal in the Peloponnese - was modern Greece's first capital between 1829 and 1834, following the war of independence against the Turks. These days, proud locals acknowledge that by moving the capital to Athens in 1834, King Otto inadvertently preserved Nafplio's integrity.

This beautiful place - whose population is only 17,000 - is one of the "richest" around, due partly to its impressive location. It occupies a small peninsula and is wedged between a historic port - important since Byzantine times - and several ancient fortresses, legacies of ongoing struggles between Nafplio's conquerors: Franks, Venetians and Turks.

There's the Palamidi and Akronaflia, both of which tower over the town and provide bird's-eye vistas, and the tiny Bourtzi, a fortified islet just off shore.

These days, the town's neo-classical mansions, boutique hotels, bougainvillea-filled laneways and elegance attract well-to-do Athenians, tour groups and cruise ship day-trippers. Most visitors get hooked on the town. I'm one of them - I return here frequently. This time, I'm on an important mission. Nafplio is my town of choice to introduce Olivia, my 19-year-old goddaughter, to independent travel.

My choice of accommodation is the delightful Pension Marianna, a friendly, family-run hotel. To reach this bright yellow icon, we navigate our way through alleyways, tiny plazas and up several flights of stone stairs. "Welcome, welcome!" exclaims Petros, one of the clan of owners from the delightful Zotos famil, when we arrive.

He hands us a home-made lemon cordial, testament to the citrus orchards surrounding Nafplio. From the terrace we feast on the view beyond: a spider's web of alleys, mass of terracotta roofs and church cupolas. Neo-classical houses with painted shutters abut minarets, a legacy of the Turkish occupation.

We fall into an easy routine throughout our week-long visit. Every morning we amble over the peninsula to Arvanitia Beach - a small strip of pebbles, on to which laps the sea, clear and aquamarine. We join the women, mostly elderly, going about their daily swim.

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Later, we meander through the maze of narrow lanes and small squares. Our route always ends up in the bright central plaza, Syntagma Square, lined with Venetian-style mansions and cafes. An historic mosque (now a theatre) is at one end, the town's archaeological museum, an important landmark, at the other.

On the plaza, Romanian balloon sellers wander in circles; children jostle each other for soccer balls or zig-zag along on wobbly bicycles.

Often, we take refuge from the sun under the square's cafe brollies. Around town, locals do the same; the elderly men prefer the few remaining kafeneia - traditional Greek coffee houses - where they sit reading newspapers or flicking their komboloi (worry beads). Younger folk opt for contemporary coffee haunts on the waterfront.

Lunch in Nafplio is a big event; daily selection of a taverna or restaurant is a fun exercise. We especially like eateries that serve up mezedes dishes, Greek-style tapas such as fried sardines, bean stews and fried zucchini balls.

Each day we visit one museum. The private Peloponnese Folklore Foundation Museum is a labour of love, the owner of which preserves ancient costumes in her renovated family mansion. The Alexandros Soutzos Museum, an arm of Greece's National Gallery, houses works from the 1821 Greek War of Independence. The Museum of Komboloi displays a fascinating collection of antique worry beads. Downstairs, the choice of beads in the well-stocked shop is overwhelming. Afternoons mean "gelati time". At Antica Gelateria di Roma, the most genuine of the town's growing number of ice-creameries, Italian gelati maestro Marcello Raffo welcomes us with a "Bongiorno!" and proffers his latest hand-made creations.

For our nightly post-dinner tipple we head to Lathos, a quirky grunge-style bar owned by Tassos, Nafplio's philosopher and creator extraordinaire. The bar is crammed with vintage objects and Tassos's remote-controlled, moving sculptures, each of which (he hopes) makes an artistic statement. It includes, incongruously, a crying Barbie doll. Olivia is entranced.

On our final day in Nafplio, I head back to Pension Marianna. I find Olivia sitting in her favourite spot on the hotel terrace, sketching the extraordinary vista beyond.

Her drawing reveals tiled rooftops, Orthodox church crosses, statues, a minaret. That's not all. Quaint Greek sayings fill the spaces, as do tiny figures representing the characters we've met: Tassos, Nafplio's modern-day Aristotle; Petros our kind host; and numerous others who've touched her in some way.

In a few pen strokes she has captured perfectly the essence of this beautiful place. And much more besides. Later, she presents me with this picture.

I am happy; Nafplio may no longer be Greece's capital but it holds an important status. Of course, for Greeks. And for me. And now, for Olivia. Thanks to this special place, she truly understands the meaning of travel.

The writer travelled with the assistance of Emirates Airways.

Trip notes

Getting there

Emirates has daily flights to Athens via Dubai from $1900.

Staying there

Friendly, family-run Pension Marianna, Potamianou 9, boasts a fabulous location and great hospitality. A double costs €85 ($113) a night, +30 27520 24256, pensionmarianna.gr.

More information

visitgreece.gr.

Ancient sites near Nafplio

1 Tiryns Only 4km from Nafplio, this World Heritage Mycenaean acropolis features extraordinary Cyclopean walls. While it doesn't have the profile of other ruins, it's certainly an interesting place to wander.

2 Ancient Mycenae Between 1600-1200 BC, this kingdom was the most powerful in Greece; Homer refers to "well-built Mycenae, rich in gold". The wonderful museum is a great place to get your bearings before hitting the site.

3 Ancient Corinth Overlooking the Isthmus of Corinth, this was one of Greece's richest cities in the 6th century BC. It's smaller than Mycenae but has excellent signage.

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