One of the joys of travelling, as we all know, is discovering beautiful places you didn't have a clue about before. For me, Nafplio is such a place. Unlike Greece's most famous seaside towns, it's not on an island, but nestled on the south coast of the Peloponnese peninsula, a two-hour drive from Athens. It's a popular weekend getaway for Athenians and a beguiling escape, too, for travellers looking to soak up the charms of coastal Greece without the crowds you'd find on Santorini and Mykonos.
History buffs are especially drawn to Nafplio as it was the first capital of the modern Greek state, from 1823 to 1834, before Athens claimed the mantle. I'm here on a group tour that has seen us zig-zag up and down the Greek mainland, calling in at UNESCO World Heritage-listed archaeological sites such as Delphi, Olympia and Mycenae.
As engrossing as they are, Nafplio is a welcome change of scenery. Named after Nafplios, son of the ancient Greek god of the sea, Poseidon, it's a living, breathing seaport town (population 35,000), with a quaint yet vibrant, shaded maze of shop-and-taverna-lined streets, sun-dappled squares and a stunning natural setting. It hugs the Argolic Gulf against a backdrop of craggy hills laced with fortifications built by myriad invaders and occupiers, from Byzantines and Franks to Venetians and Ottomans.
Most imposing is the Palamidi fortress. Perched on a 216-metre-high outcrop, it was constructed by the Venetians between 1711 and 1714, grabbed by the Ottomans after a siege the following year and remained under their control until 1822 when it was seized by the Greeks during the War of Independence.
Taxis will take you up the hill, but south-east of Nafplio's bus station is a winding stone staircase which, depending on who you believe, contains anything from 800 to 999 steps. It's best to tackle them in the morning, before the sun is at its fiercest, especially if you're here between May and September.
From Palamidi's summit, the panoramas are a treat, with the red roof-tops of Nafplio's old town below contrasted with the sparkling blue sea. You may glimpse little fishing vessels and tourist boats buzzing about, either to the coves and beaches edging town or to Bourtzi Castle, a 15th-century Venetian landmark on a tiny island in Nafplio's harbour.
Back down at sea level, you'll enjoy ambles along the palm tree-lined waterfront promenade and through the narrow, bougainvillea-bordered streets, browsing boutiques and workshops (in which artisans craft wares such as traditional leather sandals). There's gorgeous Venetian and neoclassical architecture to admire and intriguing small museums to pop into, themed on war and the military, ancient archaeology, folk costumes and even komboloi (prayer and worry beads).
You can order the likes of grilled octopus and fried squid, rabbit stew or moussaka with local Nemea wines at family-run tavernas or take cappuccino breaks at the al fresco cafes flanking Syntagma Square, Nafplio's heart. It's a prime people-watching spot, a stone's throw from the domed Vouleftikon, the first Greek parliament building. Originally an Ottoman-era mosque, it's now an events and concert venue.
In the alleys behind it, you'll find the whitewashed church of Saint Spyridon. In 1831, Count Ioannis Kapodistrias, the first head of state of a newly-liberated Greece, was killed on the church steps. A bullet hole in the wall near the entrance is a vivid reminder of his assassination. The murderers - two brothers from Mani, the so-called "wild west" of the Peloponnese peninsula - were apprehended and executed, but civil unrest ensued and the next few years changed everything. The Great Powers, Britain, France and Russia, installed Otto, a teenage Bavarian prince, as monarch of Greece, and the capital was transferred from Nafplio to Athens, with the hope that the city could recapture some of its ancient glory.
Hotly debated at the time, the move has probably worked out best for both parties. Athens reigns once more as one of Europe's most exciting (yet traffic-clogged) metropolises - while Nafplio, its old charm largely intact, is one of the continent's loveliest seaside towns.
There's a one-night stay in Nafplio on Collette's 14-day Exploring Greece and Its islands tour. Starting and finishing in Athens, with five nights in Mykonos and Santorini, the tour is priced from AU$4779 per person, based on two sharing. See gocollette.com
Steve McKenna was a guest of Collette. See gocollette.com/en-au