Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Greece - Nafplio, Mycenae, Epidauros

For centuries, the myths and legends of ancient Greece have drawn travelers to the legendary Argolid in the Peloponnesus. More recently this fertile land of olive and orange groves has become one of the country's leading wine regions, centered around Nemea, famous for its Agiorgitiko grape vines. Drive along the well-marked 'wine roads' and stop in for tastings at the many wineries along the way. Your destination is Nafplio, one of Greece's most beautiful towns with its majestic castles, elegant neoclassical architecture, and the indelible mark of Venetian and Turkish occupation in its medieval quarter.

Exploring Nafplio is a journey through the layers of its history. In ancient times it was the harbour for Argos. Abandoned by the Romans, the Byzantines later fortified the hilltop settlement of Akronafplia in the 12th century. In 1210 the town fell to the Franks, and was later occupied alternately by Venetians and Turks until the War of Independence, after which Nafplio served as the country's capital between 1829 and 1834. A hike up the 900-plus steps to Palamidi Castle, built by the Venetians, offers magnificent views of the sea and town, as well as of the Bourtzi, a floating island castle built for the protection of the port and to house the local executioner. Alternatively, ascend to the Akronafplia ruins James Bond-style by entering through the base of the hill, and taking the elevator to the foyer of the super-luxurious Nafplia Palace. Built by a government initiative in the 1960's by Papagiannis & Co., the hotel has recently renovated its bungalows to extraordinary levels of opulence with private swimming pools and stunning views.

Equally beautiful (and more reasonably priced) are the main rooms of the hotel which are being upgraded to provide the latest in technology and modern amenities in this unique historical setting. For a homier atmosphere seek out the Boron Hotel, a converted neoclassical mansion with rooms with a sea view. When it's time for a swim, head down to the pebbled beach of Arvanitia where Frankish fig trees, pines and oleanders line the edge of the turquoise waters.

Away from the cafe and taverna-lined harbour, life centres around Plateia Syntagmatos, a grand Venetian-style square with an archaeological museum containing local Mycenaean artifacts inside the old Venetian naval arsenal. Stop for coffee at Cafe Kendrikon, or have a traditional lunch at Ellas restaurant. In the back streets between the harbour and the square is a cluster of tavernas on Staikopoulou, where real home-cooking can be found at Vasilis and seafood with-a-view at Savouras, right on the harbour. For something more up-market, try the Nafplia Palace's Amimoni restaurant, and for a little taste of Italy drop by Antica Gelateria di Roma, where Claudia and Marcello Ratio serve over 30 divine flavours of gelato and sorbet, made fresh on the premises.

As you wander the narrow streets, stop in at the award-winning Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation with its wonderful collection of traditional costumes from all over the country, and a special exhibition on the production and use of natural fibres in Greece from 1835 to 1945. The museum also organizes periodic exhibitions and has an excellent gift shop. Nafplio is known for such eccentric and eclectic shops as Metallagi, which showcases the jewelry designs of Panagioti Alexopoulos and Maria Koutsoudaki, and has an open atelier enabling visitors to view the works in progress.

The Komboloi Museum also has a komboloy workshop and retail store offering a wide variety of the traditional 'worry beads'. The lively Nafplio nightlife is a popular weekend draw for foreign visitors and locals alike. For romance, visit the restaurant-bar Agnanti at the edge of town, with tables along the pier and waves lapping at your feet, or the Nautikos Omilos bar next door, and for a more trendy club scene, head far the Living Room, off Bouboulinas Square, where the neighbourhood youth congregate.

Nafplio is also the perfect base for exploring two important archaeological sites: Mycenae (24 kilometres away), described by Homer as 'rich in gold', and Epidauros, with its superb theatre (30 kilometres). Mycenae was excavated in the 1870s by Heinrich Schliemann, inspired by his obsession with the Iliad and the Odyssey. Wonder at the Cyclopean masonry of its citadel (so massive it was said to have been built by the mythical one-eyed giants) and the 'Lion Gate' with its two rampant lions, Mycenae's symbol of power.

The most impressive tomb, the so-called 'Treasury of Atreus', dates to 1250 BC and originally contained such gold artifacts as death masks, breastplates, jewelry and weapons, which are now in the archaeological museum in Athens. Epidauros was the site of the important sanctuary of Asclepios, the god of healing and medicine, but is renowned for its splendid theatre, built in the early 3rd century BC. Set dramatically into the hillside, its remarkable acoustics allow even the drawing of a breath to be heard by a1112,000 spectators that the theatre can accommodate. Plan to attend one of the classical dramas performed here during the annual summer festival, for a memorable moonlit experience accompanied by an orchestra of cicadas.


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