I have talked about my love of Greek public transport before. In a land of mopeds and car drivers, sometimes the pedestrian can get a little disenfranchised in Greece. But when you’re a tourist you can act like one with aplomb and zip around the country on a bus or train to see how things are. That’s what we have been doing for the past week. Although given that the Peloponnese train line hasn’t ran since 2011, I had to settle for the sturdy Ktel bus for a mode of transport to explore Naplion and the Argolis region.
Heading out of the city centre after storing most of our luggage in Athens, we embraced travelling light and on a budget by attempting to walk from Elaionas Metro station to Kifisou Bus station, where all the Ionian and Peloponnese busses go from. A walk that’s eminently doable on safe-ish roads on an industrial estate and across two motorways, but I wouldn’t recommend it with luggage! I started to get a bit huffy when it took longer than the google map ’20 minutes’, but a kindly man in a wheelchair who was begging at the intersection waved us in the right direction. I wouldn’t say it’s a tourist highlight walking through an industrial setting but could demonstrates the reality of a country still in financial crisis, despite what the sunshine PR says and Instagram perfection shows. Once you take a turn onto the pedestrian walkway (!) next to the National road there is a tiny 17th Century Byzantine chapel of Agia Nikolau sitting sunken just metres below two Mercedes garages and narrowly rescued when the road was built – I didn’t have chance to take a pic but you can see its magic here. That seems to sum up some things in this country, the old and new, not quite in harmony but jostling for space in the bustling chaos.
The journey out of the capital takes in some fine sights, like the boat yards and power stations as the coastal motorway goes by a number of toll-roads, towards Corinth and Isthmia (from Isthmus, which means neck in ancient Greek). The Corinth Canal is a wondrous engineering feat and one I had wanted to see for a while. It not only created a boom for Greek Shipping and export trade, but it also forever changed the fortune of the island of Syros. Once the canal was finished in 1893, after many attempts, cutting the journey time between Italy and Athens in half which meant that Pireaus grew to become more significant than Syros for shipbuilding and trade. This post Corinth period towards the late 19th Century changed Ermoupolis forever, until then the city had been the centre of Aegean trade with its unrivalled steamships and industry. Although the canal is a fine example of engineering endeavour, it really is incredibly narrow at 21 metres wide. When you see it from the bridge as you drive over that having it as a one way system for boats makes perfect sense. I didn’t even get chance to snap a photo as we trundled by!
Once out into the hilly countryside of the Argolis region the fields are full to bursting with ripe orange trees and the straight lines of creeping vines. Oranges were on nearly every tree – some rotted and fallen to the ground. I’m not sure if this has something to do with farm subsidies that make it better for farmers to let them rot than sell at such a low price…either way quite a sad sight to behold.
Nafplion was Greece’s first capital city, a significance not lost on the fact that we arrived just before the celebration of the Greek Independence Day on March 26. Nafplion has memorials to many of the fighters in the War of Greek Independence, as the city was held by the Ottomans for over a year before their defeat. The Church of Saint Spyridon is the site where the first Greek Head of State Ioannis Kapodistrias was assassinated in 1831. It’s a place of history, warfare and politics. Here we experienced Greek Independence Day in all its rousing enthusiasm, with the Sunday parade attracting a lot of people from all over the region to line the streets.
The first day was spent exploring the town, which is as majestic as it is soaked in history. It is famous with tourists and Athenian weekenders for its terracotta hued houses and pretty Venetian mansions that line the grid streets of the old town. The newer side is more run of the mill typical Greek urban sprawl, but that shouldn’t put visitors off. Its charm really does lie in its ability to be one of those places that feels calm and invites you to while away the hours just wandering around.
We opted to stay in a little converted building that was like a little log-cabin and had its own friendly cat resident called Molly. Complete with minature kitchenette and a luxurious duvet for the chilly nights, it was a perfect hideaway for two.
Throughout the days we were there the Saharan dust storms we just hitting Crete in the south, making the skies turn red there. But the weather in Napflion seem ominous and shifting under grey skies, with all the seasons in one day. I spotted an abandoned hotel when we walked through the old town – I am just a little more than intrigued with ruined buildings which you do see a lot of here. If you haven’t heard of Xenia Hotels before, they were hotels built across the whole of Greece as part of an ambitious infrastructure programme by the EOT to attract tourists. It started in the 1960s and went on up until the early 80s when most of the architecturally modernist (and some say ugly) hotels ended up sold off or sadly, abandoned. Some apparently still operate under the Xenia name. There is an Xenia Hotel in Andros Town which sits derelict we came across a few years ago. In Napflio, despite being open until just the early 2000’s this Xenia monument sits ghostly and graffitied. Despite its decay, it has the best views over the town beach, Arvanitia from its position at Acronauplia which is the oldest part of the fortified city. We explored the shingle beach here (and another abandoned bar/nightclub) and there was only one swimmer – and it wasn’t me as I decided the wind was too cold for my first dip of the year!
One of the must-do’s is a walk up to Palmiadi Fortress. I must confess this was a scary experience for me – the vertigo held off on the way up, but reared its nagging head on the way down! There were no handrails and after 999 steps to the top, admiring the views and the medieval castle architecture…all of a sudden it kicked in and I found myself getting dizzy and sitting down for a rest, the taking it a step or two at a time, then is little but of bum shuffling. Luckily it didn’t last – G took one look at me and uttered ‘pull yourself together, it is fine!’ with that boost I seemed okay. After lunch we followed the coastal trail all the way to the next beach, 3km away at Karathona – which is a stunning walk next to the sea and along the pine-tree lined path, which has cliffs used by rock-climbers (nope never tried that either, thanks!). Later when we were enjoying a post walk beer G confessed that it was a big fear that he’d have to coax me all the way down from Palmiadi or call the fire brigade! Neither seemed the best option. I must work on the old vertigo…
Although Nafplion has enough to keep most entertained with its museums, shops and picturesque cafés I’d totally recommend venturing out. Not only does the region have some of most visited archaeological sites, it also has pretty villages and vineyards in Nemea.
On the Saturday we took the trusty Ktel to Argos. Legend has it that the bird flew over Argos with one wing over its face to shield its eyes from the ugliness of the town. The lady who we rented the place from said a similar thing when she asked what we planned to do for our 5 days; “why would you go to Argos, Napflio has all the beauty!” she laughed. It sounds like this rivalry persists even now. In Argos we wandering through the town, a little less grand and more real than its rival, and eventually found a path up the peak to Larissa Castle. It was a moment when I was reminded why I love this country, as we headed off the road and onto an unmarked trail that wound upwards through an olive grove. There were spring flowers bobbing their heads in the sunlight, poppies in their vibrant red and wild white daisies scattered on the path. This was truly a pastoral slice of rural Peloponnese life when we came across a shepherd herding his flock across the hills and exchanged pleasantries ‘Kalimera’.
Apart from a family who were just leaving, we had the castle to ourselves with its layers of medieval walls, sunken churches and turrets to explore. I sat quietly and absorbed the solitude of the place in the sunlight. Not a sound of human life, just birds, sheep bleating and the buzz of bees collecting pollen for the honey the region is famous for.
On our return through Argos we ventured to see the Ampitheatre, which was free to visit, impressive but overlooked by many tourists who prefer the bigger sites. We wandered through the town market with stalls laden with piles of colourful fresh vegetables, flowers and fruits in the central platia. We then found ourselves engaged in a protracted dialogue with an elderly Greek lady with a gold tooth and a big smile. G let her walk past in a gentlemanly manner as she was laden with shopping, but this led to an interaction of many words but little understanding! We are convinced she asked us where we were from, what we were visiting and we replied appropriately (we think)…but after that, our collective understanding of Greek was challenged beyond comprehension. She gesticulated wildly and we stood there smiling and nodding wondering when it would be appropriate to escape!
On the way back we took the bus to Tiryns (Tyryntha) half way between Argos and Nafplion. It is a significant example of a Mycenaean archaeological fortress site which was built with Cyclopodean walls and featured several dams for water collection. It was super quiet and ghostly nearing 2pm when we arrived (3E entrance and only open until 3pm in the winter). There are still ongoing excavations of the megaron of the palace of Tiryns and reconstruction work to the inner walls. This site was solitude compared to our visit to Mycenae (Mykines) a few days later, which was so crowded, full of busloads of tourists and much more expensive with its 6E entrance fee. But we found that teh Ktel bus took you directly to the site entrance, despite what the guides and websites advised – which saved us a long walk! Mycenae does have very specific treasures, like the Lions Gate and the Bee Hive Tombs…which were incidentally full of bees and wasps!
The food in Nafplion was exceptionally good, although a little more expensive as it’s rather touristy. But away from the front there are lots of traditional places to eat. Aiolos was a highlight where we restored our energy with hearty beef stew and fresh boiled horta, followed by orange cake and local tsipouro.
Despite the mixed weather it’s been the perfect first part to a Greek adventure. But I still haven’t had an ice-cream and still haven’t had a swim yet. What kind of holiday can I even call this?