Nafplion Greece, Our Port for Ancient Mycenae
Mycenae……..Home of the great Greek legend of Helen of Troy. I had dreamed of going there since I was a young girl. In fact Greece had been a part of my romantic imaginings for so long, that I knew I would be experiencing our time in the Peloponnese through a filter created by my imagination of what Greece should be. What luck that Greece was everything I could have hoped for and more. (Even with all the current troubles!)
We had worried that the financial meltdown would affect our stay even though we weren’t going to Athens which was really the center of all conflict in the area. In fact, we heard through the cruise grapevine that a sister ship had been turned away from the port of Athens because there were no workers to dock the ship.
Since we were far away from Athens at the southern end of the Peloponnese, we had moored just outside the port at Nafplion and tendered to land without incident. The bright morning light sparkled on the water and azure cloudless blue skies stretched out above us, promising a hot sunny, typically Greek day.
We were soon on our Bus winding our way through the arid rocky countryside to our first stop, what is called the Treasury of Atreus or tomb of Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, an ancient Beehive Tomb (called a Tholos). Archaeologists are pretty sure that neither king was ever buried there, but when the famous archeologist Heinrich Schliemann found the tomb in 1879, that is what he named it, so that is what it has been called ever since.
The Tholos was built during the Bronze Age about 1250 BC. It is a semi-subterranean dome and was the tallest and widest dome in the world for a thousand years until the Pantheon was built in Rome. The stones are placed carefully compressing downward from their own weight without mortar and arch upward to a keystone at the top.
The enormous interior is dry and vacant and it is an amazing space to stand inside when you think about the feat of engineering that is holding up the giant stones arching above your head with no obvious support.
Our next stop was the ruin of the Bronze Age Citadel at Mycenae which protected the royal family. The Mycenae culture which reached its peak from 1300 BC – 1100 BC is the source of the great Greek epics like the Labors of Hercules, the Trojan War and the Tales of Agamemnon. We were greeted by the imposing Lion Gate which is the earliest known monumental sculpture on the European continent.
We walked under the great stone lions and up a steep winding path which led us through several ancient ruins to the palace. The sun beat down on us relentlessly with no shade in sight anywhere. We were sweating like crazy and our throats were parched and dry immediately, so we were very happy that we had the foresight to bring two bottles of water. Somehow I always end up being the packhorse though!
The ruined palace is where Agamemnon was murdered by his wife Klytemenestra and her lover after he returned Victorious from the Trojan War. Archeologists found six royal shaft graves filled with grave goods and golden masks. These are now in the National Archeological Museum in Athens, but some of the grave goods and replicas of the golden masks are on display at the Archeological Museum of Mycenae located near the entrance to the ruins. This museum is definitely worth a visit. The displays inside really help provide a picture of the Bronze Age world in Greece.
Melting from heat, we finally piled back into the thankfully air conditioned bus and took off for our last stop, Nafplion and the Palamidi Fortress. Nafplion is a lovely town with huge Venetian influence from centuries of rule by Venice. The shops and hotels located down narrow lanes are a bouquet of pastel colors and restaurants with large yawning windows open to outside seating shaded by colorful umbrellas line the harbor.
Nafplion has been an important strategic location since the 7th century BC. Particularly interesting are the periods when the Venetians built their fortresses above the town and on the island of Bourtzi in the harbor in 1470. They stretched chains between Bourtzi and Nafplion to keep ships from entering the harbor and became known as the Port of Chains. The fortifications above Nafplion were almost completely destroyed a number of times during conflicts with the Turks as they fought for and gained control of the town. Finally, from 1711-1714, under Venetian control again, the current Baroque Fortress was built. It looms gray and stern, guarding the lazy town below.
Again, with the heat beating us down, with rivers of sweat running under our clothes, we climbed through the narrow stone alleys, up more stone steps, through iron barred and arched gatehouse and on up, up to the high interior courtyard filled with more arched spaces, the keystones in the arches appearing to hold together the neatly stacked stones like a puzzle piece. It seemed as if you could pull one out and the whole fort would tumble. Spiny brush and cactus cropped up between stones in the courtyard. Jim continued on up to the ramparts to view the expansive Mediterranean Sea below us from the fort’s highest point, his tiny body poking up over the same walls that defenders would have manned centuries ago. There are 857 steps winding down from the fortress to the town. We opted for the bus, but I've heard it's a great walk down!
In 1821, Nafplion was liberated by the Greeks and has the distinction of being made the first capital of modern Greece in 1823. It remained so until 1834 when the capital was moved to Athens leaving Nafplion to become the peaceful harbor it is today. We rested gazing at the harbor sparkling in the late afternoon sun and the distant lonely Bourtzi fortress as we lazed in our wicker chairs, tired from a long hot day, and enjoyed sipping our light ice cold Greek beers.