I caught a bus to Nafplio – a small, coastal town about two hours out of Athens. The journey was spent sandwiched between a small boy singing and chattering away in Greek (a little annoying, but cute) and a young couple kissing loudly in front of me, their faces pressed together at the gap between the seats, so it was all I could see (NOT cute). When the couple weren’t kissing they were whispering, stroking or tickling each other, the girl giggling shrilly. Occasionally the boy behind me would kick my chair.
I zoned out and let the scenery wash over me. Once we had passed through the industrial outskirts of Athens it was all sea and sky – the sky pale and chalky, blending almost indistinguishably with the sea at a hazy horizon.
After a while a Dutch backpacker got on the bus and sat beside me. We travelled along, me gazing out the window and she listening to her iPod, until I felt something slightly tickling my arm. Looking down I stifled a pathetic shriek as I saw a spider crawling up it. I shook it off as subtly as I could, but only succeeded in flinging it onto the wall below the window.
The Dutch girl gave me a sympathetic smile and offered her water bottle to bash it with. I gave it a go and it fell down into the gap between the seat and the side of the bus, where it couldn’t be reached.
“It’ll be ok,” I said. “I’ll keep an eye on it.”
“I’m ready!” she laughed, holding her water bottle up.
A little while later I was once again gazing out the window, caught up in my thoughts, when a sudden whack on my shoulder jolted me. I turned my head to see the girl peeling her water bottle from my t-shirt, leaving behind a squashed spider, guts leaking out on my shoulder.
She looked at me with an open mouth and a flash of horror at what she had just done.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” she started to say.
“No! Thank you – you saved me!” I told her gratefully.
We managed to flick the dead spider onto the floor of the bus and then, both relieved, we continued our respective pastimes, waiting for Nafplio.
Small town charm
As the bus pulled into the town, I was thinking, “this can’t be right, it doesn’t look very nice.”
It was with apprehension that I got out, but then I looked up and saw a magnificent castle sitting atop the hill. A sign for the old town took me down a charming little street lined with quaint white buildings, sprays of pinky red flowers hanging from balconies and rows of cute cafes. Every turn seemed to bring a more gorgeous scene – steep flights of white steps led up to buildings with colourful shutters and wrought iron balconies were filled with pots of bright blooms.
I continued through the small town, smiling dreamily at everything I passed, including a small square where restaurants offered cushioned seats and shade from the sun. A patch of blue up ahead caught my attention and I almost skipped towards it in excitement. Turning a corner brought me face to face with a wide, sparkling turquoise expanse.
As I kept walking, it just kept getting better. I followed a narrow path around the coast, with rocky, cactus-filled cliffs stretching up on my left, and a long drop to the impossibly blue waters on my right. Every so often I came across a little shrine, complete with burning candles, flowers and a photo of a loved one. And high above it all was the castle, a trail of steep steps snaking around the hill to its walls and towers.
I realised that I was uttering little gasps of incredulity as I rounded each bend. Was I really here? Only a few days ago I was at home, watching TV. This is exactly what I had been dreaming of for years, except I hadn’t expected to be so overwhelmed. This lovely, magical place was fulfilling the need I had for unexpected beauty and unpredictable adventures. I felt completely free and unburdened. Finally.
Queen of the castle
The next day, I pulled on my runners and prepared to make the trek up to the castle – Palamidi Fortress. Daypack hanging off my back and skin shining with sunscreen, I walked to the bottom of the steps.
I always find that when I’m about to start something I know will be hard work, my legs suddenly feel heavy and lifeless. Today was no different, and as I lifted my eyes and let them drift to the craggy summit way above, my legs gave a small wobble. Nevertheless, I took the first step and slowly began the winding ascent.
It wasn’t long before sweat was pouring down my face, my legs were burning and my chest was wheezing, and I chastised myself for not doing enough exercise in the weeks before I left home. Luckily the view made it all worthwhile. Nafplio is stunning from any angle, but it seemed to get better and better with height. As I climbed, the view continued to delight, and I stopped to take photos (and catch my breath) several times along the way. Little did I know that what I was seeing now would be completely surpassed by what was to come.
After what seemed like thousands of steps – but really wasn’t that many, it only took me 20 minutes or so – I stepped through a brick archway and arrived at the fortress. Puffing and dripping, I paid my €8.00 and tottered shakily through another arch into the main part of the fort.
It was as gorgeous as I had hoped it would be. The old fortress was lovely, with an outlook that stretched across the little town on its peninsula and out to sea. There was much to explore, including many walls, stairs, arches and towers – even a tiny, dark room that was once used as a prison. I was preparing to head back down when I noticed a path that looked as though it led further upwards. Leaving the crowds, I snuck up the path and, sure enough, found that the fortress extended much higher that I had originally thought.
Exploring the ruins, I ducked through a small archway that took me outside the castle walls. The view hit me like a bucket of icy water to the face (in a good way, though). I gasped, my breath completely taken away. All I could do was stand and gape at the hugeness of it. I wish I could do it justice with words, but I’m sure I can’t. I’ll just say that it was one of the most perfect scenes I have ever encountered in my life. It was a view that made me feel lucky to be alive. I sat in complete silence, drinking it in for as long as I could.
As I sat, I couldn’t help but ponder my reaction. I was so happy, and yet also a little scared that I might never feel this way again. This was the first time on my trip that I had experienced such incredible beauty. I reasoned that if I found it again, I might be so accustomed to seeing amazing sights that my emotions would not have the same intensity. The unthinkable alternative was that I might never again see anything to match it. Either way, I figured this was a unique moment, and I didn’t want it to end.
Sadly, I couldn’t stay up there forever because it was getting hotter by the minute. I carefully watched my feet as I took the steps all the way to the bottom of the hill, my legs shaky as I walked away. I was drenched in sweat.
I did what any sane person would do in this situation. I walked straight into town and got myself a gelati. It was cool and sweet and heavenly.
Would we call that a beach?
Refreshed a little, I decided to go for a swim. I headed to the only beach in Nafplio – an ‘organised’ beach. Coming from Australia, the concept of an organised beach was completely foreign to me. As I approached the area, I could already hear dance music pumping. There were rows of sun lounges and a large bar/cafe. I also saw with disappointment that the ‘beach’ was covered in large pebbles.
The water, however, looked sparkly and inviting, so I gingerly stepped onto the pebbles and hobbled across them, feeling like an idiot and trying not to cry “ow, ow, ow!” Somehow, I made it to the water and felt the deliciously cold waves lap over my skin (and soothe my sore feet!). I swam out and bobbed peacefully in the water, looking up at the rocky hills and the high fortress on which I had stood just an hour before.
When I came back to land, I hobbled back over the rocks and scored myself an empty sunbed. I was lying peacefully in the sun when a waiter came and asked what I would like.
“Oh, I’m ok, thanks,” I said.
He shook his head, crouched down beside me and said – as though to a small child – “the bed is free, ok? But you can’t lie on it unless you order something.”
“Really?” I asked incredulously.
“Ok, can I just have a bottle of water then, please?” I asked.
He gave me a look of open frustration and walked off.
When I thought about it, I supposed it made sense, really. They were providing the sun beds and umbrellas. But I was so indignant that the only way I could enjoy the beach for free was to lie on the hard and pointy pebbles, that I couldn’t accept this rule.
After a while, though, I started to feel guilty, so I ordered a club sandwich, which the waiter brought ungratefully, asking to be paid straight away. He slowly rummaged through his pockets, pretending to find some change, until I eventually told him not to worry, upon which he wandered off smugly.
Bloody organised beaches. I’m not one of those people who likes to find fault in countries other than my own, but we are seriously lucky in Australia to have unrestricted access to such amazing stretches of golden, sandy coastline.
On the plus side, it was a very comfortable sun bed, and the club sandwich was excellent.