March 30, 2005

Oliver Ames goes to Greece, part 9: Evening in Nafplio: Bouboulina and the Bourtzi

(To blog readers: My son is traveling to Greece in April (the trip is getting close, and mom is getting nervous...) with a group from Massachusetts’ Oliver Ames [OA] High School [see March 5 post]. To give students and parents a glimpse of some of the places on the group’s itinerary and to provide links to sites the travelers may find helpful, I’ve devoted the last 9 daily posts to places on the kids’ Greek itinerary and will post a final Greece story tomorrow. [I can’t think of a better place than Greece to hang, really or virtually, but if you’d like to go elsewhere, cruise the archives to visit scores of other great places, from Jamaica to Jordan, Malta to Mexico...] Wherever you end up, Kalo taxidi! Have a good trip. And, before I turn to the task of posting the meat of today's entry, a quick word of thanks to proud Texan and fellow Blogger, Wayne (aka Zippo the Pirate), for helping me navigate some of this software's rocky waters...)

Splendid Nafplio. A postcard-perfect place that gets up late, bustles from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, closes up siesta-tight during the afternoon’s hottest hours, works hard in early evening, dines at nine and later, then cruises the seafront promenade until the cool, early hours of tomorrow morning. I looked for holes in this lifestyle when I found myself living in it, but other than its not running according to my usual schedule, I found no weak spots. It’s mellow, sustainable, enviable.

Nafplio hangs out in two major places. Syndagma (Constitution) Square is a sweeping, marble-cobbled public space ringed by tavernas and anchored by fabulous architecture that tell Nafplio’s history. Sit at an al fresco café table and absorb a view that serves up the Palamidi, 700-foot-high Venetian fortress and crown of Nafplio; an imposing 18th-century Venetian naval warehouse-turned museum; an exquisite brick mosque built by the Ottoman Turks and reincarnated by the Greeks into a movie theater; the square itself, site of fervent demonstrations for Greek independence and a syndagma, a constitution, of their own.

Nafplio also hangs out on its seafront promenade, and evening is when things come alive. The place to be is quayside Bouboulina Street, named for Laskarina Bouboulina, a widowed mother of seven who commanded significant naval operations during the 1821 Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Turks and who participated personally in the siege of Nafplio.

Along Bouboulina Street couples stroll; grandmothers hold grandbabies in ample laps and tickle little chins; tiny boys hold their fathers’ hands and lean down over the water, looking for fish; young people cruise the promenade on motorbikes, stopping now and then for food and conversation; diners at tavernas like the Poseidon turn their chairs toward the sea and linger over meals of sparkling seafood; whole families walk the cobbles, slowly, sometimes holding hands; tourists try to capture the mellow mystery of this beautiful place, easing themselves into café seats, envying the people who live here; trios and quartets of big-bellied old men in short-sleeve shirts sit on waterfront benches and retell stories, nodding and grinning at each as if it were new.

And out in the harbor, where small wooden fishing boats bob at anchor, floats the Bourtzi (photo above), turned silhouette by a fireball sunset that throws orange and magenta onto the water and into the sky and paints the Argolid mountains purple. The Bourtzi is part of Nafplio’s architectural and historical signature. A castle on an island in the bay. Come evening, everyone is quayside, and there’s the Bourtzi, centerpiece of yet another Greek view that you try to fix securely inside somewhere so you'll never forget it. Holding your glass of wine, something white and crisp and citrusy, you try to figure out what you ever did to deserve this moment.

The Bourtzi looks like a dream, but the idyllic vision belies the building’s turbulent past. Built by the Venetians in 1471, it and its namesake island began life as Castel Pasqualigo, a fort to protect the entrance to what was then Venetian Napoli. After Venetians, Byzantines and Turks left the scene and Greeks regained control of Nafplio in 1822, the Bourtzi did a stint as a prison and then became the home of the town’s hangman. To keep the hangman a proper, decorous distance from townspeople, municipal leaders sequestered him out in the harbor in the cold stone rooms of the old fortress, where the prison worker became, effectively, a prisoner himself (although one who would keep his head).

Today, people sit in Nafplio and look out, wistfully, at the Bourtzi. Two hundred years ago, a man with a job considered necessary but too foul and distasteful for intercourse with the general populace sat in his clammy, sunless rooms in the Bourtzi and looked in, wistfully, at Nafplio.

Comments or questions? Email me.