Cerulean blue skies, white-washed houses with the deep blue of the sea in the background. Speedos and bikinis, night clubs and plate-breaking. That’s what I expected from Greece and got it, but discovered so much more. There’s history, gastronomy and indescribably clear seas. There’s warmth and welcome, a natural inclusion of children and a charmingly simple approach to living. Plus, Greece has the best donuts I’ve ever had, sold right on the beach!
I joined the throng of expat wives escaping the desert heat and took my kids to Greece last summer. We started our vacation with nearly two weeks in the lesser known Peloponnese.
We went during the financial crisis and friends and family gave many, well-meant suggestions to cancel our trip. As Greece was at the top of my bucket list, there was no way I was going to oblige. I am happy to say that the media fed the public a bunch of absolute hogwash. There was ample cash at ATMS, no shortage of food and not one protest. It’s a good thing I didn’t listen because my Greek vacation was my best vacation to date. Here are a few highlights from my time in Nafplio in the Greek Peloponese. I will post blogs on Tolo, Poros, Athens, Crete (Chania and Rethymno) and Naxos at a later date.
Athens Airport to Nafplio – getting there...
We got our first glimpse of the famed Greek ocean when we stopped at the Corinth Canal. It is on the way to Nafplio from Athens airport and is well worth the quick stop. There is also a bungee jump station for the more adventurous. (I would rather slurp bugs through a straw than bungee. Thanks.) There are also boat rides through the passage. The Corinth Canal is a 19th century passage carved through a mountain – literally – with the Ionian sea on one side and the Aegean sea on the other.
The town… Nafplio is one of the most romantic places I’ve been to with winding, cobbled roads, canopies of bougainvillea and balconies overflowing with pots of tomatoes and flowers. Orange trees scent the air and wild olive trees remind you that you’re in Greece. Once a capital of Greece, Nafplio is rich in Ancient Greek, Roman, Ottoman and Venetian history. Palamidi castle watches over the town from the hill and Bourtzi fort keeps guard on a man-made island in the middle of the bay. Between these two iconic structures lie museums, colorful Venetian buildings and ancient monuments.
Despite its romantic atmosphere, kids won’t lack for entertainment. My children loved the miniature train tour around the town and there were horse-drawn carriages and electric bike options too.The public parks and playgrounds are pretty, beaches boast calm waters and activities such as visiting the castle, fort and war museum will engage the imagination. Palamidi castle is vast and offers breathtaking views over Nafplio and even a functional church inside its walls.
On weekends, the squares become a hive of activity when visiting Athenians fill up the restaurants alongside tourists. Children play next to ancient fountains and mimic the mimes and freelance entertainers meandering about.
Once you’ve seen all in Nafplio, there are excursions to nearby historical sites and quaint countryside villages provided by tour operators and taxis. The most notable are visits to Epidavros / Epidauros, an ancient Greek theater, and the ruins of the Bronze Age citadel, Mycenae. We found enough to keep us occupied in Nafplio and Tolo and did not visit these sites. It gives us a reason to return. 😉
I remember walking through the square on our first night in Greece and realizing
that it was way past midnight. My first reaction (an ingrained South African reflex) was fear and I quickly looked around. No one else was afraid. People were merrily socializing or going about their own business and it felt safe. In that moment all the anxiety I’d been feeling about traveling alone with my girls to a foreign country dissipated. In that moment, I gave myself permission to let my anxiety go and embrace my time in Greece.
The beach… Although Nafplio doesn’t have a sandy beach, it does have a designated swimming area where many older, local women flock to cool off in the afternoons. The seabed consists of pebbles so I’d recommend a good pair of swimming shoes. It’s more like swimming in a pool than an ocean tidal pool and, after walking around the old town in the heat, welcoming.
Accommodation…We stayed at Anthemion Guesthouse, located on the outskirts of Nafplio. If offers family-friendly accommodation with spacious rooms, terraces, landscaped gardens, a great breakfast and a huge pool with a poolside drinks and light meal service. The best thing about Anthemion was that the family that owns and runs it, doesn’t just treat you well, they treat you as one of their own. They even stayed late with me one night when I needed help after I had to unexpectedly cancel accommodation on the next leg of my trip. The reason for their great reviews on booking.com becomes clear once you’ve stayed here.
Food… My older daughter is a foodie like me and has an adventurous palette and my other daughter likes to have her food plain and simple – the less ingredients, the better. The Greek cuisine catered for all our tastes from warm, homemade crusty loaves to tzatziki made with the heavenly yoghurt to grilled calamari with salt and olive oil to prawns cooked in a rich tomato and feta sauce. A visit to Gelarto for watermelon ice cream is a must. Yes, gelato is Italian but the Greeks make great ice-cream – I think the intense summer heat offers a good incentive.
I had a few presumptions of Greek cuisine that was checked at the door. I learned that the Greek salads served at home (even in Greek restaurants) is a unflattering relative of the robust, authentic dish. It has no lettuce and definitely does NOT have vinegar in the dressing. (The recipe is at the bottom of this blog.)
Another lesson quickly learned was that Greek portions are huge. One main dish is enough for 2 adults and a Greek salad can easily feed three, so the girls and I ordered a main course and one or two side dishes and shared it between us. Greeks also serve their food at just above room temperature so do not expect piping hot food to arrive at your table. In the summer heat, you don’t want your food that hot anyway.
The Greeks have a wonderful tradition of serving water and bread (most often complimentary) as soon as you sit down at the table. This is often accompanied by a bowl of olives and olive oil (they steer away from butter). After you’ve eaten, you are served with a complimentary plate of seasonal fruit, which was watermelon when we were there. It’s a generous and welcoming gesture – much like the culture in general.
A return to Nafplio is on my bucket list – next time hubby has to be with.
Greek salad, the way the Greeks make it, was a revelation. Have a look at the recipe and see why…
Authentic Greek Salad
- Place ripe, red tomatoes at the bottom of the bowl. A Greek taxi driver told me that he never buys a tomato that looks perfect – it has to look naturally imperfect, red and be slightly firm still. I don’t buy perfect and imported tomatoes anymore. It makes a HUGE difference. About 4 medium tomatoes.
- Drizzle a good quality olive oil over the tomatoes. About 3 tablespoons.
- Add chopped cucumber (approximately 1.5 cups), a few slices of onion, 1 sliced green peper and a handful of black or kalamata olives.
- Top it with a slab of feta cheese.
- Drizzle the feta with a teaspoon of olive oil and sprinkle it with a half a teaspoon of dried oregano.
No seasoning or vinegar is needed. The olive oil mixes with the tomato juice, oregano and feta to create its own dressing.
To me, this epitomizes Greek cuisine – healthy, good quality ingredients, simple cooking techniques and maximum flavor.
Directory of Accommodation and Transport
Accommodation – If like me, you want kid-friendly accommodation with a pool, wifi and a good breakfast, then you can’t go wrong with Anthemion Guesthouse. http://www.anthemion.gr
For transfers to Nafplio from Athens I’d recommend Maria from Greek Taxi. http://greek-taxi.gr I used her taxi service to get to Tolo on one occasion and I know they do excursions to towns near Nafplio too.
For transportation within Nafplio, there are a number of taxis available at the taxi rank within the town center. As the old town is pedestrianized, you’ll probably only use a taxi to get to your hotel if it is outside of the old town (as we did – although we could have walked) or for excursions to nearby beach towns (Tolo) and historical sites (theater of Epidavros). Taxis are well regulated and there is a price list on a board at the taxi rank.