Nafplion

Article and pictures by Stephen Wass, all rights reserved.

The complex of fortifications centred round the town of Nauplion (or Nafplion) is one of the most important and spectacular on the Greek mainland. Defensive works from many eras are easily accessible with the shady streets of the town offering respite and refreshment between periods of ruin hopping.

The modern town stands on largely reclaimed ground below a rocky promontory that juts out into the Argolic Gulf. According to myth the town's founder was Nauplios, son of Poseidon.

His son, Palamedes, after whom the crag that dominates the town was named, was a participant in the Trojan war and was credited with the invention of writing.

Whatever the town's early origins it was clearly an important port from the outset and there are traces of a Mycenaean defensive wall near the south corner of the Castello di Toro.

The developing town was destroyed in 600 BCE by Argos because of its links with Sparta but by the Hellenistic period it was sufficiently recovered to boast a fortified acropolis.

At a number of locations the roughly coursed rubble walls of the medieval period are underpinned by the massive dressed ashlar blocks from the classical walls.

Arab incursions in the late 6th century may have prompted a refortification of Acronauplia by the Byzantines.

Further work was probably undertaken in the 11th century, especially after Nicephoros Karentinos was appointed 'general' of the town following a decisive defeat for Arab forces in 1032.

It is likely that a wall was extended to cover the growing town at the foot of the acropolis in the 12th century. After the fall of Constantinople in 1204 and a successful two year siege by the Frank, Godfrey de Villehardouin in 1210 the works of Acronauplia were divided into to sections.

The westernmost part was left in the hands of the Greeks - Castello di Greci, while the invaders occupied the eastern portion - Castello di Franchi. In 1382 following difficulties over inheritance the rights to the town were ceded to the Venetians who took control for the next century and a half.

The Venetians improved the layout of the town, erected a number of public buildings and strengthened and updated the defences of both Acronauplia and the town.

They repaired the walls of the two earlier castles and added the Castello di Toro to cover the approach from the east. In 1471 They also erected the small defensive work on an islet in the harbour known as the Bourdzi.

By 1530 the population stood at around 10,000. However in 1540, after fending off a number of Turkish raids the town finally fell to Kasim-Pasha, vizier to Sultan Suleiman I, following a three year siege.

The town was forced to capitulate having been largely reduced to rubble by cannon mounted on the nearby Palamidi Hill that overlooks the town. Following the fall of Crete to the Ottomans the Venetian general Francesco Morosini attacked the town in 1686.

The destruction of a powder magazine'close to the Land Gate together with much of the south east quarter of town lead to the surrender of the Turkish forces. It had become clear that the existing fortifications fell far short of what was required for modern warfare.

As well as reinforcing the entry to the Acronauplia and covering the Land Gate with the massive Grimani Bastion'and strengthening the remaining walls and towers they also began work to turn the towering crag of Palamidi into an utterly modern and impregnable fortress. Its design was the responsibility of two engineers: a Frenchman, La Salle and a Dalmatian, Giaxich.

It was largely completed between 1711 and 1714, a remarkably short period for such a massive undertaking.

However, in 1714 when the Ottoman general Ali Dagut Pasha attacked with an army of over 100,000 there were only 1,700 defenders to oppose him and the Palamidi fell after a siege of just two weeks allegedly because of the treachery of its French commander.

During the second period of Turkish occupation the town became something of a provincial backwater and little was done with its defences except an extension eastward to the Palamidid and some limited maintenance work.

At the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence in 1821 a series of attacks and a protracted siege lead to the fall of the town and its defensive works in November 1822. From 1828 to 1834 Nauplion was the first capital of the new Greek state.

Visiting Nafplion

Acronauplia: The headland can be approached on foot from the town. Any one of a number of lanes approach the foot of the acropolis rock at which point one turns left and follows a path that leads through a gate flanked by a round tower into a open space in front of the east facing wall of the Castello di Franchi. Try and ignore the decaying concrete and glass former Xenia Hotel that takes up most of the internal space of the Castello di Toro.

A road curls round the southern end of this wall revealing the ruins of a number of chambers built against the inside face. Further up the slope is the massive cross wall which marks the eastern limit of the Castello di Greci, reinforced by the Venetians with a talus and a low round tower loopholed'for musket fire.

The hill top beyond this is an overgrown and rather confusing jumble of low ruined walls and impenetrable scrub. Retracing one's steps and following the road past the derelict hotel leads to a large circular artillery tower of the late 14th century which marked the eastern end of the Castello di Toro.

Beyond this is the huge quadrangular Grimani Bastion of 1706. This replaced an earlier detached ravelin and was contiguous with the east front of the town wall.

The bastion was banked inside into three terraces backing onto the parapet with embrasures. Below these are a series of vaulted galleries. Part of the walling consists of large rusticated blocks of stone which are carried up the angle of the bastion to the height of the cordon. In a park below the bastion are the reconstructed remains of the Land Gate and a section of town wall and moat.

The Palmidi: Vehicle access is available from the town but many visitors prefer to experience the extraordinary climb up the staircase which zig-zags up the northern face of the crag.

This can be quite challenging as for much of the day the 900 or so steps rising around 200 metres are in full sun. However the ascent does offer a magnificent unfolding panorama of the old town and Acronaupila and a view of the curious loopholed caponier like structure which runs down the lower portion of the slope.

Half way up one passes the small Robert Bastion before entering through a series of gates and terraces the massive Ag. Andreas Bastion. This was the first to be completed in 1712 and illustrates well the concept behind the fortress which is that of a series of detached and semi-independent forts located within a larger but less heavily defended outer enclosure wall.

The Bastion was fitted out as the command point for the garrison and as well as residential accommodation included a small church dedicated to St. Andrew. The walls can be approached either by steps or a horribly slippery steep stone ramp now highly polished by the feet of passing tour groups. To the north is the small Leonidas Bastion defending the northern most corner of the enciente and beyond this looms the huge bulk of the Miltiades Bastion, really a detached pentagonal fort in the form of an acute angled ravelin pointing towards the main land approach from the east.

It contains a large rainwater cistern and a number of dismal chambers which functioned as prison cells from 1840 until 1920.

Further east against the cliff top is the Themistocles Bastion containing a six gun battery which would also flank the approach road from the east and dominate a ridge which extended along the cliff top further to the east.

The Achilles Bastion occupies the central portion of this ridge but was possibly unfinished at the time of the Turkish assault as it was here that the breakthrough was made.

Beyond it is the Phokion Bastion built by the Turks after 1714 to strengthen what they obviously saw as a weakness in the defences. An admission charge is made and the whole site is freely accessible although there is little by way of facilities within the fortress except for a couple of water taps. The Bourdzi: This well preserved little fort has fulfilled a number of non-defensive functions including being the home for the town's executioner.

More recently it has been a hotel, a restaurant and a cultural centre. There are many small boats available with boatmen to take visitors round the island but it is best to check with the tourist information office opposite the bus station for current arrangements for access.

Article and pictures by Stephen Wass, all rights reserved.

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