The prettiest little seaport town in southern Greece, Navplion is a perfect base for exploring the ancient homes of Homer’s heroes
It’s one of the most dramatic tales of 19th-century archaeology. Fresh from finding the site of Homer’s Troy, self-taught archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann went on, for an encore, to unearth Mycenae and the tombs of its ancient kings. “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon,” he said, after finding the fabulous golden death-mask of a Mycenaean king. Still known (wrongly) as the Mask of Agamemnon, it’s now on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
Mycenae (Mikines in modern Greek) is a reality check for any fan of the Iliad. From his fortified palace in the centre of the Argolid peninsula, the great king Agamemnon was master of all he surveyed – and his kingdom must have been all of 20 miles across. It rather puts the world of the Mycenaeans into context.
Their Bronze Age civilisation flourished here from around 1600BC until around 1200BC, when it collapsed, leaving only the legends that Homer, five centuries later, wove into the Iliad and the Odyssey. But Mycenae is still a must-see, with its massive ramparts and carved stone lions guarding the gate into Agamemnon’s citadel.
There are even more impressive walls at ancient Tiryns, nearby. Much more recent (built in the 4th century BC), the great theatre at Epidavros is the best-preserved and grandest of all the ancient Hellenic theatres and is still used during the Athens Festival each summer to present modern and classical theatre. Its acoustics are astonishing. Don’t miss the archaeological museums in Navplion and Argos - this part of the world is also knee-deep in medieval history with a 13th-century Frankish castle overlooking the small town of Argos in the centre of the Argolid, and an even more impressive complex of Venetian-era fortifications defending the pretty harbour town of Navplion.
Make Navplion (around two hours by bus and train from Athens, changing at Corinth) your base for two or three days exploring the Argolid. On a money-no-object trip, stay at the Nafplia Palace Hotel and Villas, set within the walls of the Akronavplia fortress on its crag above the town. From the edge of its horizon pool, you can gaze out across the Gulf of Navplion towards a miniature island fortress, the Bourtzi, over the red-tiled roofs of Navplion. The sky’s the limit here: a double costs €280, and a private villa with its own pool starts at €1,800. The Amphitryon Hotel is the other top-notch option, close to the waterfront and also boasting a pool, with rooms starting at around €300 and suites around €1,000.
Mid-range places to stay here include the dreamyAmymone Pension (doubles from around €60) and the pretty-in-pink Hotel Byron (around €50). Staying under canvas, there’s Camping Atreus, at Mycenae, which has a pool, Camping Assini Beach, on the beach about three miles south of Navplion, and a scattering of other campsites around the shores of the Argolid.
Argos, now a funky little market town on the site of an ancient citadel, is a good place to break for lunch, with an assortment of psistarias (grill restaurants) in the centre of town. There’s no shortage of places to eat in Navplion, around the harbour and along Odos Staikopoulou, which runs through the centre of the old town, and they’re a cut above the run-of-the-mill joints in most resorts. Basilis is one of the best for traditional Greek cooking, and you can eat here for around €15 each. For a gourmet experience, dress up and book a table at Anemone at the Nafplia Palace - you’ll pay at least €50 a head, but it’s near-Michelin standard.
When it comes to exploring, you’ll need your own wheels and two full days to explore the three archaeological sites at a leisurely pace. At a pinch, you could do it by rented motorbike or scooter, but Epidavros is a 50-mile round trip from Navplion and this option is only for experienced riders. You can rent cars, bikes and scooters from several agencies in Navplion.