The view of Nafplio from the fort.
I have two words for you – Before Midnight.
It’s no secret I’m a fan of the movie series. I love all the filming locations as much as the script themselves. The final movie of the trilogy took place in Greece, but more specifically, the filming location was in Peloponnese, a region in Greece. And when I got there, I knew exactly why this place was chosen as the spot to conclude the story of Jesse and Celine. The emerald green waters against the beautiful white coasts, the portside town with a maze of cobbled, narrow old streets, ancient Greek monuments up on the hill where you can climb up to see the sweeping views, and of course, the food. If ever there is a place to go to for someone to walk aimlessly and reflect on their life, Nafplio must be one of those.
It’s always the history that makes a place beautiful. Nafplio was no exception. Once ruled by the Byzantines, Franks, and even the Ottoman Empire, you can look around and see the marks of these conquers by the different styles of building around town. The ones with domes are Ottoman. The ancient walls of the forts are from the Venetians and Franks. Everything else? Unmistakably Roman.
This was the last leg of my Greece travels, and after so many days of driving around the country, I was ready to spend my last remaining days just eating, walking around and doing nothing. Nafplio was the perfect choice. You can almost walk everywhere you need to go to, and it’s such a popular weekend town for the Greeks that the streets are filled with beautiful restaurants, gelato stands, bookshops, cafes and hangout spots. In the morning you can visit the fresh food market, something I always make a point of doing whenever I’m some place new. It’s how I get a feel of what the people and the energy is really like, what they eat, how they interact, and what’s in season.
Some of the fresh produce at the morning market - artichokes, greek honey, oranges, sardines
After grazing your way through the market (be friendly, and lots people will let you try lots of things they sell), perhaps a great idea is to venture into the old town square. You’ll get lost in the turns and corners, but don't worry. To get lost is a great way to explore something new. The streets are small and narrow, but the locals seem to maximise this by putting up tables for people to eat, and stalls for you to rummage through old books, postcards and souvenirs. Before noon is also the best time, weather-wise, to climb up the old fort, the Acronauplia, on the hill to check out the scenery. Nothing says Greece quite like a full sunny day with sweeping views of old rooftops, white pebbly beaches and sparkling green sea. And unapologetic locals in the skimpiest bathing suits imaginable, even that old 80 year-old uncle with super tight speedos one could fully visualise his Grecian glory, if you know what I mean.
View of the Agean sea - plentiful in the Pelopponese region
Lunch must not be taken lightly. This is a portside region, so do yourself a favour and indulge in the local produce. During one of the afternoons I had a lunch I’ll never forget – fresh sardines filleted and grilled with some local oregano. You’ll find oregano in almost all of the dishes in this country. And with it I had a bowl of blanched chard drenched in glossy, green extra virgin Greek olive oil, with a squeeze of lemon. Speaking of which, it was the orange season at the time, and I had some of the best oranges I’ve ever had here.
Grilled sardines, de-boned, with oregano
Blanched chards in extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice
As advertised, you won’t have an actual goal in Nafplio. You sit around the cafes and write postcards. You chat with some other people sitting at the table next to you. You check out the old railroads that have been there since 1886. You try out some gelatos which are great to compliment the balmy weather. If you have a car, you can drive up to Corinth Canal and watch the boats pass by the 6km long waterway. The canal opens up to the Aegean Sea (which is also the sea Achilles once sailed in to travel to Troy). It sounds blah, but it’s rather interesting to see actually.
The Corinth Canal
At night the main town changes its façade and becomes a beautiful glittery place with music, candlelight and even more delicious food. Sometimes the main town square, called the Plateia Syntagmatos, would have fun events to watch. I managed to catch a school choir competition, which turned out to be rather fitting, listening to beautiful gospel singing echoing through the streets of this beautiful town.
You sit in the middle of the crowd of happy people, eating a scoop of pistachio gelato, in the air that smells of the sea and the sounds of guitar and Greek music that you can’t understand. You feel like dancing. You cheer on with the crowd even when you have no idea what the commotion is all about. You feel like you’ve seen Greece the way you really want to see it – offbeat, local, and with a full stomach.
That’s why you come to Nafplio.
Travel means differently to different people. For some, it means stepping into a temporary gratification of the luxurious – think fancy hotels, a butler, room service. For others it’s an excuse to throw the rules out of the window and eat with zero conscience. For the rest it means adventure, away from our daily, mundane routines.
I like all of these reasons. I’ve done it for all of these reasons. But so far, here is the best reason I like to travel; it’s the feeling of arriving someplace, a new place, where nothing is familiar, and you think to yourself, “Where the bejesus am I??”
I love this feeling. I’m addicted to this feeling. It makes me feel that the world is so strange but wonderful but vast but beautiful. And that was exactly the feeling I had when I arrived in Zagori Village, Greece, about six hours’ drive away from Athens.
Rainy days, long roads, in Ioaninna
A view of Zagori Village from the hotel
I have never driven that far in my life, let alone in a foreign country on the opposite side of the car. But the drive to the Ioninna region of Greece is beautiful, past Greek landscapes of mountains, olive farms, small narrow roads past villages, sheep, working horses, and the Aegean sea. I arrived at the small hotel called Kipi Suites, a large mansion on top of the hill surrounded by the small Zigori Village, after a long drive through lonely roads that did not seem to lead anywhere.
Kipi Suites - a small hotel, please please please go here
I want to tell you more about Zigori Village. But first, have you ever read an Enid Blython book? In her books she often describes magical villages surrounded by beautiful green woods and quiet rivers, with stone houses, slate roofs, and tiny lanes that are cobbled. Well, that’s Zigori Village. People are nice, the local tavern serves amazing food, the village dogs love you, and if you’re lucky you come across the mountain turtles who sometimes visit from the woods.
The village roads are quiet and cobbled
This region of Ioninna is located near the borders of Greece-Albania, and it was once occupied by the Turkish Empire. As a result, you see a lot of their architectural influences around the area, such as the many, many, many beautifully designed bridges crossing the emerald green rivers with icy cold waters. I went for long walks through the woods, which lead to quiet, pebbly riverbanks, and all the pathways are made from cobblestones with weeds growing in between (I’m starting to sound like I’m describing a Disney village, aren’t I?).
Cheese pie with olives, homemade jam and local mountain tea
Misty mornings around the village
Life here is quiet, and so I seemed to emulate this energy as well. I woke up early to watch the sunrise from the balcony of the hotel (there was no one else occupying this hotel, this is how remote the village is), and sheets of morning fog uncovered the whole village and its surrounding landscape. The lady who hosted the place (who is also the cook, receptionist and housekeeper) made a cheese pie for breakfast, which is basically baked feta cheese in filo pastry with olives. Then I wrote for about an hour, and after that set off to hike for Vikos Gorge, the second deepest canyon in the world. I went for the Beloi Viewpoint to see the entire canyon, and saw some wild deers. The national park is gorgeous, a Mediterranean stone forest with gorgeous sunshine, and the gorge itself was a view to behold.
Vikos Gorge, at the borders of Greece-Albania
I lost track of how many slabs of feta cheese I've been eating
After that it was a late lunch at the tavern, complete with the neighborhood dogs trying to get the plate of meat patties, and of course, a generous plate of Greek Salad. This area houses around 45 small villages, so you can imagine the amount of sightseeing one could get by walking around. I packed some water, snacks, and a good jacket, then off I went on long walks. I just remember feeling so happy as I walked, and the air smelled like old leaves and pine trees. I was so far away from everything I knew, and somehow this made me feel free.
This part of Greece is famous for it's medieval bridges
Ioninna is a place that reminded me why I liked to travel. The roads are not popular, the villages are modest. You won’t find any designer shops here. People wear sensible shoes and clothes, and no one is in a hurry or trying to fish out as much money as possible from you. Lives are simple, and nothing is touristy – the natural wonders are there, quiet, beautiful, undisturbed.
Where the bejesus was I? Nowhere, and it was spectacular.
I have a thing about places that are over-touristed (is that even a real word?). They look great in Instagram, they give you over-the-top hospitality and luxury, and it feels like an escape into a world where things are simple and nothing really matters. I enjoy these things too, once in a while. But for the perks that they give, they also take away the thing I like most about travel – to assimilate into a different culture, a different life, and watch the world through a stranger’s eyes, from some other parts of the world you don’t belong in.
In other words, I wasn’t crazy keen on Santorini before I got there. In pictures it looks perfect, and if there is one thing I know about picture-perfect things is that it will not be the case in reality. My flight to Santorini Island was delayed for 4 hours, and as I sat there in the Athens Airport, grumpy and unshowered, I thought to myself, Santorini better be really good.
And it turns out Santorini delivered. When you land at the airport of the small island, you can take either a personal chauffeur or the local bus to your hotel, at a flat price rate (the bus is staggeringly cheaper). Santorini is mainly divided into two parts; the East side of the island is where the local lives, with more beaches and less people, and the West side which is the main star, the mecca of tourism of the island.
I settled into one of the rooms overlooking the coast, and immediately was glad I only carried a light backpack. Santorini is not for the unfit nor the knee-deformed humans. Oia, which is a small section North of the island, consists of hundreds of small rooms and villas, each interconnected by narrow roads, steep stairs and confusing routes to go around. To add to the confusion, everything is white. There is not one single man-made wall, bridge, roof, and fence that is not in the default whitest-of-white paint. Everything is so white, your teeth feels yellow. Everything is so white, you’ll need sunglasses or risk very bad glare.
Remember how beautiful Santorini looks in Google? I thought I’d let you know it looks even better in real life. There is something breathtaking in the offset of colours here – everything white, with dots of church domes painted sapphire blue. The cliffs are wrapped by the small white squares, and against it, the dark, misty Aegean sea. The narrow streets are adorned with small restaurants, gift shops, book shops (note: one MUST visit the Atlantis Bookstore, dubbed as one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world) and mysterious wooden doors.
If you travel on foot from Imerovigli to Fira, you’re in for a treat. It’s probably one of the most beautiful walks you’ll ever have on an island. Take your time when you do it. Stop by for drinks. Explore the hidden picturesque spots along the road. Pause to enjoy the view once in a while. I did the walk during sunset, and I recommend you do the same.
If you’re looking for something a little more quiet, take a bus and stop by Pyros. Pyros is the ‘orginial’ Santorini, which basically lets you see how the island looked like before all the tourism came into the picture. Pyros is quiet and lonely, with a Byzantine castle on top of the hill that you can reach by walked up the narrow streets of the neighbourhood. Get up there and see the whole of Santorini from a bird’s eye point of view, because this location is right at the centre of the curve of the island. There is a small café at the foot of the castle called Penelope, and you can sit back and enjoy some sun and breeze with a tall glass of frappe (did you know frappe originates from Greece? So you know you gotta have some) and a plate of tomato fritters (found everywhere in Greece, but originates from Santorini).
And while you’re enjoying the epitome of hyperpolic tourism, why not feast, island style? It’s an island, so expect its forte to be all the produce of the sea. People seem to really enjoy smoked octopus here, and it seems that they have perfected the art of prepping the tentacles so that they are never rubbery. Seafood pasta, grilled swordfish, and if you miss home than head down to Fira and there is a square with ethnic food options – I had a bowl of tomyam. Whoops. #asianproblems
And then, by the end of it, you haven’t been to Santorini if you haven’t seen a sunset in Santorini. Unfortunately the crowd gets crazy at the good viewing spots, but that’s okay. Happiness is best when shared with a crowd of sweaty, loud strangers, right? Oia is known to have the best spots for sunsets, especially if you go up to the old castle ruins. Watch the sun go down beyond the horizon, turning everything that is white into yellow, and everything that is blue into a dark mystery. The windmill at the edge of the island looks faraway and mythical, and despite your fear of heights (read: me), climb up the walls of the castle and stay there until the sun is long gone and the cliffs lghts up with thousands of sparkling dotted yellow lights and you’re once again, looking at Santorini in a brand-new way.
As you sit there, you’ll think to yourself how the heck it is that you got so lucky to see these beautiful places with your very own eyes. And you should think so. Santorini demands that you do.