A 40 minute walk that changed my life
My wife, my dog and I were walking in Nafplio, the first capital of Greece after the Ottoman occupation, and as is the custom of all the locals, we were walking along the promenade. The promenade itself is long, 2-3 km and at the far end of it, it has an arm, really a pier-like breakwater, that jets out into the sea. We are not from Nafplio, but we come here often and always do as the locals do, stroll, or “volta” down to the end of the breakwater and back.
This time, we were a little early for the evening walkers and as we reached the end of the promenade, right before we turned right to go to the breakwater pier, we noticed a walkway to the left, a flagstone covered path that we had not noticed in the past, we asked one another if this was new, and we both agreed it must be new.
Nafplio is built around two huge rocks with fortifications on the top, the Palamidi and the Akronafplia.
This walkway went around the Akronafplia which is closest to the port. We assumed that it would have been a short walk, sort of like the breakwater pier at the harbor.
We walked on the flagstone path looking up at the fortifications, the path wound itself at the edge of the sea and we could see the sparkling clear water below and the fish swimming in it. To our right, between the path and the sea below, a waiter prepared 4 tables which were set on a small pier at the water’s edge. Next to the pier, we saw another, lighting candles on tables in a dining room which seemed to be built upon the water. As we continued, a long pier came into view. We stopped and stood on one of two wooden terraces built just above the water, overlooking the pier and the café. My wife commented that it reminded her of the swimming area on the lake were she spent her summers at overnight camp. Jetting out into the sea, turning and running parallel to the path we walked on, it met a second floating pier which created a horseshoe as it wound back to shore. Along the pier oversized couches were filled with people, sipping iced coffees and wine, waiting for sunset. In the center, a few locals bobbed up and down in the clear waters, the traditional late afternoon swim on a hot summer afternoon.
The path wound around again and again hugging the tall rock like a ribbon around a present. We saw and met families, couples, joggers, bicyclists, people with their dogs, friendly people, people with smiles on their faces, people that were enjoying the walk as much as we were. Every once in a while, there were stone stairs that led down to the sea, either to a tiny flat that one could swim off or a rock outcropping for fishing. Neither one of us was prepared for the rare treat that we were experiencing. We had never read about this walk in any of the guide books.
It was a discovery, a discovery one can only make by walking and deciding to go to the less traveled path – even though, this was hardly a path less traveled. The path was not crowded, but there were enough people of all ages and genders to assure us that we were not at the wrong place but never so crowded that we wished for less people. At one point, about 30 minutes into our journey, the rock became shear to the point that they needed to open a tunnel through the rock to continue the path on the other side. It is a small tunnel, but such a wonderful surprise. All along the path there are park benches that look out to the sea. Not because it is a tiring walk, but it is necessary to take in the light breeze and smell the pine forest from below mixed with fresh smell of the sea.
Our dog, Scruffy, led the way in a happy prance, smelling and examining every bush and tree. He seemed to have a smile on his face. You know, the way happy dogs hold their mouth half open and curve the back of the mouth upwards.
The flagstone path ended at the Arvanitaria beach about a mile north of the point we started. Arvanitaria beach is an organized beach, small with smooth pebbles very inviting for a swim, unfortunately, because we did not now where we were going, we were unprepared. So my advice is take your swim suit, or better yet wear it, wherever you go in Greece. There is always a gem of a beach wherever you go, just around the bend of the road. So you have been warned, be prepared.
At that point there was a large parking lot where many of the European motor home travelers park their vehicles. It is between the Palamidi and the Akronafplia castles.
At the other end of the parking lot we could see a road that continued northward. Now this had become a quest, we did not know where we were, I read the sign for the beach on the sign, all we knew is that people kept coming from the other direction, so we had to investigate. The road on the other side of the parking lot was a short one, a couple of hundred yards long, becoming a wide gravel trail that kept going northward, huging the coastline to our right and the rock wall to our left The cliffs to our right were shear and smooth in brown, tan and grey shades, with holes here and there where the seabirds and the bats nest. The right side was a steep slope covered with pines and prickly pear cactus. The prickly pear cactus is not indigenous to Greece and to me it was a rather disturbing sight because they are an invasive species and should be controlled. Nonetheless, they are beautiful and they were growing everywhere, up the steep cliffs, on the side of the path, everywhere with their pale red fruits at the edge of their leaves.
The path was absolutely clean, despite the number of people that obviously use it.
One point of clarification, Greeks are not very health conscious and long walks and jogging are not the norm. This was definitely outside of the norm, there were younger people jogging, but there were also older people there, too.
Walking around the winding path and looking up at the shear cliff you can clearly see why the ancients decided to build there castles at this location. Formidable, inpenetrable, unconquerable. The castle has views way out to the sea and the surrounding valley. No one could have approached the area without being noticed.
The smooth dirt and gravel trail keeps winding around changing vistas, every turn of the winding path is a new experience for the senses. The late afternoon light plays with the shapes and the shadows showing the different shapes, anything your imagination can make of them, from faces, to animals. The sky was clear blue with some wisps of high altitude clouds that by this time were showing their evening colors, from soft peach to deep violet.
It was about 8:00 pm, leaving us with about an hour of light. Under normal circumstances we should have been turning back. But we felt like kids in the midst of a discovery adventure. We wanted to see where the path led to. There were plenty of people going our way and coming back, so we were encouraged to go on.
We started talking to a family, they were very happy to be on the trail and they told us the path ended at what we understood to be the town of Karathonas. The man, in his early 50s pointed out to another point on the peninsula across the bay where the little church of St. Nicolaos, the patron saint of the sailors, stood, contrasting its white color against the shear brown and gray cliff above it. I imagined this must have been like a lighthouse for the fishermen, a welcome site that they were close to home coming back from the sea, especially if the sea had been rough, “Almost home, a little further and I will see my wife and children, Help me St Nicolaos, Help me and I will light a candle as tall as I am.” The fisherman with the face sculpted by the sun and the seawater would have thought and promised as he battled the last part of his journey back home.
The next turn of the road revealed a small pebble covered beach with no one on it. This is one of the gems of hiking. This is the time to take a dip. A refreshing dip. The icing on the cake. The light dancing like diamonds on the ripples of the water, the clear sapphire blue water that, as we say in Greek “you could drink out of a glass”.
We were refreshed just by the thought of the dip, and swore that we would never go out again without our swimsuits.
The path kept winding around with slight rises and drops, we kept passing by people and people kept passing us. I saw two of the joggers that passed by us earlier, they were on the way back, and asked them how much further did this path go. They smiled and encouraged us to keep going. It was not that much further, they assured us. “To what” I wondered.
By now we could see a long beach at the curve of the peninsula. There were no buildings visible from where we stood. It looked to be totaly undeveloped. That is rare for beachfront property in Greece. We caught up with the family that had passed us by earlier and the man told me that the area had just gotten electricity. He smiled as he remembered earlier days when they would walk to this beach. There is a small restaurant that was still cooking on wood fire.
As we looked back toward the way we had just come from, the sun was low on the horizon. We could look straight to the west now and the reflection of the sun’s rays cast before us for miles and miles, dancing on the shimmering water of the sea. The shadows were long, magnificent for photographing.
Just like watching fire works, one spectacular burst after another, the path revealed more of its beauty with another pebble beach, and yet another turn finally revealed our destination, which was not a town at all: The long quiet beach, Karathonas.
At the end closest to us, a small fishing port with a couple of dozen small fishing boats dressed in their finest, dancing slowly on the water, swaying to the rhythm of the rise and fall of the sea.
A few bathers could be seen at the distance, the man I had spoken to earlier had told me the water was very shallow and you could walk out quite a ways without having to swim. In the light of the dusk, we could see an older couple about a hundred meters from the beach standing and hugging each other. Carole, my wife, turned and said “I hope we love each other like they do when we are their age.” We have only been married for 15 years, we still have a ways to go.
At the end closest to us we saw about 6 campers that had parked there for the night, a few kids playing on the coarse sand. A perfect setting for the northern Europeans who make Greece their summer home. In their country at this time of the year, it is cloudy and raining. In Greece, it will not rain past the end of May. I was very surprised when I first moved to the States that it rained in the summertime! Rain, as far as I knew at 14, was something that was for the fall and winter. Summer was endless days of sun and swimming. The only time we left was for lunch and the obligatory nap during the hot part of the day.
We finally got to the center of the beach where the municipality has put up a few umbrellas and built a café. This is one of the standard open counter establishments. They serve cold drinks, frappes – a cold coffee drink -, beer and light snacks. The music was from the seventies and eighties and somehow matched the surroundings.
We walked up the three steps onto the main part of the café and ordered coffee. Scruffy was very happy to get some water and have a chance to rest.
It was getting very late in the evening, about 9:00 pm now, and the sun was seriously thinking about calling it a day. The long shadows of the dusk gave the place an even more magical look. The bathers were getting ready to leave, to leave the beach to its own. We had no idea how far we had walked or how we would get back. Karathona, that’s the name of the beach, has no busses or taxis to connect to Nafplio.
I asked the woman at the cafe how we would get back. She smiled, “The way you came. It is safe. It is about 40 minutes by the way you came. There are other people that walk on the road too.”
Assured by her words and taken in by the relaxing late afternoon, we sat and watched the sunset, listened to the lazy lapping of the wavelets against the shore mixed with the sounds of the music. No reason to interrupt the moment. The outline of the long shadows faded and the clouds, those magical beings of the sky, turned pink and fuchsia, the colors of the evening that are impossible to capture.
We wondered whether we should try to capture the moment in a photograph and both agreed that the moment was better saved in our memories. There is no way to capture the light the surroundings the sound of the sea, the smell of the pine forest. We decided not to talk… just take it in and cherish it. Forever. These are the moments that I draw on for strength when the busy reality of life frays what I call “the fabric of the soul”. That is what remains. A few great memories to keep us going through the rest of our lives.
It was dark now. The song of the cicada had changed to the song of the cricket. The gentler sound that matched the softness of the evening. In the distance, across the peninsula, we could see the lights of the small villages scattered over the rugged landscape, studding the horizon “like fallen constellations” Carole said. Scruffy was resting his head on his front paws and seemed to be enjoying the coolness of the evening as much as we did. He was happy to be with us and we were happy to be there.
Finally we decided to head back. It was about 10:00 pm now, and the moonless sky had turned on the sparkle of the stars. We worked our way back to the path along the beach. The breeze was now coming from the sea. That fresh indescribable light scent of the Aegean. We were silent on the way back. I am sure we both had much to say. I know I did. But if felt as that we would be committing an act of indignation if we disturbed the quietness of the evening. We walked softly, as softly as we could, as not to wake up our surroundings.
There were no lights along the path, just the starlight. Enough light to make the path visible. We walked quietly and briskly, we were getting a bit hungry by now. Scruffy was a little tired, he no longer led. He lagged behind like the sheepdog he is, making sure his flock, that’s what he thinks we are, continued forward and stayed together.
Around the same bends, the same path, the same beaches, finally to the flagstone covered walkway. The walkway was now lit with small lantern lights here and there. Couples strolled past, families with kids looked out to the sea. The sea level cafes were now full of people, where earlier two raised viewing terraces had offered us a place to look across the bay, now bartenders and DJs served drinks and played music. The candles now burned on all of the tables in the dining room jetting out above the sea, and couples leaned across tables down on the pier as waiters carries plates of food and bottles of wine.
The sounds of conversation and music mixed with the sounds of the sea lapping against the stone walls below our path.
One more bend of the path and there she was. Palamidi, she was all lit up now. Wearing her best dress, ready for the evening. Ancient castes look so different when they are lit up. They hover in the sky. They are disconnected from the land below. They seem magical, and they truly are. They protected their people in the ancient times and now they protect us, our sanity at least, by giving us their beauty, letting us know it is OK. Life goes on, nothing really matters in the passage of time. It is only made up of memories, good memories. The mind has a way of forgetting about the difficulties of life and only keeps what is beautiful and happy for the long term.
When we finally got into the Nafplio’s old town, the people are still there, they had always been there. They were the same people as their ancestors in modern dress. Doing the same stuff people have done since the beginning of time. Enjoying their families, their loved ones, their friends, their conversation… all under the same castle… Some things never change. And I sure hope they don’t.
Nafplio is easily reached from Athens by car, private taxi or public bus. The drive via Argos takes 90 minutes.