Sunday, May 13, 2001

Nafplio: Where the Greeks go to get away from us all

Nafplio: Where the Greeks go to get away from us all

Jeremy Atiyah follows discerning Athenians to escape the hordes in the ancient and elegant port of Nafplio

by Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 13 May 2001

With its faded mansions and balconies covered in flowers, Nafplio (also written Nauplion) is one of the most beautiful towns in mainland Greece: well-to-do Athenians, who come here for weekend breaks, say it themselves. Without the traffic of the capital or the islands' barbarian tourist hordes, this compact, historic port on the north-eastern side of the Peloponnesian peninsula is a classy place to sample Greece in a hurry.

Why go?
Just three hours from Athens by train, bus or car, Nafplio can feasibly be reached within a day from the UK. It is not a beach resort (though it has one small beach, and the beach resorts of Tolo and Kastraki are easily accessible as day trips), which accounts for the relatively up-market nature of the tourists who fill its waterside cafés and shady restaurants.
As the first capital of Greece, for a short time after independence from the Ottomans in the 1820s, it was the seat not only of the parliament but also of the first king of Greece, and it is still dotted with forts, churches and converted mosques. And just a few miles out of town are such stunning sites as ancient Mycenae, and the still-used outdoor ancient theatre of Epidavros. For much of the year day trips by boat are available to islands including Spetses and Idhra.

Why now?
The period before the height of summer ­ when the wild flowers are still blooming on the hillsides but before the waiters have become impossibly tetchy ­ is ideal. June is particularly good ­ the fabulous ancient theatre productions of Epidavros have commenced, and the weather is sunny, but not yet stiflingly hot.

The Mission
Apart from sitting in cafés under giant plane trees and admiring the views over lunch, or walking around the seafront below the cliffs, the delight of Nafplio is that there is little to do.
What you can do, however, is visit the magnificent fortresses of the town. According to Nikos Kazantzakis, in his book Travels in Greece, the Greek fortress "reminds us of that fortified point that we never want to surrender, the last refuge of conscience, self-respect and courage". With this in mind, first catch a boat to the offshore islet in the harbour, from which the Bourtzi fort rises. And then, before sunset, make the epic climb up the 900-odd steps to the top of the Palamidhi Fortress, which commands views for miles over the bay on one side, and the mountains of Arcadia on the other.
Finally, as a morning outing, visit the ruins of the ancient city of Mycenae, with its famous lion-gate, where Clytemnestra slew her husband Agamemnon on his return from Troy. The site, on a high bluff overlooking miles of beautiful fruit orchards, is one of the most striking in Greece. You can get here by catching the 10am bus out from Nafplio (which drops you at the car park directly opposite the entrance to the site), heading back at 1pm.

Remember this
In the summer you must not miss the sensational outdoor performances at the Epidavros theatre, less than an hour from town. Despite being 2,400 years old, the theatre provides near-perfect acoustics for the works of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides, which are performed on Friday and Saturday nights from June to the end of August. You may not know your Agamemnon from your Oedipus, but the atmosphere is unbeatable. Theatre trips are available from agencies in Nafplio.

Where to stay
Numerous hotels fill the streets of the town, nearly all of the characterful family run variety (as opposed to the corporate monstrosities). Prices are not low by Greek standards, but neither are they outrageous considering the quality on offer. Excellent places to stay include the King Othon, at 2 Farmakopoulou (tel: 0752 27585), where comfortable rooms in a grand little setting cost about £40 per night for a double, and the gorgeous Hotel Byron, at 2 Platonos (tel: 0752 22351, email:, which has views and a delightful terrace, and where a double is about £35 per night. I paid £20 a night for a single room at the clean but undistinguished Hotel Acropol, 9 Vas Olgas (tel: 0752 27796).
The cheapest accommodation is available from a group of pensions called Acronafplia, based at 6 Ayiou Spyridhonos (tel: 0752 24481), where some rooms cost just £12.

What to buy
The usual kitsch. Statues of Greek gods, replica ancient urns, replica icons and CDs featuring "best-loved" Greek traditional songs.

Eating out
As you walk the streets of this town, they seem at times to be one continuous mass of tavernas and bars with outdoor seating, especially around the central square, Platia Syndagmatos, and the main street, Staikopoulo. But given the fact that the majority of the tourists in Nafplio are Athenians, the food is a cut above the moussaka-and-chips of the standard Greek holiday resort. There are distinct areas: for a trendier and more sophisticated ambience, try any of the cafés on the seafront street Bouboulinas.
Inland, the tavernas are cheaper and more rustic: try Mikra on Vas Olgas next to the Hotel Acropol, where the stuffed peppers and fried calamares are excellent, or Byzantio, on 15 Vas Alexandrou, billing itself as a Serbian taverna. The only place I could find without an English menu (a sure sign of quality) was Epi Skinis, at 19 Amalias, where an excellent meal in a thespian atmosphere cost me £5.

Getting about
In town you need only to walk. For exploring the countryside round Nafplio, you can either rent a car (there is a competitive car-rental market in the town), or you can rely on local trains, or the easy-to-find buses. Mycenae and Epidavros are about an hour away.

Getting there
Prices for the flight between the UK and Athens vary according to season. I paid £101 for a ticket from Luton with easyJet (tel: 0870 600 0000, www. Several airlines operate scheduled flights between the UK and Athens, including British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) and Olympic Airways (tel: 020-7409 3400). Although these do not attempt to challenge easyJet on price, they can usually offer better availability. Charter flights also operate into Athens from all the major UK airports. Off-season occasionally produces fares of less than £100; in peak season (mid-July to the end of August), you are unlikely to pay much less than £200.
For transport from Athens to Nafplio, you can take the very comfortable and scenic train ride from the Stathmos Peloponnissou. There are just two direct departures daily, it takes three hours and, at £3 a ticket, is an absurd bargain. Buses (also taking three hours) depart from the Kifissou terminal in Athens (bus 51 from Omonia).

Further information
I took the Rough Guide to Greece, the longest-standing guide of that series. The local tourist office in town at 25 March St (tel: 0752 24444) is reasonably helpful. In the UK, Greece has an official tourist office at 4 Conduit St, London W1R 0DJ (tel: 020-7734 5997).

Saturday, May 12, 2001

Visas from Russia with luck

Visas from Russia with luck

by Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 12 May 2001

Just seen a cheap, last-minute airfare advertised for Moscow or St Petersburg? Fancy a bit of impromptu driving in the Russian outback? Stopping off, maybe, at some of those more obscure places that nobody ever seems to go to?

Good idea. Apart, that is, from the fact that you'll need a tourist visa. Which is where the obstacles begin to arise. Because before you risk spending all that money on your ticket, you'll have to find an organisation (a hotel, say, or a tour operator) inside the country that can sponsor your presence there. And to get this so-called "visa-support", you'll need to book and pay for your accommodation ­ for every night ­ in advance.

To get that tourist visa you'll now need to take the evidence of your confirmed bookings to the Consulate in Notting Hill, west London, and probably stand in a long queue (unless you can get there by 9am sharp, on a day which isn't a Wednesday or a holiday in Russia).

By which time, that last-minute flight will probably have sold out long ago. And anyway, you'll still have another five days to wait before you can collect your visa. Well, either that, or pay some exorbitant amount, upwards of £100, to have it issued on the same day.

So you'll probably go to Istanbul instead, and Russia will lose another tourist.
How do you get round the rules? Can you travel independently in Russia without sticking to a pre-planned itinerary, and if so, how?

I recently went to some lengths to find out if it could be done (experiencing nearly three months of Siberian winter in the process), and am pleased to report that independent travel in Russia is ­ just about ­ beginning to take off.

Whichever way you plan to go, you'll still need to get your "visa support", and to take this to your local Russian consulate. But the good news is that this visa support is getting easier to obtain. Evidence of confirmed bookings is not required. I found a Moscow travel agency over the internet offering visa support for $70 (less than £50), which I paid by credit card. This agency obtained official approval from the relevant government ministry, and telexed it to the Russian Consulate in London. To my amazement, I was promptly issued with a three-month visa valid for the entire country.

The key was to have applied for a "business" visa. Tourist visas require evidence of prior bookings. Business visas (which can last up to a year) do not.

What you will want to know is whether this is illegal. Is pretending to be a businessman or woman a crime in Russia? Are you liable to be fined or arrested upon entry into the country? According to people like Neil McGowan, a Moscow resident and founder of specialist tour company The Russia Experience, these business visas are indeed of dubious legality.

"The agencies tell the ministry that they have taken care of your accommodation and travel for the duration of your stay, which they have not," he told me. "I've known people chucked out for using fake paperwork, though normally the application is blocked at the visa-issue stage. The comeback is more serious for the issuing company than for the recipient."

But according to an organisation called Visa to Russia (020 7229 1412), based in London, which specialises in issuing visa-support to travellers (for large fees), the Russians themselves don't know if it is illegal or not.

The important thing, the company explained, is that you can be construed as a potential businessman or woman. That is to say, in travelling through the country (even as a tourist), you are effectively, if unwittingly, scouring Russia for business opportunities. Other companies issuing "visa support" from inside Russia told me that the limit of their responsibility was to be liable for any trouble that the travellers (whom they had sponsored) might cause while in the country.

In my case, at no time during the visa application process or during my stay, did anyone ask me the nature of my "business" in Russia. While there I bought my own train tickets, booked my own flights, turned up unannounced at hotels, even rented a flat ­ in short, I did all the things that travellers or tourists might do in any normal country in the world.

Which is not to say Russia is or will be a "normal" country for tourism any time soon. Travellers in most out-of-the-way cities are still rarer than rhododendrons. In many ways it is hard to think of a less tourist-friendly country: for towns other than Moscow and St Petersburg (which are easy to visit on packages), I found guidebooks were inadequate, local information was impossible to come by and very little English was spoken. Hotels could be of abysmal value, flight schedules were sparse, and the food in restaurants across much of the country was revolting.

But set these off against the thrill of being among the first to travel independently in the world's largest and least-explored country, and you will find they are pretty minor inconveniences.

All visitors to Russia require a visa. If booking a package through an operator, you are strongly advised to leave visa formalities with them to deal with. Travelling independently, "visa support" is required from an organisation inside Russia. Jeremy Atiyah used the Maria Agency (maritour@ based in Moscow. He paid US$70 for "support" for a three-month double-entry business visa. After your visa support has been sent from Russia to the Consulate in London, you can apply in person at 5 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QX. Two photos, a completed application form and £30 is required for five-day processing.