21 March 2012

Castle Hunting: Palamidi Fortress

In the far back of Palamidi Castle, standing knee-deep in bracken and wildflowers, there’s not much to focus on besides the sound of bees and the intense sunlight. The walls are low, the place feels overgrown and wild. It takes a long time to get there. The legendary nine hundred and ninety nine steps are a hike enough (even if there are actually only 857), but the scramble from one end of the fortress to the other is what really takes a while. It’s huge.
Far down below, in the calm blue water of Nafplio harbor, sits another part of this complex – the languid, water-grey folly of Bourtzi. It sits prim and pretty, watching over a few bobbing pleasure boats and the waterside cafes. These are relics from the last age of castles, when they were built out of protocol, instead of real need.
It’s hard to tell which of Nafplio’s two castles is more iconic. Bourtzi is postcard perfect, brooding dreamily in the harbor water like a forlorn Iago. Palamidi is rough-edged and brash, catching the sunlight with its reddish-yellow stone and sharp angles. They seem almost like prototypes, built by romantics to evoke something of the medieval past in an era when castles were growing obsolete.
Reminding us of Kizkalesi’s twin castles, they were really used in conjunction with one another, built to guard an important port. In Venetian times, Nafplio’s harbor was sealed off with thick metal strands and the town was called “Porto Cadenza,” which means “port in chains.” It sits at the head of the long Argolic Gulf, which cuts deeply into the heart of the Peloponnese peninsula.
Palamidi has long been extolled as a feat of military engineering genius – it’s been called impregnable by townspeople and historians alike, based mostly on the fact that it was never truly “taken” by an invading army. In truth, most fortresses that were supposedly unconquerable were eventually conquered, just as anything unassailable is usually proven imperfect. The thing is, Nafplio wasn’t tested much. The castle was built too late, the area has been peaceful.
The higher castle was built by the Venetians between 1711 and 1714, part of their ever expanding Mediterranean empire. When they gave way to the Ottomans, the town was at the vanguard of the fight – the brunt of the war was fought by the navy, the fate of the region was decided elsewhere. If Palamidi had in fact been seriously attacked, it’s unlikely that it would have fared well.
The main body of the fortress is enormous. It sprawls in long-walled, scattered confusion, with bastions built in a semi-fan around a main stronghold. The walls are, in some places, barely ten feet high, and are placed along ridges with poor visibility. While it would have been impossible to attack from the seaward side – the cliffs are nearly sheer and plunge over six hundred feet – it wouldn’t have been difficult to maneuver an army around towards the back, where the defenses were really quite poor. The long walls would have necessitated a huge – almost too huge to consider – force of defenders, stretched very thinly along low ramparts. If one bastion fell, the attackers would essentially be able to defend themselves within the castle, using the Venetian’s own walls against them. It doesn’t feel impregnable - it feels vulnerable, a sham.
Driving into Nafplio on our first night, the sky already dark, we mistook Palamidi for some kind of hilltop city. Lit up with floodlights, it looked too big to be one structure. Visiting it the next day, making our way back through the succession of bastions, the voices of the other tourists dropped away, the undergrowth deepened and thickened. We were left to navigate bare trails in the dusty earth, sometimes along the top of the cliff, sometimes further inward, where cacti had taken hold and thrived. The views of the sea and mountains were beautiful in the intense sun. We climbed on crumbling walls and picked our way from gunport to gunport, wondering how anyone had thought they’d have the manpower and firepower to make this immensity secure. We felt that we’d trekked deep into a wilderness.
The 18th century was the last gasp of castle building, in the classical sense. Cannons were getting too powerful, the focus was on naval battles. As massive as the defenses are, they were never very useful – the olden days of hard sieges and small weaponry were over even as Palamidi was being completed. When the Turks arrived, there were only eighty men guarding the town – they surrendered immediately, unable to put up any kind of fight. The Ottomans lost the castle to a Greek uprising during the beginning of the war of independence. They apparently hadn’t considered that there would be a fight.
It’s taken as impressive that Palamidi was built in such a short amount of time, and looking at it from below one can hardly believe it. But this is not a substantial building by 18th century standards. Most of the mass is superfluous and low, little more than walled up stations for cannons. The height, too, made the castle something of an oddity for the time – too high to attack boats below, it was intended mostly as a garrison and a symbol of power. But why so many confusing walls, cutting off one part from the other? Why so large, when a smaller fort could have been much stronger?
In the evening, as we sat looking at dusky Bourtzi over drinks, the harbor took on a pleasant, theatrical glow. Young tourists rode rented bikes in pairs. Lovers sat in cafes drinking coffee and drawing closer to one another as darkness fell. A cruiseship’s lights came on. The castle floated in the near distance.
Bourtzi castle looks very impressive until you notice the people standing on the walls – it’s a whole lot smaller than it appears at first glance. Built as part of the harbor defenses, some two hundred and thirty years before the main Palamidi fort, the little pile suddenly looks like a toy when given some scale. It was refurbished and given its present shape to accommodate a more modern battery of cannon, at around the same time as Palamidi was being constructed.
In the end, Nafplio’s castles feel like set pieces, thrown up quickly to provide a backdrop to the warm drama of summer evenings, when the sun sets and empires crumble. We had a great time exploring them – the views and scale make up for any shortcomings, the whole place feels unique. And sometimes the historic feeling of a place is more important than the actual, mundane history; these castles tell a story of grandeur and kingdoms, the classic baroque tale painted large. Two castles, unconquerable and proud. Who cares about the play of history if the story doesn't feel grand? Let Palamidi and Bourtzi have their legend of invincibility. The Venetians never cared much for keeping their castles - only building them to look grand.


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