A Journey Back in Time: The Newly Restored Bourtzi Castle in Nafplio

A beautiful tourist attraction that's also an important historical landmark, this Venetian-built fortress stands guard in Nafplio's serene bay, a short boat ride from the city.

The boat ride from Nafplio to the tiny islet of Bourtzi offers panoramic views of the Old Town of Nafplio, the Fortress of Palamidi and the small peninsula that hosts the heart of the town. The whole trip is only a few minutes long but it takes you back centuries in time. As soon as you disembark at the fort in the middle of the bay, you can feel the tremendous weight of the history of this small islet, a rocky outcropping that hosts one of the most famous fortifications ever been built in Greece.

With its stout walls and towers, this 15th-century fortress protected the Venetians, held out valiantly against the Ottomans until it fell, and later witnessed the arrival in town of Ioannis Kapodistrias, the first ruler of Modern Greece, as well as that of King Otto, its first monarch. With Greece’s liberation from the Ottoman Empire, the fort became home to convicts forced to act as executioners (including the notorious “bloodthirsty” Ioannis Amoiradakis) who carried out their duties by guillotine. “Oh, magnificent cave that hides such a monster,” Andreas Karkavitsas, a Greek novelist, once wrote about this place where those who were burdened with the most horrid task imaginable once lived and worked.

Having read as much as possible about the islet, I decided to visit the castle, which had recently reopened its doors after years of restoration works. I went there with the man who, from 2014 to 2021, was entrusted with carrying out that work. Architect and engineer Kostas Bountouris knows every square inch of Bourtzi like the back of his hand, as he was responsible for coordinating the many workers who were involved in its restoration.

He explained, among other things, how he’d encountered difficulties when port works deprived Bourtzi of water and electricity for long periods of time, delaying completion of the project. He also said that more than 500 tons of construction materials had been unloaded at the small dock in the course of the work.

The first to welcome us as we stepped off the boat was a cat – Vangelis – that had inadvertently stowed away on a cement boat many years ago and found himself a resident of this historic island. He eluded all attempts that were made to catch him and take him back to town, and remained at the castle with the guards. Today, Vangelis is the islet’s unofficial mascot

Bountouris recounted how, in 1930, Panagiotis Kostouros, a local businessman from Nafplio, converted Bourtzi – which he had leased from the Greek National Tourism Organization – into the first hotel in Greece to ever go on to become a monument. Kostouros was helped in his efforts by the German architect Wulf Schaeffer; fortunately, the interventions that were made did not do any irreparable damage to the castle.

The restaurant connected to the facility did not have a name, but the hotel’s few rooms hosted many figures who wished to experience the unique atmosphere of the place, including the Greek poets Andreas Embirikos and Matsi Hatzilazarou, the English writer and scholar Patrick Leigh Fermor, and others. Archaeologists have preserved one of the hotel rooms so that visitors can get a sense of the pioneering hospitality that took place here; although it didn’t offer many luxuries, the lodgings left guests thoroughly impressed. As for my part, I departed the small island with the feeling that I had left behind a time capsule well worth visiting.

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