Friday, May 18, 2012

Lucky Nauplia

It seems to me that Nauplia  on the Argolic Gulf in the northeast Peloponnese, has enjoyed at least one great stroke of luck, maybe two. The first, political: Nafplio was the first capital of Greece in War of Independence; it occupied the role from 1821 to 1834. But then classical fervor superseded and it fell to Athens to suffer the noise, the smog, the overcrowding and the general air of seediness that the state of modern capitalhood so often seems to require. And second tourism: Nauplia has some, but it doesn't have the beaches and attendant enticements that so often induce the hordes of German, English, whatever, down into the Mediterranean sun. The result is a perfect gem of a little resort town, with just enough by way of gem├╝tlich to make it interesting, with little or none of the overload that so often makes modern tourism a form of betrayal. 

Life around Nafplia seems generally to have calmed down a bit from what it was a century and a half ago, when the back-country around here was infested with bandits.  Here the subject is treated appears in an odd mix of decorum and savagery:
The evening of our sojourn in Argos saw an excitement much like that which blocked the street at Nauplia.  The occasion was the same--the bringing home of a brigand's head; but  this the very head and fount of all the brigands, Kitzos himself, upon whose head had been set a price of several thousand drachmas.  Our veteran with difficulty obtained a view of the same and reported accordingly.  The robber chief of Edmong About's "Hadji Stauros", had been shot while  sighting at his gun.  He had fallen with one eye shut and one open, and in this form of feature his dissevered head remained.  The soldier who was its fortunate captor carried it concealed in a bag, with its long elf-locks lying loose about it.  He showed it with some unwillingness, fearing to have the prize wrested from him.  It was, however, taken on board of our steamer, and carried to Athens, there to be identified and buried.

All this imported to us that Mycenae, which we desired to visit, had for some time been considered unsafe on account of the presence of this very Kitzos and his head.  But at this moment the band were closely besieged in the mountains.  They wanted their head, and so did Kitzos.  We in consequence, were fully able to visit the treasure of Atreus and the ruins of Mycenae without fear or risk from those acephalous enemies.
 The memorialist is, of all people, Julia Ward Howe, she of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," in From the Oak to the Olive (1868).  Richard Stoneman, he of A Literary Companion to Travel in Greece (1984), from which I pillaged this excerpt, says she was "one of the first American travellers in Greece."   This seems a bit of a stretch, but she is very likely one of the first travel writers. But--"they wanted his head, and so did Kitzos":  do we hear an echo of Dickens' Pickwick Papers? That is:
'Terrible place—dangerous work—other day—five children—mother—tall lady, eating sandwiches—forgot the arch—crash—knock—children look round—mother's head off—sandwich in her hand—no mouth to put it in—head of a family off—shocking, shocking.'

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