A stay of execution

Aimée Smith, 02 March, 2018
From a military fort to a luxury hotel, with a brief stint as an executioners’ residence in between, the tiny island castle of Bourtzi has a seriously oversized past.

We can count quite a few characterful hotels in our collection (including the oldest in the Iberian Peninsula and a beautifully renovated former prison in Helsinki), but even they don’t have as long and diverse a history as the crumbling island fortress of Bourtzi.

Where it all began

Starting life in the 15th century as a Venetian stronghold, Bourtzi was originally built to repel pirates and invaders from the seaport of Nafplio, Greece’s first capital and one of the Peloponnese’s loveliest cities. Thick chains connected the fort to Akronafplia Castle on the mainland, and these were pulled tight each time that an enemy ship approached, barring access and protecting the harbour. With further defensive touches including a tower with moveable stairs and flamethrowers and cannons permanently at the ready, the fortress was both a daunting and reassuring presence in the bay (depending on your position!).

Despite this, Bourtzi (and, in consequence, Nafplio) fell to the increasingly powerful Ottoman Turks in the mid-16th century, only for the Venetians to regain control of both the city and island in 1685. Fast forward 30 years and the two were once again under Ottoman control, and (taking no chances), the Turks proceeded to strengthen Bourtzi’s defences with the addition of a porporela  – an underwater dam made from dropping large stones into the sea – that prevented large ships from entering the harbour.

The 19th century onwards

At the time of the Greek War of Independence, the revolutionary army seized the island, using it as a base to launch their ultimately successful siege of Turkish-controlled Nafplio. And during the infancy of the Greek state, the country’s new government twice sought refuge in the fortress – consolidating Bourtzi’s reputation as a national symbol of freedom and independence.

Ironic, then, that Bourtzi’s next role was to provide lodgings for the executioners hired to dispatch the prisoners held in Palamidi, one of Nafplio’s other iconic fortresses. Seen by many other residents of the city as unpalatable and unlucky neighbours, the executioners lived alone on the island from the latter half of the 19th century, until Greece abolished capital punishment by guillotine and their work promptly dried up.

The island was then left vacant until 1930, when German architect Wulf Schaeffer converted the medieval fortifications into a luxury hotel. Guests included the famous Greek actress and politician Melina Mercouri, who honeymooned there with her second husband Jules Dassin, an American film director, screenwriter and actor.

When can I check in?

Unfortunately, it’s no longer possible to stay on the island – the hotel closed in 1970, bringing an end to several centuries’ worth of action-packed history, and marking the beginning of a period of quiet abandonment which continues today. However, it is still very easy to visit the well-preserved remains of the fortress, with boat trips leaving regularly from Nafplio, and only taking several minutes to reach Bourtzi. And as gazing over the city’s old pantile roofs across to the island is one of the highlights of any visit to Nafplio (especially in the evenings when the fortress is beautifully illuminated), perhaps it really is better to stay on the mainland, where you are also ideally placed to dip into the city’s fascinating museums, inviting shops and harbour-front cafés.

What's in a name?

Interestingly, although the original fortress was built during Venetian rule (and designed by Antonio Gambello – an architect and sculptor from Bergamo), the name that has stuck is of Turkish origin, with Bourtzi meaning ‘tower’. The fort has been known by several other names though – the Venetians dubbed it Castello dello Soglio (‘castle of the throne’), while the revolutionary Greek forces went with Thalassopyrgos (‘sea tower’). And the island itself? As almost every inch of its rocky surface is covered by the fortifications, it tends to be forgotten. But there was once a Byzantine church there dedicated to Agios Theodoros, and the island now goes by the same name.

Grand Tour of the Peloponnese

Visit historic Bourtzi and elegant Nafplio on our self-guided, cultural journey by car through the Peloponnese. Taking in all the region’s most important and intriguing ancient sites – such as the theatre at Epidavros and Ancient Olympia – as well as a few hidden treasures and lesser-known beauty spots, it’s the ultimate Greek adventure.
More about our touring holidays in Greece >
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