Lockdown travel

I have a feeling that traveling for pleasure will not be possible for the foreseeable future, because, even if it is allowed, who wants to spend a couple of weeks in quarantine upon arrival, or be unsure of being able to return home?
Therefore, now’s the time to turn to the inexhaustible pleasures of literature, in order to visit places one would love to explore—or, even better, places where one wouldn’t dream of setting foot in, except from the comfort of an armchair.
I know that nowadays you can see everything live on a screen: endless documentaries, some absolutely marvelous (thanks, David Attenborough—and again, some in places where you wouldn’t set foot in even if you were paid). Films set in exotic locations, YouTube videos, even Google Earth. You can go everywhere without leaving the house.

 

Picador travel classics editions. Bought years ago in Cambridge



However, the attraction of reading is not to be underestimated: you have a more intimate insight into the writer’s reactions and thoughts, and your imagination is allowed a much freer rein.
Travel writing has existed since the depths of time—for Greeks it probably started with Homer, the Odyssey being the primordial record of a sea voyage. And there are also the memoirs of Herodotus, who had traveled over almost all of the ‘known world.’
But if the Greeks have a healthy dose of seawater in their veins and have always been obsessive traders, no one can beat the English as far as exploration for its own sake goes (although they too were traders, of course.)

 



I have just finished Daughter of the Desert, the biography, by Georgina Howell, of Gertrude Bell, who thought nothing of traveling for 10 hours per day through the desert on a camel, dressed in a split skirt and a keffieh. Alone except for her servants.
The sheer discomfort of her days bogles the mind until, that is, one reads of worse travails. At least Gertrude Bell could rely on a nice bath upon setting up camp, in her custom-made canvas bath packed by her servants and carried by the camels in her caravan. This was usually followed by dinner served on white linen, with silver and crystal. She also had trunks full of evening gowns which she wore to visit the tribal sheiks she met on her travels.


Cherry-Gerrards at the hut in Cape Evans 1911


Apsley Cherry-Garrard was 24 when he signed up to join Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated Polar expedition in the Antarctic, in 1911. When he got back he went off to fight in the Great War. Years later, he wrote a memoir of this unforgettable voyage, called The Worst Journey in the World. During the whole expedition, the discomforts and privations the men suffered were unimaginable—they had decided to take ponies and, when these were impractical, they manhauled their sledges—but they still managed to enjoy the stunning scenery, and ‘geologise’ by gathering rock and mineral specimens which only added to the weight they had to pull— and they even packed Christmas puddings and books to read in the interminable Antarctic winter.

 

Manhauling the sleds



The ‘Worst Journey’ in the book’s title refers to a trip Cherry-Garrard made with two companions to Cape Crozier on Ross Island during the austral winter, in order to bring back an unhatched emperor penguin egg. This was to help scientists prove the evolutionary link between all birds and their reptile predecessors by the analysis of the embryo. However, in the book he describes the whole Scott voyage, from the meticulous preparations onwards, ending with his thoughts of why the expedition failed. The Brits were pipped at the post by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who shunned any scientific pretensions and relied on dogs and skis to arrive at the South Pole a month earlier, traveling light and fast. A compelling and  thrilling account of a different reality.

 



Another fascinating book on my short list is In Patagonia, by the inveterate traveler Bruce Chatwin. Patagonia is one of the most remote and beautiful places on the planet. Chatwin paints a lovely picture of the boundless scale of the landscape and the lost specks of astonishing human endeavour in this vast, lonely region. But most of all, he peoples his tales with a varied and astounding cast of wild and eccentric, if not downright crazy, characters, who were attracted from all over the world to this stark and unforgiving land. He is most interested in describing what he used to call internal landscapes. 



Bruce Chatwin wrote the introduction to Sybille Bedford’s book, A visit to Don Otavio, a splendidly humorous tale of two middle-aged ladies traveling in Mexico (see the cover in the first photo). A little old fashioned but delightfully irreverent, the book reads more like a novel. Bedford’s prose is dazzling, and her insights enchanting. As she herself said, ‘Of course it’s a novel. I wanted to make something light and poetic…I didn’t take a single note when I was in Mexico.’

 



And, last but not least, a book I keep giving to people as a gift, because of how much it amused me (I’ve no idea whether any of them read it, actually.)
At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, by John Gimlette, (even the title is delightfully eccentric) is a book about his travels in Paraguay. A beautiful and captivating country, one of the most exotic and extreme in South America, but not a place for the timid tourist. According to Gimlette, the place is teeming with dictators, ex Nazis, fraudsters and missionaries. It is a stage for utopian experiments and violent coups. As the Amazon synopsis describes it, ‘The beguiling Paraguayans, despised and feared by their neighbours, are unfathomable. They adore Diana, Princess of Wales, as if she were still alive and hundreds volunteered to fight for Britain in the Falklands War. Their politics are Byzantine but when the Vice-President is murdered, they call in Scotland Yard.

If any one of these books does not transport you out of lockdown for a few hours, I will eat my hat. Happy reading! 

The silence of the girls

Greek children are brought up on mythology—the shenanigans of the gods on Mount Olympus, the battles of the Trojan war, the travels and adventures in the Odyssey. However, although I knew how the story ends, I really enjoyed this backstage view of the Iliad by Pat Barker. 

 

 

The tale is told from the point of view of Briseis, a princess who becomes a slave, awarded to Achilles as his prize after he sacks her city, slaughtering her father and brothers. She ends up in the camp of the Greeks besieging Troy, together with many other women. This is their voice, their side of things. 

Pat Barker is a master of writing about war, as evidenced in her Regeneration Trilogy—the reek, the noise, the far-flung effects on everyone involved, however remotely. Here we are placed firmly in the camp—we see the cooking fires, smell smoke and roasting meat, unwashed bodies. We are inside the weaving huts, where the women are shut up and made to work all day, or the hospital hut, where bloodied and maimed men are brought in after the battle.

The women’s situation is horrifying, and their treatment at the hands of the men is appalling, yet Barker manages not to veer into one-sidedness. The men are not one-dimensional brutes, but have a human side, and some passages are from their point of view as well, since they are the ones fighting the war.

The pace is kept up throughout, so that I found the book unputdownable. For anyone interested in the lives of the Ancient Greeks, give it a try.

Highly recommended. 

Amazon link here

Shameless bragging

I’m happy to report that the kids’ music book for which I drew the illustrations two years ago (I wrote about it here), is finally out. There were a few problems along the way, involving a change of publisher, but I think the final result was worth the wait.

 

Front cover: A planet called Tik Tak

 

Sia Antonaka and Rubini Metzelopoulou have written a happy and rousing tale of musical shenanigans and there is a CD included, with music and songs.

First sketch

 

A finished drawing

 

End result. A page in the book

 

It was fun seeing how my simple drawings were transformed. Unfortunately, I had no part in the process, which disappointed me since I would have enjoyed it, but there it is.

 

I would really like to do this again in the future, should the occasion arise (hint, hint – any children’s writers out there).

 

 

The book is in Greek, so I cannot recommend it to non-speakers, but for Greeks, it is sold  via e-books.gr, as well as in bookstores, such as Tsakalos Stratis and Cambia Books. It will also be distributed to schools.

And should anyone want to contact the authors, their emails are:

siaantonaka1@hotmail.com

Roubinimentzelopoulou@hotmail.com

A batch of novels set in Greece

Today we have a guest post written by a good friend of mine, Mark Stephenson. It is a review of his favorite novels with a Greek background. In fact, his love of the country has inspired him to set a large part of his own debut novel, a thriller called The Last Messenger, on the island of Crete. It is to be published later this year, so stay tuned. Meanwhile, you could visit his blog here.

Read on:

My favourite novels set in Greece

It’s over forty years since my first visit to Greece. The collapse of the military junta had only just occurred and tourism was nowhere near as sophisticated as it is now. Package tours were available to the larger islands of Corfu, Rhodes, Crete and Kos but if you wanted to find the real Greece your best bet was to fly into Athens and head down to Piraeus and hope for the best with a ferry. Island hopping in those days required plenty of time as ferry timetables, unlike now, were erratic. We didn’t have much time so took an old Russian-made hydrofoil to the Saronic islands of Poros, Hydra and Spetse which were just a short journey from the Athens port. I was desperate to go because I’d just read The Magus. My list is a personal one, in no particular order of preference. Please let us know if you recommend any other novels with a Greek setting which are not included here.

 

img_4452THE MAGUS by John Fowles

The Magus is set on the fictional island of Phraxos which the author admits is based on the island of Spetse. It is a book that is beguiling in many ways and is regarded as a classic (published in 1966). I read it in my twenties and it made a great impression on me. It is not for everyone, especially if you don’t like a story which often escapes from reality and can be misogynistic in tone. There are twists and turns and improbable story lines. It is a mystical journey on the human condition and the meaning of love. Perfect if you want to be submerged in the romance and spiritual presence of the Greek landscape.

 

img_4450THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY by Patricia Highsmith

If you enjoyed the Ripley novels, you will enjoy this one which has a perfect command of its setting in Athens and Crete. This is a crime novel involving a war of wills between two American men in Greece who are both running away from something. Chester is a conman and Rydal, a young drifter, hanging around Athens seducing the tourists, is looking for adventure. Chester reminds Rydal of his father who he doesn’t get on with. Colette, Chester’s wife, is caught up in a menage a trois between the two men who become increasingly entwined when Chester’s life of deception catches up with him.

 

img_4451CAPTAIN CORELLI’S MANDOLIN by Louis De Bernieres

If you’ve seen the film starring Nicholas Gage and Penelope Cruz, you may have decided not to read the novel because you know the story. My advice is don’t be put off if you love reading because the emotions of the characters and the historical background of the story are so much better described in the novel. Set in Kefalonia, the early part of the novel is full of humour and the joys of life. The onset of the Second World War does not seem to affect this idyll even when the Italians occupy the island as Captain Corelli and his men prefer to play music and make love not war. The contrast at the end of the novel when the Germans arrive on the island is shocking and deeply moving.

img_4447THE ISLAND by Victoria Hislop

Another fictional story built around historical fact. This time the story is set in Spinalonga, a leper colony off the coast of Crete. I’ve visited the island which is no longer occupied and I can understand why Victoria Hislop was inspired to write the story. You can still see the buildings where the lepers lived and gain a sense of their community even though they were afflicted by this terrible disease. This book is not a classic piece of writing but is an easy beach read which addresses a serious subject about how leprosy affected the lives of ordinary people.

 

img_4449ZORBA THE GREEK by Nikos Kazantzakis

This is a must read if you want to understand the spirit behind all that Greek dancing you’ve done on your holiday. Zorba’s personality encapsulates a love for the joys of life and to hell with the consequences. He is contrasted with the narrator who is Kazantzakis lacking the confidence to live dangerously. They have many adventures together and you are left with a feeling that living for the moment is not such a bad idea. If you like Kazantzakis then also read Report to Greco which is an autobiographical account of his travels through Greece.

img_4448OFFICERS AND GENTLEMEN by Evelyn Waugh

This book is the second in the so-called Sword of Honour trilogy. I’ve chosen this novel for its brilliant writing and humour. It finds its way into this list because it describes the evacuation of troops from Crete after the German invasion. Although about a third of the novel is set in Greece, the story’s main theme is about the chaos of war.

img_4446THE SONG OF ACHILLES by Madeline Miller

This retells the story of The Iliad in a sexy and exciting way. The love story between Achilles and Helen is one of the legends that we all know but few of us admit to reading Homer’s poem from beginning to end. This book makes the story much more accessible. When you visit Greece and see one of its many ancient monuments, it’s books like this that turn those pile of stones you are staring at into something much more evocative.

OTHER CRIME FICTION SET IN GREECE

There are several authors writing crime series set in Greece. Paul Johnston has Alexander Mavros who is a private investigator based in Athens. I’ve read The Silver Stain which tells the story of murder on the set of a movie being shot in Crete. Murder in Mykonos is the first book in the series by Jeffrey Siger. His protagonist is Andreas Kaldis, a former Athens detective. The story opens when a female tourist is discovered on a pile of bones under the floor of a remote mountain church. This starts a hunt for a ritualistic killer.
img_4445My favourite writer in this genre is Anne Zouroudi who writes stories involving her detective Hermes Dicktoros. What makes these books stand out for me is the way Anne writes about the landscape that is Greece. She has only just published the eighth in the series which I haven’t read so I’ll confine my comments to quoting some of the blurb on Amazon. “The Gifts of Poseidon is a hymn to Greece, to its beauty, its people and its food. Against this delectable back-drop, it is above all a compelling and dramatic story of the extraordinary sacrifices ordinary people will make to protect the ones they love. Anne Zouroudi writes beautifully – her books have all the sparkle and light of the island landscapes in which she sets them… Lovely, delicious prose and plot – as tasty as one of those irresistible honey-soaked Greek confections. Diaktoros is a delight.” (Alexander McCall Smith).

 

NOTE: I’ve read most of the books above, and will read the rest in the near future. Still, I’d like to add some more options to the list.


Eleni, by Nicholas Gage, is the gripping and often harrowing story of a mother determined to protect her children from the ravages of the Greek civil War at all costs and ultimately her own life. A true story (about Gage’s mother) and a must for any fan of Greek history.

The books of Mary Renault about Ancient Greece. Here is what Hilary Mantel has to say about them: “Mary Renault is a shining light to both historical novelists and their readers. She does not pretend the past is like the present, or that the people of ancient Greece were just like us. She shows us their strangeness; discerning, sure-footed, challenging our values, piquing our curiosity, she leads us through an alien landscape that moves and delights us.” I read them all as a teenager and this has made me want to re-read.

The Petros Markaris mysteries, which feature Inspector Costas Haritos and could be compared to the novels of Donna Leon, only set in Athens instead of Venice. They give a comprehensive image of modern Greece. 

I apologize for not putting in links to all the book but, frankly, I could not be bothered as it takes forever. They can all be found on Amazon.