Category Archives: Guide Books

Hidden Treasures in Crete


Destination: Crete

Book: Crete by Barry Unsworth (2004)

Barry Unsworth was a prolific novelist and sometimes travel writer from England, who lived in Italy and frequently visited Greece.  Since I share his fascination with the Mediterranean and Mid Eastern countries I’ve reviewed two other books by Unsworth, Pascali’s Island (listed for the Booker Prize) and Land of Marvels. See all his books here.

Mountain Road, Crete
Mountain Road, Crete

I believe, though, that of the books I have read, his memoir of travels called Crete is my favorite.  Ken and I traveled from Athens through the Peloponnese and took a ferry to Crete for a two-night look around one summer.  We immediately realized that two nights was a ridiculously inadequate period to get even a vague feeling for this island full of mysteries and hidden treasures. The next summer we were back, and spent over a week crisscrossing the island in our rental car.

The best known Minoan site in Crete is Knossos. Unsworth explains why it is so striking. “One thing which makes Knossos different from all other Minoan sites on Crete is the reconstructions that were carried out by Sir Arthur Evans…mainly in the course of the 1920s….he used the architectural details he found in fresco fragments to reconstruct some of the buildings….”

Minoan Palace of Knossos, Crete
Recreated Mural at Minoan Palace of Knossos, Crete

Although we touched base with many of the places that Unsworth talks about in this book–seeking out Minoan ruins from the famous Knossos to an isolated Minoan mansion now surrounded by a vinyard–Unsworth and his wife discovered many places that we did not get to.  Hidden shrines to ancient gods tucked away in mountain caves, churches that have morphed from pagan to Christian to Muslim and back to Christian as the island was conquered by the Venetians and then the Turks who, along with the Byzantines, left their mark on architecture.

The island was even taken over by the Germans during World War II. Through all the waves of conquerors, the tough mountain men took to their highlands hideaways  from which they attacked their conquerors.  Crete was never an easy place to subdue.

Lassithi Plain, Crete
Buying oranges from a fierce warrior at the pass to Lassithi Plain, Crete. That’s a knife he wears at his belt with his traditional costume.

Blood feuds in the southeastern portion of Crete bred the fiercest fighters of all, from the region of Sfakia. Of the Sfakia region, Unsworth says “This is a wild and remote region where roads are few, the climate unrelenting, and the living conditions harsh. The atmosphere of abandonment and desolation one sometimes feels here is in a sense the price the people have paid for their indomitable spirit, their refusal to accept a foreign yoke.”

You would never suspect from the peaceful looking town of Chora Sfakia. This is where the boat from the end of your hike in the Samaria gorge–the most dramatic and popular hike of many dramatic paths in Crete– will take you. It is difficult to get to Chora Sfakia any other way than by boat.

Harbor of Sfakia
Harbor of Sfakia on the south side of Crete.

Although you won’t be attacked from the mountains, or in Sfakia today (unless you’re part of a feuding clan), you can run into various difficulties when traveling in Crete.

Drivers, particularly bus drivers, appear to be suicidal.  Some mountain roads are so bad that car rental companies include clauses forbidding travel to those regions. You may have difficulty deciding which of the two caves that were the “birthplace of Zeus” you want to visit.  You may despair of ever finding peaceful and hidden places if you get stuck in the overbuilt north coast resorts or string of beach towns.

We agree with Barry Unsworth that Chania is a charming town, layered with history, and a great base for exploring Crete.

 Cafe in old Chania
Harborside Cafe in old Chania

I was curious whether the charming small hotel we stayed in, the Doma, still exists in Crete, and I was delighted to find out that not only is it still serving customers, it is still run by the two sisters,  Irene Valyraki and Ioanna Koutsoudaki, who were there when we stayed in the historic home twenty years ago. Unfortunately, I don’t know which sister is in this photo with me, sitting in the parlor of the home, which once was an embassy, and was commandeered by the Germans during World War I.

Doma Hotel, Chania
Sitting in the parlour of the Doma Hotel, Chania with one of the owners

Using Unsworth’s Crete as a guide, you can discover those mosques hiding under Orthodox churches, some of the hidden meaning behind the ruins of the Minoans and valuable icons in fascinating monasteries. He says of the Panagia Kira, near Kritsa, “…if obliged to choose among them, to single out one which best exemplifies the atmosphere and the spirit of devotion of medieval Byzantium, I would favor the Panagia Kira.”  And we totally agreed. This small 14th century church is crammed with wonderful art from the 14th and 15th century.

Kritsa, Crete
Postcard image of a 14th century painting from the church of Panagia Kera at Kritsa, Crete

The book starts in Chania, which was also our favorite town.  My only regret is that we used it mostly as a base, driving out each day to a different region, rather than exploring the town in depth. But having read Unsworth’s Crete, I feel that I know Chania much better.

The map at the front of the book has just enough detail to help you figure out where he is as he discusses the hidden treasures of Crete. Unsworth visits several caves that have ties to ancient Greek legends, worship and mysteries. But there are caves that served other purposes as well.


Matala, Crete
Hippies lived in these caves at Matala, Crete in the 60s. A few yards away, over a rise, is a nude beach.

I think Crete is underrated as a destination in Greece.  It has all the best of Greece. Fantastic ancient ruins, interesting history from Byzantine to the present, warm beaches in the south (including the ONLY palm tree grove in Europe), hiking, sailing, scuba diving, parasailing, shopping and FOOD like no where else in the country.

 beach at Vai, Crete
Only European palm trees on beach at Vai, Crete

So what are you waiting for? Once you have read Barry Unsworth’s Crete, I’m sure you’ll be itching to uncover some of those hidden treasures.

Barry Unsworth died in 2012. You can read his New York Times obituary here.  Get more information about visiting Crete here.

Note: All of the potographs here belong to the author–scans of twenty-year-old photos. 

I have included a link to Amazon (with the book cover) so that you can go directly to the on line store and purchase an e-book or print book. I am an Amazon affiliate, so any time you buy something through links on this site, I make a few cents. Thanks for your support.


New York Know It All

Destination: New York City

Book: I Never Knew That About New York (NEW March 2014) by Christopher Winn

New York
St. Patrick’s Cathedral, NYC

Christopher Winn is a know-it-all. But I mean that in a good way.  He has written a series of “I Never Knew That” books about famous places, mostly in the British Isles. A year ago we talked about his collection of facts about London, here.

Now the British know-it-all has invaded New York City, with I Never Knew That About New York.  Does he know things about New York that even dedicated New Yawkers haven’t discovered? We’ll wager he does.

Except that the book should probably have been entitled I Never Knew That About Manhattan rather than New York, but I suppose for most people, Manhattan IS New York.  We’ll just have to hope he comes back and gives those other boroughs like Brooklyn, The Bronx, Staten Island and Queens some respect another day.

There’s a quiz on his website that asks some fairly easy questions compared to some of the more obscure facts in his book.  But if you’d like to challenge him, see how many you can answer without looking down at the answers at the bottom. For example, what is the oldest street in New York?  Even I knew that one.

Central Park

But…Did you know that we have Shakespeare to blame for starlings?  Not exactly the writer himself, but a Shakespeare afficiando–Eugene Schieffelin, who wanted to populate America with all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s work isi the culprit.  he released 60 starlings in Central Park in 1890, and they quickly spread across the country, now numbering 200 million pests.

Colonial New York

New York City
Fraunces Travern, New York City. Photo By Augie Ray, Flickr. Creative Commons License

My favorite part of Manhattan is found at the far south end of Broadway around Pearl Street where there is a tiny portion remaining of colonial New York.  In a city where things come and go with startling speed, it is somehow comforting to visit the Fraunces Travern Although it is rebuilt rather than original, you could swear you’re standing in the very rooms where owner Samuel Fraunces connived to spy for the Revolutionaries and where Washington gave his farewell address to the troops in 1783.

So naturally, I liked the informative walk through Colonial New York, but never fear,  whatever your interest, it’s covered in one of the eighteen chapters, organized from south to north.

Greenwhich Village–

home of the Salamugundi Club, and 20,000 bodies lying under Washington Square in a former potter’s field.


means Triangle Below Canal, if you were wondering.


New York Chinatown
Chinatown, New York City. Photo by Guney Cuceloglu. Fickr, Creative Commons

where Five Points was once a dispicable slum, publicized by Charles Dickens on a visit to America and subsequently cleaned up.

And in Chinatown stroll down Doyers Street through the “Bloody Angle” where, Winn says, more murders were committed in the early 20th century than anywhere else in America, because of Tong wars.

And so the information flows, as WInn leads you on walking tours of all the neighborhoods of Manhattan with a sprinkling of architectural detail, sociology and history thrown in for good measure.

His writing is witty. Frequent illustrations, pencil drawings done by his wife, Mai Osawa, will help you spot the landmarks. And you’ll have “I’ll bet you didn’t know…” stories to last a long time. You may think you have quite enough guidebooks to New York, but there is enough new and fun reading in this one to make it a good addition to the traveler’s library.

Note:  The book was provided by the publisher for review, but the opinions are my own.

Links to Amazon allow you to conveniently purchase the book in hard back, paper back or Kindle editions and although it costs you no more, when you shop through our links, you’re supporting A Traveler’s Library. Thanks.

The first photo is mine and the rest are from Flickr, used  with Creative Commons License. You can click on the Flickr photos to learn more.


An Andalucia Guide–Really Seeing Southern Spain

book cover: Andalucia Guide
 Destination: Andalucia, Spain

Book: The Andalucía Guide, by Michael Jacobs.  NEW, October 2013

Reading Michael Jacobs new book, published by Interlink Books makes me realize that I probably should not claim that I have been to Spain.  Other than a short visit to Madrid, and drive through the Don Quixote La Mancha country, I only visited Andalucía.

Jacobs points out in the opening of The Andalucía Guide that eight generations of Moorish rule has left Andalucía more African than European, and totally different than the whole of Spain. It is an exotic region–not just in extravagant architecture and gardens, but also because its botanical and geological characteristics separate Andalucía from Catalonia and the rest of Spain.

Gateway described in andalucia guide
Despenaperros Pass, Spain–gateway to Andalucia. Photo shared by Spain’s Minsterio de Fomento

I vividly remember passing through the Despeñaperros pass that separates northern from southern Spain, but at the time did not realize it has long been considered by travelers at the gateway to Paradise. In the midst of this dramatic twisting canyon, we stopped at a small restaurant/shop and bought Spanish cheese for picnics on our road trip explorations of Andalucía. Coming down from the mountain pass, you can suddenly see the glint of the sea. Somehow the landscape seems to come to life on the southern side of this great divide. (At the bottom of this piece, you can find a link to a You-Tube trip through the pass)

Andalucia Guide: Alhambra
Washington Irving’s Room at the Alhambra, Granada Spain

The other fact that did not occur to me when I traveled in southern Spain was how influential the literary and artistic Romantic era– in the second half of the 19th century– had been on my thinking about Spain.  I have acknowledged here my debt to Washington Irving, one of the great popularizers of the romance of Moorish Spain. It was Irving who drew me like a magnet to the incomparable Alhambra in Granada. Jacobs says, ” Andalucía seems at times less of a real place than an invention of poets and story-tellers.” A theme that runs through this idiosyncratic  Andalucía Guide is the impact of the romantic writers on the region.

Very individual in its choice of subjects and places, The Andalucía Guide‘s major divisions follow a rough chronological pattern.  The author makes it clear that he has assembled a very personal selection rather than an making an attempt to cover everything. Interestingly, his focus seems to be strongly influenced by the romantics that he wants us to doubt. For instance, “Flamenco” and “Gypsies” and the “Moorish Age” each get a chapter and these are the three principal factors that delighted the romantics.




Reflecting pool in the Alhambra
Reflecting pool in the Alhambra

Throughout the book, the author quotes liberally from long-ago travelers who wrote about the region.  The traveler who loves to read (that’s YOU, right?) will be delighted that so much attention is given to both Spanish and foreign writing about Andalucía.

The choice of subject matter of the few color photos, seeming  almost an afterthought, further emphasize the author’s contention that our views of Spain are largely formed by the writings of the Romantics.

Some random tidbits from The Andalucía Guide that may be of practical use for travelers:


If you’re looking for Gypsies in their picturesque costumes, living in their caves–

Triana [a neighborhood of Seville] is no longer a gypsy suburb, and few gypsies remain in the Albaicín…those in Granada’s famous Sacromonte are now only used by the gypsies to put on tourist entertainments.


Beware of superstitions (shared by Andalucians and gypsies, it seems.)

The very mention of the word ‘snake’ is meant to bring on bad luck, and the only remedy is to shout afterwards, lagarto or ‘lizard.’  


Every day I discovered new sources of bad luck, ranging from the c0lour yellow to a chance encounter with a funeral procession.


Jacobs is singularly unhelpful in answering the question he acknowledges that  all tourists pose, “Where  canthe ‘real flamenco’ be heard?”  He says that fewer bars now have flamenco performances, because patrons want T.V.  He suggests going to Peñas Flamencas–private clubs, but doesn’t give us a clue as to how to find them.


The chapter on food and drink warns you about the extremely late hours of dining in Seville and the south, later than any other part of Spain.

…it is not uncommon to have lunch as late as five in the afternoon or to dine at midnight.  If you do insist on eating in a restaurant at times to which you have been used elsewhere in Europe, you will probably end up in the blandest of establishments.  But you must also remember that Andalucians frequently forsake conventional meals altogether in favor of the tapa or bar-snack.

Ah, yes, I remember it well. We were roaming through one of the white villages that cling to a hillside in southern Spain and getting hungrier and hungrier as the time approached mid afternoon.  No one stirred in the village–all taking a siesta.  We finally found a bar that was open, and ate the tapas that they had available–delicious even if we had not been starving. However, one point that Jacobs does not mention is the Seville habit of standing at the bar for your drink, coffee, or even tapas.  Rural areas are more relaxed, and you can sit at a table, but in Seville, a tired traveler’s tootsies will just have to put up with standing around until the approved dining hour of ten p.m. or later.


Jacobs agrees with the characterization of Sevillianos by English 19th-century writer Richard Ford.

One of the greatest promoters of Seville’s charms was Richard Ford, who was also one of the few people to write perceptively about its people, with their caustic humour, refusal to be hurried, and wild outbursts of child-like enthusiasm.

This book delighted me, and made me yearn to return to that “invention of poets and storytellers” that was so–yes, it was–romantic.

Finally, for those looking for the practicalities, about half The Andalucía Guide is devoted to describing specific towns. The appendix has a wealth of practical material, including vocabulary, time line and 23 pages of suggested additional reading.  I have a few suggestions of my own below, but definitely not 23 pages.

What do you prefer in a guidebook? An encyclopedic “just the facts, ma’m” style, or the idiosyncratic choices of the author? Do you have a favorite guide to Spain?

 MORE Andalucía Guide Information

For an up-to-date culinary tour of Seville and some gorgeous pictures, see this article by David Lebovitz.

To see what it is like to drive south through the Paso de Despenaperros, here’s a trucker in Spain on video. (Caution, if you suffer from car sickness, beware.)

You can see the my favorite books about Spain in this article.

The Andalucia Guide was provided to me by Interlink for review, however, they know that I will tell you what I honestly think.  The highway photo is identified, and comes from Flickr. The others are my own. The first link to the book takes you to Amazon, because I am an Amazon affiliate and make a few cents off of each sale. However the 2nd link takes you to Interlink Books,  so that you can buy form an Independent book seller.