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