Books: The Villa Ariadne, by Dilys Powell and The Cretan Runner by George Psychoundakis
Destination: Crete, Greece
The Island of Crete, the largest of the hundreds of islands that make up most of the watery nation of Greece, contains as much history, variety of scenery and adventures as many small countries. Two eras attracted our attention when we visited Crete—the Minoan, 1400 years B.C. and World War II, which was fifty years in the past when we visited. Two favorite books in my traveler’s library reflect those two periods.
The Villa Ariadne
Passengers on cruise ships hop off at Heraklion and grab a taxi for the Palace of Knossos. The partially reconstructed ruin with its brightly painted murals (also a reconstruction—the originals are in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens) delights the casual visitor and stirs up controversy among scholars. They believe that Sir Arthur Evans took unwarranted liberties. He first saw Knossos in 1894 and spent the rest of his life excavating and restoring, and perhaps jumping to conclusions.
Dilys Powell’s The Villa Ariadne, book brings to life the work that continued after Sir Evans’ death, as her husband ran the Knossos site in the 1930’s. She brings a personal view of Evans to the reader and lets us see the archaeological site through the eyes of the scholars.
Knossos is the best-known remnant left behind by the Minoans, a mysterious people who did not leave behind any trace of written language, with the exception of one short “shopping list” which archaeologists still puzzle over. We found Minoan sites scattered everywhere on the island—always in spectacular locations—either on hilltops or beside the sea. They may not have been a bookish people, but they knew how to live.
The Cretan Runner
Driving through the mountain villages of Crete on our way to Minoan palaces, we often saw WWII war memorials. The Nazis never quite succeeded in controlling Crete, thanks to the rough terrain and the tough mountaineers that hid in caves. Helped by British secret forces, the Cretans managed to make life miserable for the invaders. We learned that in some villages German occupying forces retaliated by killing all the men and boys over 13 years old. The Cretan Runner tells the story of one of those resistance fighters. It is translated and introduced by Patrick Leigh Fermor, who served with the British forces and wrote many wonderful adventure books, some of which I will talk about here at the Traveler’s Library in the future. Just as Powell’s book gives a different view of the Minoan age, we learn much about the forces that have shaped the lives of the villagers when we read the Cretan Runner.
(Note: Both of the recommended books are out of print, but available from Amazon or ABE.com.)
Photograph of Mural at Knossos by Nenyaki, Creative Commons License, Flckr