If my visit to Knossos in Crete felt like being home because of all the days I lived there in my mind while working on my first ancient trilogy, my return to Ireland felt like returning to another home of the mind. My second ancient trilogy centers in Ireland.
The last time I traveled to Ireland I stayed a month there with my late friend Tilly Engholm. She and I spent six days on the island’s south coast at the small town of Rosscarbery, the central location for the series. The fictional village of my Golden Eagle Clan sets just below the stone circle now called Bohonagh Circle, an easy walk from the Rosalithir B&B where we stayed. This wonderful B&B hosted by Catherine and Finbarr O’Sullivan is one of the friendliest places I’ve visited in all my many travels.
Of course I had to return and wanted to introduce my writer friend Lynn Ash who was traveling with me on this part of my current trip.
Since the last visit to Ireland when I was researching Book One of the Irish trilogy, I had drafted Books Two and Three as well, which took my characters to places I’d never seen. The treks through Portugal and the UK gave me a good look at many of those, but I also had a few new scenes in Ireland in places I hadn’t been.
Before traveling to Rosscarbery I wanted to spend a little time at a location closer to the new settings and chose the historic village of Adare near Limerick.
It’s a charming place with thatch-roofed cottages and a crumbling castle, a lovely river walk, and entertainment by a terrific young Irish musician.
The tourists have found it, but we got a quiet B&B on the outer edge, with a country setting and lovely breakfasts, the Carrigane House.
We stayed three nights to explore the area. I found my beautiful green fields for a big battle scene and the treacherous ford across the Shannon River at Limerick.
On one of the three days I used my bus pass to ramble down to Kilrush on the Shannon and check out another scene, enjoying a stroll to the marina and a tasty salmon lunch at Crotty’s Pub.
We found pub food to be reasonable and delicious. In Adare we had to have at least one meal at the famous Blue Door with its fine thatched roof.
From Adare we took the bus to Rosscarbery with a bus stop at Cork City where we watched the beautiful island clouds rise over this intriguing city.
Catherine at the Rosalithir B&B welcomed us with open arms as I knew she would. The B&B is on a working farm just outside Rosscarbery. They raise fine purebred beef cattle now, having switched from the dairy cattle they had on my last visit. Lynn and I booked only two nights with them, one full day. It wasn’t nearly enough, but we would do what we could.
From the upstairs deck of the house we looked out over the yard to the surrounding farms. Haze screened our view of the sea in the gap. Note the old stone fence on the far side of the road.
Anxious to see the stone circle so central to my stories, I headed out with Lynn in the morning. Catherine told us about a walk to the circle I hadn’t taken before–a lovely hill walk over green patchwork fields with views back to the B&B and forward to the ocean. If you can zoom the first photo below you may see the B&B. It’s a pale-pink building with two facing gables in the middle of a wide field in the upper right.
My heart pounded as I climbed straight up the slope to Bohonagh Circle–called Golden Eagle Circle by characters in the trilogy.
After the huge rings of Almendres Cromlech in Portugal and Castlerigg in England this circle looked small. Bracken and brambles had filled the interior since I last strolled through.
Bluebells lifted their heads above the competition. I remembered those exquisite flowers blooming among the stones from my visit before.
I got down on my hands and knees to climb under the electric wire surrounding the space and made my way into the ring despite the tall growth. I took my time, circling the ring to consider each stone. I remembered the rough faces, the cool edges, the warm, the tall pillars with tops beyond my reach, the low, the wide entrance between portal stones I could barely touch at once with my outstretched arms, the slanted tops, the rounded, fat, slim, one slant that matched the slant of the sea gap beyond. Echoes shimmered. Dancing feet pummeling the ground. Voices of pleasure, pain, supplication. Though left to the wildness of winds and other natural forces the circle still seemed to resonate with a subtle power–maybe more so because of the untamed elements.
Here lay the heart of my Irish stories.
We would visit the better known Drombeg Circle with Catherine. Close to the highway, that one is a National Monument, well maintained by the Commissioners of Public Works for the state.
A sign at the site notes that on the winter solstice the sun sets at a point aligned with the center between the portal stones and the middle of the recumbent stone opposite. In my story this is the village circle of my neighboring Red Deer Village. The circle rests on a bench of land overlooking the broad fields below, the sea lost again in the distant haze. In one of my books the clanspeople of southern Éire face the warriors of Zambujal on those broad fields, and in another a young Red Deer woman faces the wrath of her father. Many scenes there.
We closed our day with a visit to the sea in the softening light. I wanted to revisit Golden Eagle Bay. We drove to the wrong bay first, then found the right one. I hadn’t remembered the shoreline quite right, so the stop helped me form a better sense of place in this important setting. Anguished partings happen here. And poignant reunions.
The wash of the sea brought many memories, like recurring waves.
With one last look at this bay below the site of my Golden Eagle Clan village I embraced the scene, feeling enriched by this and so many experiences over the course of my journey. I would hold these places in my mind and heart, hoping to share and let others see and feel the wonder of it all.
The village of Cairnryan sits like a hidden jewel on the southwest coast of Scotland. I had never heard of it before I began searching for a crossing to and from Ireland for the traders in my stories. It became a gem discovered.
We spent a long time at the window of our guest house that evening, enraptured by the beauty in the fading light at this quiet place.
We hadn’t taken the roads most traveled on this journey. Months earlier when I invited my writer friend Lynn Ash to join me in Amesbury for the last two weeks of my trip, I showed her my itinerary. She found some unfamiliar names on the list, and with a touch of embarrassment I explained that the characters of my books traveled to these places and I needed to see them. Being a fellow writer, she expressed her delight at the unusual destinations. I was glad.
These weren’t tourist spots for me. This was my work.
Stonehenge was familiar of course, and I had chosen it for scenes because of its magnificence and because readers sometimes like to read about popular sites too. I had never heard of the Lake District, although we found it to be a popular retreat for the British.
Once we left the Lake District we ventured into Scotland’s quiet edges, where my protagonist follows a handsome trader into harrowing adventures. The train from Penrith offered a route that got us to the port of Cairnryan where my traders cross–not the straight route my people would take, but the best I found, which brought us to Stranraer, just six miles from The Auld Cairn Guest House we’d booked in Cairnryan. Before we taxied to our guest house we stopped at a pub in Stranraer where I had one of my best fish and chips meals ever, with haddock. Fantastic!
The Auld Cairn was a delightful place. It’s the building in the picture above with the car in front, one of a line of houses that rims the coast. Our host Maggie had lots of stories to tell. We woke to a bright morning.
A short walk to the ferry landing and we were on our way to Larne in Northern Ireland.
I wandered around the ferry and finally found a nice spot out of the wind where I could sit on a bench and watch the water go by. Lots of water. I couldn’t help thinking about the ancient travelers plying this water in their little currachs. The currach is a seagoing Irish boat made with a wooden or wickerwork frame covered in animal hides, long and narrow with a high bow to handle the waves (not to be confused with the smaller round coracles used in quiet water). Currachs have been plying the seas in this area for a few thousand years, propelled by oars, maybe sometimes a sail. Some folks still swear by them. I read somewhere that they could travel at about seven knots.
As our ferry sailed smoothly across the water at a good clip, an official-looking fellow came out to the deck where I was sitting. Curious, I asked him how many knots we were going. He shrugged. “I don’t know. I just drive this thing.” He beckoned a young man dressed in orange and asked how fast we were sailing. The guy guessed about 18 knots. Comparing that to the currach’s speed I figured it would take our ancient travelers a good part of a day to make the crossing.
I watched the land fall away on the Scotland side. As soon as it was about to disappear I saw land on the Irish side. So even without instruments our ancient travelers would be able to keep land in sight for the distance, provided the air stayed clear. It had become pretty hazy on our journey and I could still see land. Days were long during the summer when traders made their rounds. According to my iPhone, sunrise that morning was at 4:51 am back in Keswick. Cairnryan is even farther north. With such early sunrises, a start at dawn and strong rowing might even get my traders across the water by the time the sun reached its zenith. Surely they could make it well before dark.
I watched the gently churning sea and shook my head in amazement, glad for the solid ferry. What if a storm rolled in? Even in calm water I had trouble imagining such a ride in a small currach and my appreciation for the fortitude of these early people rose considerably.
Given our long train ride of the day before, Lynn and I planned a shorter journey for this day. After disembarking from the ferry at Larne we took the train–a beautiful ride–from Larne to Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland where we had booked the night’s lodging. We wanted to see the historic Carrickfergus Castle. Even our hotel, The Dobbin’s Inn, has a long history. These places didn’t exist yet at the time of my trilogies but I could still follow the tracks of my characters over the land surrounding them. We toured the castle, just for fun.
This Norman castle was built in 1177 (that’s AD) by John de Courcy and it got besieged many times by a lot of other warriors who wanted it. Lynn and I bought tickets and explored inside.
I got a bead on that ferry. I think he should be worried. Or not. I believe my weapon is spiked.
Although these structures are modern compared to the stone monuments of my books, when we checked into our hotel I wasn’t prepared for the answers our desk clerk gave when Lynn asked him how old the hotel was.
With complete nonchalance he told us there had been a hotel there for 800, maybe 900 years. They were at that moment digging into the walls to learn how much of the early building still existed. Once we had absorbed that surprising answer, he casually pointed to the large old fireplace in the lobby and said, “That’s Elizabethan.”
I think my jaw dropped.
He didn’t mention the inn’s rumored ghost and I didn’t bring it up.
That night after an exquisite dinner of salmon with hollandaise sauce in the inn’s restaurant we went upstairs and settled in for a good night’s rest.
I woke out of a deep sleep. I heard a rhythmic squeak, squeak, squeak, like squeaking floor joists, over by the bathroom. Squinting my eyes, I saw that the bathroom door stood ajar, letting light from the frosted outdoor window cast a glow into our darkened room. I frowned and climbed out of bed to shut the bathroom door. When I approached the door my footsteps made a sound. Squeak, squeak, squeak. I stopped dead still. No sound. I crept forward again. Squeak, squeak.
Reaching out, I shut the bathroom door and walked back to my bed without a sound. I didn’t hear the slightest squeak. Back in bed I pulled the covers up to my chin. I never heard another squeak all night.
Now, I’m not saying I believe in ghosts. I’m just saying what happened. On that night. In the old inn some folks think is haunted. Just saying what happened. And that’s all.
NEXT: Heart of an Irish Story
If you were an outlaw on the run in ancient England, where would you hide?
A mountain stronghold? I considered the Highlands of Scotland, but that’s a long run from Stonehenge where my guy gets into trouble. Where would l find mountains in England?
I used the Google Maps terrain feature and found some heights to the north. Pulling up the pictorial view, I found myself on rugged, rocky slopes. Perfect! I told an English friend I had found a hideout for my character in England and she wanted to know where. “The Lake District,” I said.
Her eyes sparkled. “Oh, that’s where Merlin the Magician went.” Merlin’s haunts! Even more perfect! Merlin was from a later period than my character. Or not. Do we really know how old the magician was by the time Arthur came around?
Now I needed to visit the Lake District to see if my chosen site worked and to enhance my descriptions. In my story I call it the High Lakes. The raw mountains rise dramatically above the valley floors. And many lakes nestle among precipitous slopes, with treacherous rocky trails.
Wooded beaches add concealment.
My outlaw had a long horseback ride from Stonehenge to his High Lakes hideout, taking several days. My friend Lynn Ash and I had a long train ride, but we would do it in one day. Lynn was traveling with me now, having joined me just before visiting Stonehenge. From Amesbury near Stonehenge we took a bus to Andover and caught the train to Penrith. It’s a pleasant ride through the green fields of England with hedgerow borders giving it a patchwork quilt look.
British trains are noted for their punctuality, but when there’s an accident on the track ahead, what can they do? At our second change our train was late. When we arrived in Penrith we had only minutes to catch our bus to Keswick, the town nearest the village of Portinscale where we had booked our B&B, the Lake View.
Coming off the platform we found steps–no elevator, no escalator to make it easy to tug our large bags. I asked a young woman how far to the bus stop. She assured me it was close and started to give directions. Then she said she would show me and offered to carry my big bag. A young man took Lynn’s bag and together they led us. More angels. If they hadn’t rushed us out we’d have missed the bus and gotten into Keswick after 9 o’clock, a late arrival.
The Lake View was wonderful. Our host Stuart Muir met us at the door and showed us around. We would soon meet his wife, Catherine, who cooked our fantastic breakfasts for us. They had only three double rooms, so every morning the six guests sat around a long table for breakfast. We had delightful conversations while we feasted on full English breakfasts of eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, and more, along with a sumptuous buffet.
We had four nights there, three days to see my outlaw’s haunts. The first day I wanted to spend some leisurely hours on the shore of Buttermere, the lake where I planned to set the camp for him and his fellow fugitives. The next day I wanted to hike into the mountains, and the third day, walk to Castlerigg Stone Circle, the home circle of his cherished grandfather.
Once again, the best laid plans and all that.
After 25 days on the road I had to do laundry. So I thought I would get that done the first morning, stuffing the clothes into my tote and walking the pleasant path from Portinscale to the laundry in Keswick. Lynn, still feeling the effects of her long flight from the US, needed a nap. But she thought she might take a walk around Portinscale after her nap so she kept our only key and promised to tuck it into a secret place so I’d be able to get in when I returned.
On the way out I saw Stuart, who told me he and Catherine were going into Keswick for supplies soon. He wished me well and I went on my way, giving no thought to what his remark could mean to me.
I enjoyed the Portinscale-Keswick path over the river, past lovely bluebells, and through the pasture. My father raised sheep on the farm where I grew up but I had never seen black lambs with white ears. They were frisky and adorable.
After leaving my clothes at the laundry I returned to the B&B. The door was locked as usual. I rang. No answer. I checked for the key. No key. I rang and rang. Of course our hosts were in Keswick and Lynn must still be asleep. I should have known better. I knew what jet lag could do.
Finally giving up, I went to the nearby cafe to grab something quick for lunch. I was eating my scone when a man sat across from me. I looked up, surprised to see Stuart. “You’re locked out,” he said.
“Yes, I am.”
It was a bit of a kerfuffle, but the upshot was that I missed the last morning bus to Buttermere. The next bus wouldn’t come for two hours. I would lose two precious hours in Buttermere. I wouldn’t arrive there until 2:24 and the last return bus to Portinscale left Buttermere at 5:18. I would barely get out to the intended site before I had to turn around and walk back. I was frustrated, angry, not at anybody, just at the situation–and at myself for not seeing the clues. Lynn felt terrible but it wasn’t her fault. She opted not to take the hurried trip to Buttermere. But I wasn’t willing to give up even that small amount of time. I would go alone.
I waited at the nearest bus stop. The bus rolled right past me. I ran to the next stop down the street and caught it before it left. The driver seemed grumpy when I asked for a return ticket to Buttermere.
The bus circled the district on narrow roads that wound through trees and lakes, up into spectacular mountains, and through the raw crags of Honister Pass. The picture above, taken through the bus window, may not be the best photo, but it shows the rugged slopes. Roads were barely wide enough for the bus to pass a car, so vehicles often came to a full stop before proceeding. Wide eyes peered from passing cars. Sometimes it was just a matter of avoiding a scrape. Other times, precipitous drops.
When we reached the village of Buttermere the driver kindly told me I could catch a later return bus, a 6:20 back to Keswick. I happily told him that would work. I had to go into Keswick for dinner anyway, Portinscale having few restaurants. That gave me an extra hour. I thanked him, much relieved. He seemed quite friendly now. I think he was annoyed with me before because I was standing on the wrong side of the street (the British all drive on the wrong side of the road) and when I spoke to buy my ticket he realized from my accent that I wasn’t from there and he gave me some slack.
I set out to explore the lake. I strolled past another sheep pasture at the west end of the lake, across a bridge, and out along the walkway bordering the southern shore.
At first the woods were too steep, but I eventually found a flatter site alongside a bubbling creek, which looked like a good option.
The trees in these woods are mostly conifers, which aren’t native to the area. So plans are to cut those out and replace them with native deciduous trees, mostly a small variety of oaks. When I envision my outlaws in the camp I have to screen out all the straight conifers and imagine gnarly oaks. If you look closely at the photo below you’ll see a vertical line through the wooded slope. On the left, above Buttermere, it’s mostly conifers. On the right the conifers have been replaced with round-topped deciduous trees.
Even with the extra time, I had to rush through the woods where I planned to place my hideout. I only walked about halfway down the lake, and instead of wandering and absorbing I hurried along the path taking quick pictures, doing my best to capture the essence of the place in the time I had.
The next day I wanted to get a much earlier bus for my hike into the mountains. I had already scaled back my plans. Google Maps showed a walk to what they call the Pillar that didn’t look bad. When I told Stuart I wanted to walk there he glanced at my low walking shoes and shook his head. I had left my serious hiking boots home, not wanting to carry them. He assured me it was a long day’s hike to the Pillar but I could do a shorter walk to the first ridge that would give me a nice overlook. Lynn wasn’t keen on the hike, so again I would go alone. She opted to take the circle bus ride I’d raved about.
We waited at the bus stop. And waited. The scheduled time slipped past. We eventually learned there was an accident on Honister Pass. The bus didn’t come until after lunch. The 1:36. It wouldn’t get me over there until almost 2:30. How would I ever do the hike in the time left?
My favorite driver was at the wheel. I told him I wanted to get off at Gatesgarth, the nearest stop to the trailhead, at the east end of Buttermere. Shortly after the passage through the raw slopes of Honister Pass he stopped the bus and called out something I didn’t understand. I looked at the mountains beside us and hoped he hadn’t said what I thought. He turned to face me and said quite clearly, “This is Gatesgarth.”
I faced the mountain again. Holy shmoly!
I have hiked in the Cascades and the Rockies. I walk up the mountain outside my door nearly every day. I was not prepared for this trail.
After crossing the flat field I began to climb. The first tenth of a mile or so was a steep incline of stones that formed a ragged staircase. I checked each step to be sure of safe footing. Realizing I had better eat my simple lunch, I stopped in the shade halfway up that first incline. I was going to need my strength. I’d brought a banana and three of Catherine’s nourishing cookies chock-full of seeds and nuts and enough sugar to give me a boost. And water.
Beyond a dogleg turn the trail had a few gravelly stretches between more staircases of uneven stones. No more shade. The sun beat down. My pack grew heavy. My shoes weren’t adequate for the conditions. Time kept creeping by. Was it even possible to make the ridge and get back to the bus stop for the last bus out? I sat on one of the stone steps to consider.
A couple came down the hill. I asked if the trail got any better farther up. They said no. We chatted awhile. They thought I probably shouldn’t be doing the trail alone, given the treacherous rock. Every step up, I would have to go down, even more hazardous. If I turned back now I could walk the length of Buttermere. Take more time. Absorb the site. And I had hiked far enough to get a feel for the mountain. Maybe halfway to the ridge. Maybe a third. I’m not a person who gives up easily, but I turned back.
The next day’s walk to Castlerigg Circle seemed like a breeze in comparison. One of the oldest circles in Europe–older than Stonehenge but younger than Portugal’s Almendres Cromlech–Castlerigg lies within a wider ring of mountains that enhance the wonder.
We enjoyed a last look at the beauties of the Lake District and saw the sun set on Crummock Water, the lake northwest of Buttermere. Lynn walked ahead toward the setting sun as I took a picture. I’d gained a vivid sense of the place even if things didn’t go as planned, and I would keep a warm spot in my heart for this beautiful stronghold and for our wonderful hosts.
Stonehenge impacts. It just does. Despite detractors who want to say this is better, that’s better, you can’t get inside, whatever, there is no other stone circle in the world quite like it. The dressed sarsens with their phenomenal bulk. The horizontal lintels that look as if giants had placed them. The bold position on Britain’s wide Salisbury plain. Power resonates.
I felt that power as we walked toward the great stones, just as my characters feel it in my stories. Stone circles play a significant role in my second trilogy, which centers in Ireland, and my lead characters have a fascination with this grand megalith so different from their own village circles. Some of the characters have the opportunity to visit. Others envision it.
The site was carved out about 5,000 years ago when people dug a circular ditch. About 500 years later others erected the first stones. Those were the smaller bluestones, a type of stone not found in this area, but which scholars believe were brought all the way from Wales, a herculean task. The quarry has been located and stone cuts matched, pretty strong evidence. But why? No one knows. The giant sarsens came later, and over time the arrangement of the stones saw several changes.
My writer friend Lynn Ash had joined me on my trip the day before our visit to Stonehenge, and we took the obligatory photos.
I first saw Stonehenge in 1993 when I was researching another long-abandoned book. That was before the new Visitor Center. You don’t have to pay to see Stonehenge. It’s right out there on the Salisbury plain, visible from the road and from trails that cross the fields. A fence holds you back a ways. But if you want to get as close as Lynn and I are in these photos and experience the Visitor Center (and it is an experience), you pay. Not a small fee. We each paid about $23 for a set time slot to enter, although you can take as long as you want, once inside the compound.
Compared with the wonderful Almendres Cromlech in Portugal (see “Going There #8”), a site that’s free and wide open to whatever the public and weather may do to it, Stonehenge has become a local industry. Yet somehow that doesn’t diminish the experience–when you give yourself to the wonder.
The Visitor Center is remarkably well done. Most intriguing is the 360-degree theater in the round where you stand in the center of the stones while seasons and centuries pass. That makes up a little for the fact that a rope around the real stones keeps you out of the center (except for special occasions, like the summer solstice, when people are allowed in, which you no doubt have to reserve far in advance).
The theater’s effect offers a dramatic experience. Many other fine exhibits explain the site and display archeological finds. Outdoors, typical houses of the early period have been erected, and you can step inside to see where people slept.
I’m not sure about that pillow. I’m of the flatter pillow school.
A sample stone below shows how the giant sarsens might have been moved to the site in those long-ago days. I had to tap the stone. It’s plastic but illustrates nonetheless.
Lynn and I opted to walk to and from the circle. The Visitor Center is a little over a mile away, leaving the circle to stand free and open in its grand position. The day was gorgeous, and the easy stroll allowed us a long view of the stones and the effect of the approach–as my characters would have experienced it. We took the road going to the circle and went back to the center on a trail through the field. A lovely walk.
We had contemplated going to Avebury afterward, another wonderful site where the village is set among giant stones and you can touch them. I had been there before and enjoyed not only the stones, but a lovely high tea in the tearoom of an elegant manor, and I had lured Lynn into this trip promising her “scones among the stones.”
Well, we didn’t have a car, and bus connections would have given us more bus time than tea time. Taxis were expensive there, and we were exhausted. Lynn had taken the grueling trip across the pond just the day before our Stonehenge excursion and hadn’t slept on the flight or very much the night before her departure. I had only flown from Lisbon, but our meeting at London’s Heathrow airport hadn’t exactly been a snap.
Lynn had seemed worried about navigating that huge airport, but I had reassured her that my flight would land about an hour before hers and I could be waiting for her when she came off the plane. We had our iPhones in case it took a moment for us to find each other. The best laid plans and all that. My flight was late, very late. Hers was early. When I rushed into the airport, trying to connect with her, I got no answer. I got delayed in a huge line at border control. While moving slowly through that line I tried email, texts, phone. No response.
Friendly airport personnel helped us–more angels. As soon I got free of border control and found my bag I headed for her terminal–just as she headed for mine. We were striding across moving walkways when we looked up and saw each other. What a relief! We had bus tickets to Amesbury, the small town near Stonehenge, and the bus station was right between the terminals. We made it in plenty of time. But the distress took a toll.
Now we’d spent so long at Stonehenge we gave up on Avebury, but as we sat resting in our room at the delightful Fairlawn Hotel in Amesbury we decided to take an evening stroll to Woodhenge, a satellite site within easy walking distance. We were surely up to a pleasant walk out through the edge of the lovely town. We didn’t account for traffic that buzzed along beside us like freeway traffic on a narrow road, so close to the sidewalk I felt as if a wobble would put me right in a car’s path. But we survived to see this unusual site. A quiet, peaceful place.
Lynn snapped my picture sitting on the concrete stumps where wooden poles once rose.
On the way back we took a side path to walk a short way along the famous River Avon. That offered another respite of quiet and peace with a generous touch of beauty.
As I put this post together, selecting photos from the many I took, I noticed something in the photo at the top of the post that I hadn’t noticed before–the picture labeled “Stonehenge.” An odd shadow. I give a closer look here. Do you see it? Probably a strange slant of the light against the stones.
But it put me in mind of the shadows that linger across this old world. Sometimes the shadows seem to come alive where the past remains so visible, as in these ancient works in stone. Or the crumbling citadels of Greece and Portugal, where archeologists work to ferret out the hidden secrets.
Bringing the past to life is what I try to do in my stories–whether from our own country’s pioneer past in A Place of Her Own and The Shifting Winds, or in these ancient times of my new trilogies. I would keep searching, keep reaching, trying to see into the shadows to bring out the light of a people who did walk in these places, portrayed as truly as I can through the fictional characters in their imagined lives.
NEXT: Outlaw Hideaway
When you’re already living in the Bronze Age and something appears to be old in the extreme, you have really fallen back in time from our perspective. One of my characters experiences that phenomenon, and when I followed her into Portugal’s interior I fell back with her.
After Zambujal I planned to spend six nights in the charming historic city of Évora in the Alentejo region of central Portugal. I had three focal points–first, the nearby megaliths with their ancient stone circle; second, the Escoural Grotto with its paleolithic cave drawings; and third, the cork oak forests that have played a significant role in the area for millenia. Vanessa, the hostess of my hotel, was arranging tours for all three.
Taking the train, I left the green coastal hills around Zambujal to enter the dryer lands of the interior. But late spring rains had kept the land unusually green for May. I soon began to see sweeping cork oak forests covering the broad plains and rolling hills, the forest floors carpeted with flowers of yellow and white and many shades of blue amid the green. An occasional boulder rose among the wide-spaced trees, reminding me of Portugal’s ancient monuments.
Cromlech of Almendres and Cork Oaks
My tour group for the megaliths met the next morning in downtown Évora, a few minutes’ walk from my hotel, the Solar de Monfalim. Our friendly guide, archeologist Mário Carvalho, welcomed six of us, Canadians, Australians, and two from the US, and we all headed out with his driver in a van. This being my main interest in the Évora vicinity, Vanessa had scheduled it first. She was still having a little trouble with the cork forest visit because another party had cancelled and I would have to pay more. As Mário chatted with us on the way to the stone circle, asking where we’d been and where we were going, I mentioned my uncertain cork forest tour.
“The megaliths are right in the middle of cork oak forests,” he said. He didn’t think I needed another tour. He turned out to be well informed about cork oak trees and harvests, as well as megaliths, and I decided to count this as two tours in one.
When I told him I had been to Zambujal, he was excited to hear about my unexpected visit with Sónia and Fábio. Mário also took an interest in my books and offered to answer any questions he could, now or after I returned home. I was thrilled to find another excellent source.
The stones of Almendres Cromlech struck me with their numbers and their dramatic setting.
This circle has 90 to 100 stones, dancing together in intertwined rings, more than I’d seen in any other stone circle. My camera frame holds only a part of them, looking off to the east. It’s an ellipsis rather than a true circle, Mário told us, and like most, it sits near the top of the slope but not quite at the crest. Besides its size, the Almendres Cromlech carries the power of its age. My character feels that, so I did, just knowing.
It’s older than Stonehenge. Almendres Cromlech dates back 6,000 to 8,000 years. The first bluestone ring of Stonehenge is a young 4,500 years old, the great sarsens even younger.
Many of these stones at Almendres Cromlech bear markings–cups, circles, half-circles, curved lines like shepherd crooks. Similar markings have been found in other archaic settings.
Mário contemplated possible meanings, the circular lines representing the moon and the shepherd crooks having to do with grasping truth in the same way a shepherd grasps his sheep. Many scholars believe the stone circles helped their builders gauge the astronomical events of the passage of the moon and sun.
The single Almendres Menhir stands out from the others, far enough that we had to drive to reach it because we couldn’t walk through the property owner’s fields.
This solitary stone was integral to the whole as it provided alignment for determining the equinoxes and solstices.
From that site we went on to the Dolmen of Zambujeiro. Curious at the name which sounds so much like Zambujal, I asked Mário its meaning. “Zambujeiro means a wild olive tree,” he said.
“So, what does Zambujal mean?”
“A group of wild olive trees.”
Ah ha! I had wondered and searched online but never found the definition. I asked if they would have had cork oaks at Zambujal at the time of my story, and he assured me they would have. I was glad to hear that because I needed a large gnarly tree for a grisly scene there.
The trunk of the above tree lies in shadow, but if you look closely at the area just above the crotch you’ll see that below a defined line the bark is darker and redder. That part has been stripped of cork. The tree remains unharmed, but can’t be harvested again for another nine years. Portugal is the primary provider of the world’s cork, so the cork in your wine bottle may well have come from a tree like this in Portugal. These mighty trees can live for a couple of hundred years and add beauty as well as value to the land.
The trees are fire resistant but owners still carefully protect them by digging fire breaks and grazing to keep the grass down. Horned spotted cattle have been grazing these lands for many years, and horses have long been a part of the Iberian culture as well.
Iberian horses play a large role in all three books of my second trilogy, so I couldn’t resist photographing this beauty.
Our morning with Mário was wonderful. We had a compatible group and he was a great guide, never rushing us, always happy to answer our many questions. A delightful and informative tour. The experience gave me an excellent sense of the place I’m writing about. For more information on these megalithic tours you can click here.
For Mário’s sake, I do want to pass along his concern. The ground under the stone circle is weathering away. The stones may fall. The roads to the site are in terrible repair. Yet no one has authority to care for the site or the roads. It’s private property. He hopes one day the government will take it over and preserve it before too much damage occurs to this world treasure. I hope so too.
Vanessa scheduled a tour for me the next day to see the ancient cave drawings at the Escoural Grotto. Since there was no public transportation available she arranged for a taxi. The driver asked if he could bring his daughter. She had never seen the grotto and wanted to take this opportunity. That worked out well, because this 20-year-old daughter spoke excellent English and his was limited. The grotto was a 17-mile drive one way, so I knew it wouldn’t be cheap, but I had just saved a lot of money by cancelling the cork forest tour.
The cave mouth opens against a steep slope embedded with limestone boulders. A small enclosure covers the opening. Our guide led the three of us in–the taxi driver, his daughter, and me–and gave us hardhats. I was glad for that hat more than once. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, so I must offer word pictures.
It’s a small cave, intimate.
We worked our way through the cramped space down wooden steps and walkways. My hardhat bounced off hovering rock overhead. A few bats clung to the higher walls. The electric lighting may have added a yellow hue, but the cave walls looked golden compared to the gray rock outside. I had the impression of thick butterscotch frosting, whipped in wild swirls, hardened and broken off in places to reveal flat nubbly cuts that melted back a little, softening over time. On some of these flat slabs thin ridges ran down like rivulets of water that had turned rigid.
I didn’t see the pictures until our guide turned a light onto them. Then I saw the black charcoal outline of a horse with a deep belly. It looked pregnant, and I mentioned that. She believed the figure represented fertility. Only the lines between the rivulets remained. We went farther below and had to bend down to look at a slab slanted inward. On that slab scratches had been cut into the rock surface creating the outlines of several horses with heads raised, active, alert. Another drawing represented a horned animal.
The depth of time resonated. Into this ancient place of artistic expression my character felt herself falling back tens of thousands of years. And I did, knowing that.
I had one more place I needed to see. The town of Escoural itself. Just three more miles up the road from the grotto. When we left the cave site my taxi driver started to turn toward Évora. “I still need to see Escoural,” I told him.
He wrinkled his brow. “Is nothing there.”
I explained that it was a significant place in my book and I needed to see it. His daughter tried to explain. He hesitated but finally turned toward Escoural. The meter was rising. It would soon hit our agreed price and we still had to go all the way back, but I had many chapters in that location. I had seen it on Google Maps, but I really wanted to see the land. Not the town. There was no town back then, but there was a knoll where I wanted to put a fictional village. And I wanted to see the land around it.
We drove into a town whose sleepy streets I had traveled virtually and it all looked familiar. He turned to me. “See? There’s nothing here.”
That’s the idea, I told him. It’s the middle of nowhere. Exactly what I want.
About that time I saw my knoll and got excited. “There! Please turn that way.” His daughter had to convince him. And when we came away from the houses and I had a full view of the knoll I asked him to stop so I could get out and snap a picture. It took him a moment to respond and I asked again. I’m sure he was thinking, What is the matter with this crazy lady wanting to stop and look at nothing? He stopped. I got out and took my picture. And a few more. Laughing, I told his daughter, “Escoural hasn’t had this much enthusiasm in years.”
The rest of my time in Évora I explored the town. I checked out the Roman temple and the museum and the bone chapel and found Vasco da Gama’s house. But much of the time I sat on the lovely balcony of my hotel and took notes and sorted out my thoughts about all I had seen, fitting some changes into the excerpts I’d brought while the memories of my experiences were fresh.
Portugal had been good to me. Alone, I had felt the raw edge of a culture where communication often confounded me. But that taught me something too, which will work its way into my stories. Most of all I thrilled to ancient wonders and the warmth of people who so willingly shared those with me.
NEXT: Shadows in the Stones
What was the best part of my recent trip to Greece, Portugal, the UK, and Ireland?
People have asked me the question, and that has to be my answer. Out of many remarkable experiences this one stands out for the majesty of the site–and for the unexpected thrill.
Imagine these towers whole. Step back 3,000 or 4,000, maybe even 5,000 years and imagine the watchful warriors of western Iberia holding power over a vast region from this lofty citadel overlooking the rolling hills and the sea north of today’s Lisbon, Portugal. Iberian characters in my second trilogy ruled here about 3,400 years ago.
Even the name sounds exotic, magical, pronounced zam´-boo-zhol.
I learned about this mysterious citadel when I was well into writing my second trilogy. My main characters live on the south shore of Ireland, where warriors from Iberia have been stealing their children for slaves. I set up my fictional scenario in the beginning with only two tribes of Iberia being advanced enough to have seagoing ships that could reach Ireland, one on Iberia’s west coast (now in Portugal), one on the east (now in Spain). Imagine my surprise when I kept digging for information and learned that scholars believe there actually were only two city-states in the Iberian peninsula that enjoyed advanced civilizations during the period of my stories, one on the west coast, one east. When I read that I sat back in my chair. I had just made that up and it turned out to be true. Hm-m… Okay then.
The western culture was centered at Castro do Zambujal, the formidable citadel shown here. It had become a major setting for my books, and I needed to see this place. After leaving Greece this was the first research stop on my itinerary in Portugal.
I booked a room at Torres Vedras, the modern city nearest to Zambujal. Unable to find information beforehand on how to visit the site, which lay in the countryside a few miles from town, I inquired at the hotel desk soon after my arrival. The young woman at the desk said I would probably have to take a taxi out there, but she could arrange that with a young driver who spoke excellent English. She didn’t know of any tours but suggested I ask at the museum across the square.
At the museum I asked the woman at the entrance if they had any tours to Zambujal. “Oh, no!” she said. “You can’t go to Zambujal now. The archeologists are working there. You’ll have to come back in September.”
I bent toward her, insistent. “That’s not going to work. I came here all the way from the US. I can’t come back in September. I need to see it now.”
I told her about my books and that I needed to see and feel this place and its setting so I could describe it. A man stepped up and I repeated my situation to him. We began talking about the importance of the site. Somewhere in there he stepped away and returned to tell me he had phoned Sónia Cravo, the head of the archeological project there.
He said I could take a taxi out to the edge of the site, take my pictures, and leave. Sónia might be willing to see me for a moment. She might not. I agreed. At least I would see the setting.
The man, perhaps sensing my disappointment, led me into the museum to show me a model of the site and pictures and many artifacts found there–pottery, tools, weapons, gold, and more. They did have a fine exhibit on Zambujal, and he was obviously quite proud of it. He introduced himself as Carlos, and we talked about the history, sharing our enthusiasm for that.
Back at the hotel I learned that the young taxi driver who spoke English was not available. An older man would drive me out to Zambujal. He didn’t speak English but the woman at the hotel would explain everything to him before we left. We agreed on a price for him to take me there, wait a few minutes while I took pictures, then return.
Wind whipped the car, carrying droplets of mist, as he drove over the green slopes and up the steep incline to the lofty site where archeologists in bright vests scrambled over the ancient stonework.
We parked nearby and a fellow strode toward us. I got out to explain that Carlos from the museum had said I could come take a few pictures. “Could I talk to Sónia?” I asked.
He left, and soon an attractive woman in a bright vest stepped across a rocky path toward me, dark hair blowing in the steady wind. She greeted me and I told her I was researching for my books with settings at Zambujal. A young man in a vest approached and she smiled. “Fábio speaks good English. He will go with us so he can explain.” She had been concerned about her own English. That was her hesitation in seeing me.
Fábio’s face lit up when he welcomed me, introducing himself as Fábio Rocha. “Fábio means wall and Rocha means rock,” he said, “wall from the rocks. What could I be but an archeologist?”
We all laughed. They began showing me the perimeter of the site where low rocks marked the line of the outer walls, and we took pictures of each other.
The wind never stopped, although thankfully the drizzle did.
As they led me through the site, pointing out the bases of the round towers and other features, they talked about their work there and I described my stories and how I hoped to use this setting, wondering if my ideas fit into the reality of their findings. They occasionally spoke together in Portuguese, and he relayed what she was saying. I showed them a photo I had just taken of the model at the museum, and they told me how the current walls fit into that whole.
They wished they could show me the inside, which they said was the most interesting, but that seemed to be off limits. Then Sónia rushed away. Fábio said she was going to see if the local authority would allow them to take me inside. Sónia hurried back, face aglow. They could take me in. We were all excited.
By that time they had been with me for almost half an hour. I glanced occasionally at my taxi driver who was strolling back and forth by his car, but I couldn’t give this up now.
They led me through the main South Gate into the interior of Zambujal. I felt like an honored guest. The gate gave me a sense of the restrictive nature of the place with its thick high walls and narrow passageway. I imagined my antagonist strutting into his domain, and my protagonist running down a narrow corridor, buffeted between her desires and fears.
Once inside, Fábio offered me a hand. “These rocks aren’t steady,” he said. Not only had I stepped into the inner workings of the archeological project, some of the surfaces were a bit challenging. We climbed to the top of a wall–wide by the standards of most walls, but narrow when you start walking across and look down on both sides. I readily grabbed a helpful hand.
We came out on top of walls overlooking the inner sanctum where the ancient Iberians had created loopholes for archers to shoot through, still plainly visible. This would have been the citadel’s last defense, where the elites could hole up if attackers ever managed to storm the outer walls. More walls were added over the years in several phases. It was amazing to see this enclosure still so complete after thousands of years.
By the time we left the interior Sónia and Fábio had been with me almost an hour. I thanked them profusely for the time they were giving me. Fábio said, “Why do we do this work if we don’t share it with the people? This is why we do it.” I so appreciated that sentiment, and their generosity.
We exchanged contact information and they invited me to write and ask if I have any questions. When I did write to thank them they wrote me back and repeated that kind offer. I was thrilled. I gained so much in that time with them, between the feel of the place and the discussion of where my story fit in. But their warmth surrounded me as well. I felt a little sorry my Iberians were the bad guys, although Fábio laughed about that, and I assured them there would be good people there too.
The last picture shows Sónia looking across the walls to the hilly countryside below–and my taxi waiting. Fábio said you could see the ocean from there on a clear day. At the time of my story the sea filled one of the valleys and formed a narrow bay that came close to Zambujal, where it might have offered shelter for ships.
I apologized to the taxi driver for my long stay and promised I would pay more than we agreed. The numbers had ticked up on his meter. Although he didn’t speak English, he understood. Back in Torres Vedras we settled on a price that made us both happy. It had been worth every euro.
I also went back to the museum to thank Carlos for his help, and he was delighted to hear about my wonderful tour.
Zambujal shall always remain for me a magic place.
NEXT: Falling Back in Time
Stand on the ravaged rocks of Mycenae and fall back in time some 3,500 years. Look at the world around you. Will you see a warrior in full bronze armor? Maybe. If he’s an elite charioteer from the late 15th century B.C.
The first book in my trilogy opens in 1470 B.C., a little early for this suit of armor, but not too early for the boar tusk helmet.
The crowning glory of the archeological museum of Náfplio, Greece, this set of Mycenaean bronze armor with boar tusk helmet, is the only complete set of armor ever found for this early Mycenaean period. During my stay in Náfplio I visited the museum to see it. The assembled armor stands in a lit glass case in full view when you walk in. The museum offers a film that describes its remarkable discovery by local people in the village of Dendra near Náfplio, a great source of pride for them. The impression of the wearer’s body could be seen inside the hammered bronze.
I had read about the armor and debated whether to put the Mycenaean warriors of my books in metal rather than the leather armor I had initially chosen. When I saw the fine exhibit and the film I debated again. A couple of people watched the film with me and we all returned to the exhibit afterward to observe the armor again. We began to chat about it and I learned that one was a British archeologist named David Mason (not to be confused with another archeologist of the same name). This archeologist was currently working at the ruins of the acropolis at Mycenae.
We discussed the relative merits of this armor, which would have extended to a warrior’s knees. The statement on the exhibit says bronze armor was associated with chariot warriors, their role limited to dramatic displays along lines of combat conducted by foot soldiers.
I doubted whether the Mycenaean king would allow Mycenaean mercenaries serving Crete to take such valuable armor with them. I also wondered how thrilled warriors would be to wear such cumbersome gear and whether it was used much at all. David didn’t argue the point, but he did think it would be cool to have my Mycenaean warriors wear the boar tusk helmet. I agreed and am making the change.
I later found a site online suggesting this bronze armor wasn’t produced until late in the 1400s, which won’t make it a factor until the third book in my trilogy. But boar tusk helmets were used throughout the period. Homer describes them and artwork of the period shows them. The slivers of tusk are attached to a leather helmet, often with bronze cheek guards. A plume or tassel would sometimes adorn the top. Only the tusk slivers were found with the exhibited armor. The original leather would have disintegrated, being biodegradable.
The display includes unique arm guards found at Dendra and greaves to cover the shins. Linen was more commonly used for shin guards, so the bronze may have been more for a show of status.
The earliest bronze was limited when it came to working it into the kind of intricate shaping a helmet would have required, so you don’t find bronze helmets until periods long after my stories.
Even this body armor lacked the sophistication of later metalwork. But it’s pretty impressive when you stand before it, realizing how very old it is. I think it would impress the opponents of the wearer, and that gave me an idea for my story.
The Citadel of Tiryns
Those ravaged rocks of the citadels where men might have worn this armor topped my list of things to see in Greece, and I planned to follow suggestions to first visit Tiryns, one of Mycenae’s protectorates. I opted for the short bus ride from the center of Náfplio to that nearby site, which I had passed on my arrival in Náfplio.
At breakfast I was chatting with the hostess when she advised me I should catch the 9:30 bus to Tiryns. Seeing that it was already 9:19, I hurried to my room to brush my teeth, grabbed my hat, and headed out. Didn’t somebody say it was a 5-minute walk to the bus stop? I would test that. I found the ticket office and told the woman at the desk I wanted a return ticked for Tiryns. She said, “Go now, the second bus.”
I rushed out and asked the driver of the second bus if he was going to Tiryns. He nodded and asked for one euro and eighty cents. Good grief, the buses are cheap in Greece!
We rumbled out of the city center in air-conditioned comfort and I soon caught sight of the great stone wall. The bus didn’t slow down, so I called out, “Tiryns!” The driver screeched to a stop. He had forgotten me, but he pulled over along the street near the entrance.
Tiryns is an amazing place, the stones as colossal as reported. The elongated compound stretches over two levels. I guessed the palace was on the high ground, which the attendant confirmed. Low walls marked out many rooms, large and small. Mighty mountains loomed on the horizon.
I couldn’t be sure of the layout but a sense of the power seems clear enough. It’s easy to see how the builders took advantage of the outcropping on which to set the walls. And such walls! The outer bulwarks had to be at least six feet thick.
In my rush I hadn’t gotten water but supposed I could buy it at the site. I explored the ruins until I needed a drink, but the facility had no palatable water. I still wanted to explore Tiryns more fully. The woman at the site assured me it wasn’t far back to a shop. By then the day was heating up and the walk seemed long.
On the way back I met a British guy who was unsure of his directions to the site’s entrance. I assured him he was on the right track. He had walked from Náfplio and was suffering. I was so glad I hadn’t done that.
By the time I returned to the compound, heat was rising fast, and it was only a little after 11 am. A pleasant breeze softened the warmth on the palace level, and I strolled through rooms, imagining the poignant scenes of my story that take place in some of them.
The citadel of Mycenae
For all Tiryns’s majesty, nothing matched the reigning center of Mycenae. That was my destination the next day. I got up earlier to avoid the rush of the day before. To get to the acropolis of Mycenae I had to catch the same 9:30 bus I had taken to Tiryns. Mycenae was farther inland at 13 miles.
At the bus station there was my friend from Britain who’d walked to Tiryns the day before. We greeted each other, commenting on our continued explorations, and took separate seats on the bus.
The ancient stronghold of the Mycenaeans resonates with the power they wielded over their realm. Note that most of the walls at the top of the ruins are low, their upper portions having long since tumbled away. Imagine high walls and a pitched palace roof extending upward, creating an even more dominating complex. The peaks on either side add to the impact, with deep ravines between them and the mound on which the acropolis was built.
The view from the top gives only a small glimpse of territory ruled and the majesty of the citadel’s position, even on the hazy day I saw it. The great rooms loom above the land below, partly because of their position and partly because the compound has crumbled away on that side.
I scrambled over the site, absorbing the atmosphere, imagining the scenes I had placed there. I could only get a sense of it. The Mycenaeans themselves had changed it considerably from the period of my stories, and time had taken a severe toll. But the contour of land is there. The power is there.
I wasn’t ready to leave when it was time for the next return bus so I visited the small museum on the site, went across to a kiosk for lunch–a large fresh-squeezed orange juice and turkey in a baguette. I was really enjoying the orange juice of Greece. Orange groves are new to Greece since Mycenaean times, but the trees thrive there now.
I turned back to the raw ruins and saw the flowers. A hush settled over me.
Ah yes! Life blooms beside the quiet stones, where deep time stills the voices, the clack of hard-soled boots, clash of swords, death cries, murmurs of desire–all caught in the eternal cycle, reborn in remembrance.
After another climb over the ancient site I went down early, not wanting to miss the last bus.
My British friend was waiting on the porch of a local postal facility looking out on the large parking area where many tour buses came and went. We spoke, and I commented that I hoped we would recognize our bus among all the others, most of them white. He said we’d know it because it would be big and green. We kept watching for the big green bus with the sign “Náfplio” in the window. The time for its arrival came and went. But I wasn’t worried yet. The bus that brought us had been late.
When it was a half hour late we began to ask around. The man in the postal building said it had already left. I insisted we had been watching all this time. It never came. Now I was worried. How would we get back to Náfplio? The cost of a taxi would be prohibitive. I talked to the people in the ticket booth. They shook their heads. If the bus hadn’t come by this time it probably wouldn’t. But we could get a taxi to the nearest village, Fihtia, and catch a bus there.
Seeing no taxis at the taxi stop outside the facility, my friend tried thumbing a ride. A couple of cars did stop. Two women would have taken us to another town where we could get a bus, but they had no place for us. Their back seat was full of baggage. Another couple was headed the wrong way. Finally a taxi came. The driver said he would take us to Fihtia for 10 euros. We flinched and agreed to share the cost.
A jovial man, the driver asked where we were from. When he heard England and the US he said we should come live in Greece. We would live long and healthy lives. His father lived to be 104. My companion, a somewhat reticent fellow, told him we weren’t together. “Why not?” the driver asked. We let the question go.
In Fihtia we just missed the bus, which came hourly. So we waited. I finally asked my companion’s name. Andrew. When our chariot came at last, it was a big white bus.
Later I told people about the last chariot from Mycenae that never came, but I began to wonder. We were looking for a green bus. What if our bus was white like so many of those tour buses and we just didn’t see the “Náfplio” sign in windows we were disregarding? In any case we were a few euros poorer, given the taxi fare, but had shared a small adventure. We bid good-bye in Náfplio, laughing over the day’s mishap, and went our separate ways.
My journey leads next to Portugal on the Iberian Peninsula, land of another ancient warrior culture. With that move we leave the world of my first trilogy, which centers in Crete, and enter the world of the second trilogy, set in Ireland and the realms that impact it. The trilogies intertwine, but the center shifts.
NEXT: The Magic of Zambujal
It took me only minutes to be ready for my early morning flight. I opened the curtains for one last look at my view and clapped a hand over my heart. The sun had risen over the eastern shores of Santorini, and the strains of a melody swept through my mind.
“I’ll see you in the sunrise …”
A few years ago when my muse whispered a story for my trilogy (as told here) I was also inspired to write a song for the book. I’m not a songwriter, but this one haunted me and I eventually wrote it down. The line above comes from that song. As I watched the sunrise in this place so important to my characters the refrain touched my heart.
Now I was on my way to Mycenae, an important location for the trilogy. A knock sounded on my door. The grandmother at my family hotel told me the taxi was there, and I hurried out. Having left too early for breakfast at the hotel I wondered what I would find to eat in the little Santorini airport. At a small kiosk I found fresh-baked pastries and chose what they called a cheese pie, white cheese wrapped in pastry, and they actually had green tea, my beverage choice for morning caffeine. Once a seat cleared in the crowded waiting area I sat and bit into my cheese pie. What a tasty surprise!
My destination was the beautiful city of Náfplio on the Greek mainland, a port in the Peloponnese region today as it no doubt was in Mycenaean times. For my books I call the city Tiryns, naming it for the ancient citadel of Tiryns just north of the docks. With the single square sails of their wooden ships they would have sailed into port in the place shown below. Just envision that boat in the picture a little larger, put a square sail on it, with rowers on either side, and you have the image. A number of my book scenes happen in this port town and I planned several days here.
I couldn’t sail there myself, so before leaving home I’d spent considerable time figuring out how to make the jump from Santorini to Náfplio. From online forums I gleaned what appeared to be the best route.
I opted for a plane to Athens and a bus from there to Náfplio. To catch the bus to Náfplio I had to go from the airport into the sprawling city of Athens. It sounded a little daunting but I wrote down the information on how to find the right bus at the airport to get to Kiffisou Bus Station in the teeming city.
At the Athens airport I went out the door Rick Steves advised and found the ticket booth, hurrying to get in line so I would be able to find a seat on the bus and get to Kiffisou in time for arrival in Náfplio at a reasonable hour. I forgot to buy a bottle of water but didn’t want to lose my place in line. I bought the ticket and was right up front waiting for the bus. When the bus came people swarmed onto it. I don’t know how it happened but by the time I struggled on with my big bag there wasn’t a single seat left and no room in the baggage racks. I faced a good hour’s ride into town clinging to a bar as I stood and gripped my bag. A man sitting in a single seat near the door glanced up at me. He looked like a guy who could handle himself in the dangerous streets of Athens. I wouldn’t have crossed him. But he rose to his feet and motioned toward his seat in offering. I adored him in that instant. Thanking him profusely, I pushed my bag in front of the seat where there was plenty of room, and I sat. That was a long hot ride. My tongue was parched, but I was sitting. Angels come in many guises.
My first stop in Kiffisou station was a place that sold bottled water. The moment I paid for a bottle I took a long swig and let out a heavy sigh. The store clerk grinned. Next I needed lunch and found another cheese pie. That seemed to be my meal du jour.
I was soon surging down the highway on a comfortable air-conditioned bus, my cumbersome bag in the storage space underneath. A beautiful drive through more of the rugged Greek countryside—rocky hills sprinkled with scrubby maquis, patches of olive trees and grapevines. I had to believe this land must contribute to the rugged Greek character, a people embracing joy in the moment with emphatic submission to life’s inevitable tragedies. I remembered the man in blue at the Heraklion bus station. “We don’t worry in Crete.” He might have included the entire nation. Life happens. Meet it with gusto.
As we swung around the coast past the isthmus at Corinth and turned south across the lusher plains I was surprised to see familiar mountains in a place I’d never been, then realized I’d seen this on Google Maps. I looked to the left and there were the ravaged colossal stones of the citadel of Tiryns.
My hotel was an easy walk from the Náfplio bus station—at least until I reached Kokkinou Street, which I knew from Google was not street but stairs. A hot sun bore down on me as I looked up and up to where I must carry my bag.
Many stepped streets climb like this up the steep slope of the ridge that runs along the peninsula where the old town of Náfplio lies. I have a character in the sixth book of the series (Book Three of the Second Trilogy) who lives up here somewhere, an old trader named Tertulio. That would be Tertulio of Tiryns, one of those supporting characters I so enjoy.
I think I made it to the second landing of this long flight when a group of young people passed by and one of them asked if I’d like help with my bag. Another angel, this one with longish dark hair and beard. He carried it as far as the hotel gate and I didn’t even try to take it up to Reception at the top of more stairs.
Thankfully my room was on a lower level, and someone from the hotel carried my bag the rest of the way for me. Called the Chroma Design Hotel & Suites, it was an intriguing place with friendly people who expressed an interest in my work. I would stay there three of my five nights in Náfplio.
I had hoped to stay a couple of nights near the citadel of Mycenae, the focus of my interest in this area because of the key role the Mycenaeans play in my books. It’s a group of Mycenaean warriors who show up in Crete in the first chapter of the first book, men who will make lasting changes to Crete and perhaps the world. They are three-dimensional people, so it’s a nuanced situation, creating plenty of tension that resonates throughout the stories. I hoped to get a better sense of them as I came in touch with their land.
I never heard back from the one hotel near Mycenae so I decided to stay the extra two nights in Náfplio and do day trips. But by that time the Chroma was booked for those extra nights. I found a nice room for the last two days in the Dias Hotel, where I also met friendly people interested in what I was doing, especially Michael, who has a great love for Greek history. We had some excellent talks, so it all worked out.
From the rooftop of the Chroma I took in the views. Those Mycenaean warriors must have dreamed of visits to this beautiful port city when they had some free time. I know one who did.
I had a stunning view from my breakfast table at the Chroma and could also enjoy sitting in there during the day. The view from my room was lower but nice.
On the top of my list for sites around Náfplio were those citadels of Mycenae and Tiryns. Guidebooks recommend seeing Tiryns first, so I would visit that my first day and Mycenae the second.
Given the significance in my trilogies of the Mycenaeans and their citadels, I’ll devote a post to them in “Going There #6.”
On the other days I visited more sites where book scenes take place. I did the promenade–twice–a walk around the perimeter of the peninsula that juts into the bay. For all the beauty, a harrowing scene occurs just ahead of that arch. The walkway would have been a simple gravel path, probably below the arch.
I visited an overlook on the far side of the peninsular ridge where a scintillating scene takes place. I walked through the city’s narrow streets in the daytime and through the twinkling lights of evening.
And I enjoyed some fantastic meals in the sidewalk cafes and fresh-squeezed orange juice in cafes and at breakfast at the Dias.
This aubergine and feta dish with tomatoes was one of the best meals, served hot in the iron skillet with herbed toast drizzled in olive oil and a huge pile of Greek olives that were almost gone by the time I thought to take a picture.
NEXT: The World of Mycenaean Warriors
A volcano long ago ripped through the island of Thera, now commonly called Santorini. It’s a gorgeous Greek Isle just north of Crete and was probably a colony of the ancient Cretans. A line in one of my books expresses a character’s take on the result of that blast.
They sailed into the bay formed by the fierce volcano that tore a hole in the island, where the wash of water had kissed the broken places and turned this into the most beautiful spot she had ever seen. She wanted to feel that healing.
I had visited Santorini in 1995 seeking healing of my own and was deeply touched by the spectacular beauty. I wanted to see it again and explore the gentler coast across from the more famous rim. Now as before I took a ferry from Crete to get the sense of the sea beneath me.
I had only one full day in Santorini, two nights, and had two primary objectives. I wanted to walk across the narrow part of the island to visit the gentler slopes opposite the volcanic rim, and I wanted to see the unusual Santorini grapevines grown in a basketry of branches that shield the vines from Santorini’s brisk winds.
But of course you can’t visit Santorini without taking a moment at the spectacular rim of the caldera filled with the bluest imaginable water of the Mediterranean. Like my character I found this one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen.
I stayed at the Hotel Thira and Apartments, which overlooked the island’s gentle side, a beautiful spot itself, and I came to enjoy each of the three generations of the family who owned the place.
I told the younger woman about my plan to walk across the island from the hotel in the town of Fira near the rim to a restaurant at Exo Gialos on the eastern shore and she assured me it was much too far. Google Maps had it at 2 miles, a 51-minute walk. That didn’t seem too far, but I wasn’t clear on the landmarks or roads, which didn’t always show street names. The route could get much longer if I lost my way. She offered to drive me partway, but I wanted to get the feel of the distance because I had people in my stories walking it and riding up and down the slope on horseback. I wanted to have a sense of that and also find a place for a villa.
I thanked her for her kind offer and sought clear directions. I did have my iPhone and believed I could use the map feature to help me. Together we considered my route and in the morning I set out, planning to have lunch at the Yalos restaurant across the island at Exo Gialos.
The top of the slope was all city streets of Fira, often little more than cobblestone paths winding down the hill. I watched my progress on the phone’s map feature but soon ran into a maze of walkways and didn’t know how to get out.
I could see downhill to the flatter open land where I wanted to go but I didn’t see any way to get there. I saw a guy on a motorcycle and asked him. He pointed uphill, the way he was going. That seemed counterintuitive but I followed and soon found myself in a busy shopping area. When I asked a storekeeper how to get to Exo Gialos, she shook her head. “It’s too far to walk.” I didn’t argue with that, just asked if she could tell me the way. She pointed. “To the bottom of the street. Turn left. That goes straight to it.”
But the straightaway soon came to a stop against a wall of buildings. Checking the phone map again, I found the name of a hotel that appeared to be on the edge of town the way I wanted to go. I asked a man how to get to that hotel–so I didn’t have to hear again how much too far it was to Exo Gialos–and I followed his simple directions. Once I passed the hotel I came out into the open where a broad road crossed the flatter land with wide sidewalks that would take me right to the intersection I sought. Hopeful, I charged ahead.
I came to a crossing with more than one choice and checked my phone map to see if I had reached the right intersection, and if so, which of the roads to take.
No map. No signal at all. My only guide out here had gone blank.
There was a house at the crossing where I might have asked, but a big sleeping dog lay by the gate. I wasn’t going to wake it. I made a guess and took one of the roads that seemed to lead the right way.
By now it was getting warm and I really needed a bathroom. I knew I was heading toward the sea but unsure I was heading for Exo Gialos and the restaurant. A few houses scattered over the land. The road might just lead to one of those. I saw several people going into an isolated hotel and decided to seek help there. The young woman at the desk was friendly but uncertain of the route. A young man came in and she assured me he would know.
An angel with a beard.
First he asked if I had water. I said yes. Satisfied, he gave clear directions and told me Exo Gialos was 30 minutes away. With some hesitation, I asked if they had a bathroom I could use. He kindly agreed. I was saved.
I returned to my trek with high spirits and immediately passed one of the interesting vineyards with the grapevines that had been trained in a circle of branches like baskets, the new growth inside for protection from the wind. Check off one more for the itinerary.
I paused to talk to donkeys, the animals that trek up and down the cliff on the caldera’s rim every day, hauling tourists the old-fashioned way.
Farther down the road I saw a man cutting a huge field of grass with a short-handled scythe. He saw me and stood to watch me for a few moments. By the slump of his shoulders I guessed he was seeking consolation. The heat was turning fierce.
I looked back toward the town of Fira on the rim to see the way I had come, imagining my characters rushing up that hill for the moments that awaited them. I also wondered where I had gotten lost in the maze of Fira’s winding passageways. My trek was taking much longer than Google’s 51 minutes, thanks to those detours.
I passed possible locations for a villa in my story. I especially liked the one shown below with its overlook to the sea and vineyards and windbreak of trees. The sight of the water gave me hope. Not too far now.
The directions of the bearded angel in the isolated hotel were good–and the signs he mentioned.
There in print! Signs to my destination. I couldn’t miss it now. And by now I was hungry. I was ready to see that restaurant.
It turned out to be a pleasant place, right on the beach. Music played, the sound becoming one with my thoughts and the wash of the waves. I floated on that sound and rested. For lunch I opted for another Greek salad, this one with a Santorini twist, cherry tomatoes instead of large chunks of tomato, capers instead of Greek olives. Different but good. And of course the wonderful Greek bread.
After lunch I walked up the beach. White waves rolled onto the black sand against a remarkable backdrop left by the volcano. Ashen sand created tortured formations and left caves the people now barricade for storage. I have some dramatic scenes here and let myself slip into that world of story.
With the heat rising, I took a taxi back to the hotel and saw the way I should have gone. No matter. I made it. I had one night left on this beautiful island and hoped to see one of the famous sunsets. But by the time I went to dinner fierce winds had come up and the haze thickened. I checked out of my hotel that evening because I had an early flight in the morning. My host ordered a taxi so I would have no delays. I would miss breakfast at the hotel but hoped to find something at the airport. Near time for sunset I headed up the slope for one last look at the caldera.
Even with the haze that barred the touch of the sun’s orb on the sea, ruling out a spectacular sunset, I could not deny the softer beauty.
NEXT: A Warrior’s Dream
My bout with food poisoning had made me lose a day, but I told myself I had gained a day when jet lag didn’t hold me back. If I ventured out on this last day in Crete I could call it even.
A good night’s sleep after a day of rest restored me enough to keep to my plan for visiting Fodhele Beach and maybe Amnisos. I had only a few scenes at Fodhele Beach, a spot just 17 miles west of Heraklion. I had been in the vicinity on my first trip to Crete and had found good pictures of the site on Google Maps. But I did want to go down onto the beach and get a feel for it. I dared eat a little more for breakfast, corn flakes and peaches, not my usual fare but it went well.
So I headed for the bus station. I didn’t see the man in blue who’d helped me find my bus before, but a tiny young woman with long red hair swept in like an angel in blue jeans and gray cardigan. She seemed to be directing passengers. It’s not unusual for locals to offer help so I supposed she was a local. I told her I wanted to go to Fodhele Beach. She not only showed me the right bus. She said she would show me where to get off. Wonderful! She was going my way.
It soon appeared she was more than a traveler because she started taking money for tickets. The bus meandered up the coast and stopped in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. She smiled at me and indicated I should get off there.
I was a bit dubious. Not many other passengers were getting off, and when the bus left me standing beside the road I heard nothing but goats bleating on the barren mountain of scrubby maquis on the other side of the road. Wild goats? Or tame? The quiet resonated. I watched the goats as they traipsed across the steep rocky slopes. I didn’t see a beach or a town. Where was I? A lone woman started down a narrow road on this side where I finally saw a small sign pointing to a beach. I followed her. Surely my angel wouldn’t have led me astray.
Before long I saw what looked like an elaborate resort perched above a stunning blue bay with a wide sweep of sandy beach. Wooden walkways stretched across the sand for easy walking. I wandered up a few of those, imagining my scene with the battle storming over the beach and I picked out the places my warriors could hide before joining the fray. Once I had a feel for that I proceeded to explore.
Opposite the resort several simpler establishments followed a narrow roadway leading toward the far headland, a few restaurants, some houses. I decided to check them out. One house looked particularly inviting with its pointy gate. Still feeling sapped of energy from my sickness, I took my time walking up the gentle slope. Such a peaceful place for the havoc I created there in my story, but I liked the juxtaposition.
Farther up the road past the buildings I came to a spot where I looked down on water so clear I could see the rocks shimmering far out on the seabed.
The headland on my right jutted into that clear sea, and I could imagine the Cretan fleet coming around that promontory, thrilling my protagonist who so needs to see them.
Hunger led me back to the restaurants. I wasn’t sure what I could eat, but I had to eat something. I chose a place with tables and umbrellas right out on the beach and an open covered deck in the building behind. The day was growing hot and it seemed cooler back in the covered area. I suggested as much to the waiter and he nodded. “Yes, it’s cooler in here.”
I took a place on the outer edge of the deck where I could look out on the fabulous beauty of the beach. I studied the menu carefully and saw only one thing I wanted. A Greek salad with fresh tomatoes, feta, Greek olives, and the works, with some of that wonderful bread they serve in Crete. Did I dare? It sure wasn’t on the BRAT diet. I ordered the salad without the onions and cucumbers. It was lovely. My stomach argued only a tiny bit. The salad was worth it if that was all the objection I got. I stayed for a long time just soaking in the peaceful Mediterranean beauty, happy that the setting worked well for my scenes. Voices murmured and bright white seagulls cried, soaring with black-tipped wings.
The waiter told me where to go to catch the bus. Steps led straight up a steep embankment, partly covered in some kind of succulent. I should have taken a picture. The road’s guardrail blocked the top and I had to step over that. A covered bus stop stood only a few feet away.
Before long the red-haired angel appeared. Angel or Greek goddess? Poof! She’s there!
“You’re everywhere,” I said.
She laughed. She had gotten off in the main village of Fodhele, a few kilometers from the beach. I think she said it was her home. We chatted as we waited for the bus, and when the bus came and we got on she took tickets for new passengers. Just like that.
Back at the bus station I asked how I could reach Amnisos, my last destination in Crete. I got several directions. None clear. The angel had left. After a short rest at the hotel I decided I had time and energy enough to make this last short hop. I finally found the right bus stop in the center of Heraklion and waited. And waited. I was about to give up when the Amnisos bus came.
At my destination I walked down to the golden beach of the ancient village of Amnisos that once served as a port for Knossos, since Knossos lay a few miles inland. The sand was golden as advertised, but I couldn’t help feeling that my character Sarena who loved this place so much might be terribly disappointed with what has happened to it. The place has been thoroughly commercialized. The hills are rockier, more barren than I imagined. But with pretty white block houses overlooking the beach–as in Sarena’s time–it would be nicer. I believe that during her days the climate was wetter, so things would probably have been greener.
I had read that there were Minoan ruins at Amnisos but I never found them. People tried to direct me, pointing, smiling. “Yes, go that way, you’ll see.” “Just up the road there.” But I never saw and could never be sure they understood me. I think they wanted to help but had no idea. The heat of the day had turned fierce, and after many dead ends I headed back for the bus stop, discouraged.
I did get a free bus ride back. The drivers like change. They don’t want bills. But I didn’t have enough change. I handed the driver a 5-euro bill. He scowled at it a moment, then shoved it back into my palm, voice sharp. “Sit! Sit!”
NEXT: Kiss of the Sea