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 on the site 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
The second day of my journey I planned a bus trip to Kastelli, a small town east of Heraklion, Crete, that’s probably not on many a traveler’s list. But I wasn’t looking for tourist spots this time. My tummy felt a little grumbly so I had to bypass some of the richer dainties among the fabulous breakfast offerings and hurried to the familiar Heraklion bus station. I had only three more days in Crete, and I didn’t want anything to slow me down.
The station is a lively place where Greek exuberance abounds. Yet it can be confusing with announcements in Greek and routes not always clear. The man in blue insisted he would let me know when my bus came. I should sit on the bench and not worry. “Relax. This is Crete. We don’t worry here.”
Okay, but I didn’t want to sit on the bench where people were smoking. So many smokers. The man seemed a little offended, as if I didn’t trust him to remember me among all the other travelers. I wondered how he could possibly remember one among many, but in fact he did.
I was soon on a fine bus to Kastelli. The Greek buses are great. Comfortable, cheap, and they take you to every corner, it seems, often with Greek music playing as they charge around narrow, curvy roads that make the elderly Greek women cross themselves. How can you not be in good spirits?
The bus sailed by Knossos and was continuing south on a thrilling road when I caught sight of one of the destinations on my itinerary, the ancient aqueduct across the Kairatos River at Spilia. I could see the arches ahead.
Before the trip I had been trying to figure out if any bridges had been discovered around Knossos besides one that crosses the Vlychia Stream to the south. That stream flows into the Kairatos River, which runs along the east side of Knossos, and for the people to access points east, they needed a bridge across that main river. I wanted to describe them crossing it. I had contacted Dr. Yuri Gorokhovich, Associate Professor at the City University of New York, who brought my attention to this aqueduct across the Kairatos River built by the Romans and later reconstructed by Venetians and then Egyptians. He said the Romans often chose existing structures to build upon, so there might have been a bridge or aqueduct there in the Minoan period. Pantelis Soupios, Professor at the Technological Institute of Crete, discussed with us the possibility of digging for evidence of an older foundation, but that didn’t seem feasible at this time.
Since I’m writing fiction I feel free to locate my own bridges as long as nobody has discovered something real. In choosing a bridge site Pantelis brought up the consideration of where the river may be the narrowest and the logical route between points of interest. The modern road south of Knossos follows the west bank of the Karaitos River, then crosses it below this old aqueduct to continue south on the east bank. Ancient roads might have taken the same route, given the lay of the land.
I decided to adopt the Spilia site for one of my bridges with thanks to Yuri and Pantelis.
The aqueduct is only a one-mile walk from Knossos so I had thought I might walk there the day of my next visit to Knossos. Now, as the bus rolled along the narrow road with no safe place for pedestrians–and cars and huge buses zipping one way and another–I began to rethink the walk. My bus went right by it, crossing the Kairatos River on the low modern bridge just downstream. I did my best to soak in the sight, and snapped photos. I would look for it again on the return bus.
As we continued eastward I watched the beautiful countryside slip past, places I describe in my books. I had been in the vicinity before and had visited on Google Maps, but I wanted to assure myself I had the right sense of it. I was on my way to Eudora’s villa, a fictional setting. When my settings take me to real places like Knossos, which many people visit and many scholars have studied, I feel the need to have all the particulars as right as I can get them. So I studied Knossos extensively. But for a fictional setting like the villa of the character Eudora, I just want to have the general landscape right.
I’d picked Kastelli on the map because it was about 15 miles east of Knossos, probably a half day’s ride by horseback. Imagine my surprise when I later learned that there’s a Minoan ruin a short walk from the town center. I had to see that. In Kastelli I got off the bus and the driver told me I should meet the return bus in the same place at 3 o’clock, the only bus back to Heraklion that day. I didn’t dare miss it. It wasn’t noon yet. I had plenty of time and I wanted to find the Minoan ruins.
No one at the bus stop knew how to find it, so I went into a store and asked a woman there. She spoke clear English but didn’t know much about the place. An older man knew but didn’t speak English. Between them they gave me directions. Basically head up the hill and go just beyond the top. It’s up there. I headed up the hill, looking for the high point. And there it was. Eudora’s house.
It had turned a little drafty over the years, just the base walls left, but I let my imagination flow. The hills beyond it were just right. I was pretty excited. I spent a long time there, wandering around the fenced ruins to peer inside, sitting on the edge, letting the soft breezes touch me, carry me back to the distant days when people lived here, loved here, bore children here, died here.
Most of the time I had the place to myself. So quiet, except that the cover over the ruins made rippling noises, as if someone were there with me. It was the wind of course, but I couldn’t shake the sensation.
My rumbly tummy sent me down the hill. I told myself I was just hungry. I needed lunch. At a small place not far from the town center I got a lovely gyro sandwich with sizzling meat sliced from one of the vertical roasting spits so popular in Greece (the waiter said it was deer meat), the thin slices wrapped in a pita with tomatoes and yogurt and other trimmings.
My bus arrived early and parked. The driver headed for the taverna–for a coffee, I hoped. I sat in the shade waiting for 3 o’clock, writing impressions in my notebook.
The bus ride back was as delightful as the outbound trip and the driver’s hand steady on the winding roads through hills and valleys blanketed in a patchwork of gray-green olive groves and bright vineyards and villages. Forests of giant cypresses once covered many of Crete’s hills, long since depleted even before the years of my stories, having been logged for local construction and ship building and trade. Crete was known in ancient times for its cypresses. Both the pyramidal and a more free-form variety still dot the land, but not many giants.
Rockier slopes had reverted to the scrubby maquis of hardy evergreen bushes and herbs and tufty grasses common in lands on the Mediterranean.
That evening back in Heraklion I asked for a recommendation for dinner and had a fantastic meal–roast pork with a Minoan bean side dish, complimentary dessert of creamy jelled rice smothered in cinnamon and almonds, a small glass of raki with peach. Delicious.
In the middle of the night the slight nausea that had plagued me for a couple of days hit with sudden force. I lost my beautiful pork dinner. I lost my fresh gyro sandwich. I lost days of previously consumed meals in a siege I thought would never stop. By the time it subsided my mouth was like paper. I felt thin as a post, tummy concave. My bottled water was nearly gone and I wasn’t in the mood to risk tap water despite assurances of its safety. I called downstairs and a sympathetic man brought me a bottle of water.
I was pretty sure I knew what got me. The lukewarm chicken at the Athens airport that had no doubt been sitting out for hours. It had tasted a little off and I’d worried a little at the time. If only I had chosen the earlier flight from Athens to Heraklion I would never have seen that chicken. It could have been something else, but the tummy rumbles had started soon after.
Now I sipped water, unable to sleep. I rested until 10 am or so and went down for tea and dry toast. No pretty dainties. I wished for a banana so I could start on the bland BRAT diet my stomach wanted–bananas, rice, applesauce, toast. They had no bananas. At least I got the toast part. That afternoon after sleeping on and off I ventured out to the market, which wasn’t too far away, and bought two bananas. Lunch and dinner.
The day’s plans were cancelled.
I was glad I had spent so much time that first day in Knossos and that I had gotten a good look at the aqueduct. I only had one day left in Crete, and I still wanted to see Fodhele Beach and the ancient port of Amnisos. Hoping for strength, I gazed out the hotel window and dozed again.
NEXT: Shores of War and Peace
Welcome to the opening day of my journey, which began in Greece on April 24, 2018. Over the next few weeks I’ll share the highlights of that 37-day trip through Greece, Portugal, the UK, and Ireland, where I traveled to research scenes for my upcoming series of epic historical novels. If you read my last two posts, the overview and backstory, you’ll have a better picture of why I went. Now here’s post #1 of the trek.
~ ~ ~
I woke up in the morning in the Greek Isle of Crete after a long, long flight from Eugene, Oregon, via Seattle and London and Athens. Waking in the morning might not seem so remarkable, except that morning in Greece is about 10 hours after morning in Oregon. The flight adds 10 hours to the 24-hour day, so I had leapt a day ahead, and jet lag can do strange things with your sleep patterns. Maybe it was a good thing that I couldn’t sleep on the plane. Some say you get adjusted better that way. In all my travels overseas I don’t remember ever experiencing such a bright-eyed morning on the first day. That turned out to be more important to me than I anticipated.
I checked out the view of the Mediterranean from my hotel balcony and headed downstairs for breakfast. I must say, that breakfast ranked with the best on my trip–lovely Greek pastries, a custardy egg dish, muesli, nuts, fruits, on and on.
My plan for the day was to do a quick visit to the ruins of Knossos if I felt up to it. One of my reasons for starting the trip in Crete, even though it was my farthest point from home, was that it was familiar to me and relatively inexpensive, and I assumed I’d find it easy to deal with a day or two of jet lag there.
I had spent a month in Crete on my first trip to the island, about half of that time in the island’s chief city, Heraklion, and had spent a good part of my second trip centered in Heraklion too. Now, on my third visit, I stepped out onto streets I knew, and I enjoyed getting back in touch with this special place.
Feeling good, I soon headed out for the ruins of the temple (or palace) that graced the ancient city of Knossos on the outskirts of Heraklion. It took me awhile to find the bus. The old bus stop didn’t exist anymore because they had turned the main drag into a pedestrian street. I asked for directions and got many confusing answers. That was familiar too. People so want to help, but communication becomes uncertain when their English is limited and my Greek is almost nonexistent. One woman simply said, “Come. Follow me.” I did. Love it when they do that.
Soon I was on my way, rumbling through the streets of Heraklion on one of their many buses and out to the edge of town to a site that has filled my mind for years as the characters of my books stroll through the corridors and halls and surrounding slopes of that ancient city. Knossos, heart of the early Cretan world. A rush of joy lifted me as I entered the compound.
I first came out onto the West Court where Book One opens. I needed to stand on that broad paved courtyard and look around. Could I see what I thought I could from that place? Could I see Mount Youktas on the horizon, the mountain that looks like the face of a reclining person? Were the slopes the way I remembered from my last visit 23 years ago? And from my many recent visits by Google Maps? I stood on the ancient stones and smiled. Yes. I could see the mountain. Rearrange a few trees and I would see it even better. My descriptions held up. I relaxed and let the place wrap around me as it had done so long ago.
I found the spot where I had taken a picture in 1994 that has hung on my wall ever since, an outlook past one of the unique red columns of the site to Mount Youktas beyond the hill of olive groves. This time I took a new picture with the little Nikon digital camera I bought a few years ago to help me illustrate my blog posts.
Note that the column is larger in circumference at the top than at the bottom, a style found throughout Knossos. These pillars once lined corridors and divided rooms. Most of the large ones are red. Others are black with red trim.
I wandered all around the perimeter seeking the settings of many a scene. Some of those scenes grip my heart and I relived them here where they took place, shedding a few tears for my characters.
Since my last visit the throne room has been opened. Such a thrill to see this room I call the receiving room of the High Priestess of Knossos. The alabaster chair gave a clue to researchers that the person who sat on this small chair might be a woman rather than a man, because a woman might more easily fit in that gracefully molded seat.
Visitors aren’t allowed into the room itself. You walk through the anteroom (also described in my stories) and from there you look across a low glass barricade into the inner sanctum. The barricade is low enough to lean over so you get a good feel for it. The space seemed a little smaller than I had imagined from photos but every bit as powerful with the waving swaths of red giving a womb-like impression.
In my stories, and I suspect in reality, this is a sacred room. So much at Knossos shows signs of the people’s appreciation for the sacred. I put this photo on the banner of my Facebook Author Page, and someone asked if the object in front of the chair was a toilet. The Knossians did have flush toilets some 3,500 years ago, with a plumbing system so advanced it wouldn’t be equaled until the 19th century AD. But those toilets were modestly enclosed behind doors. The basin above was interpreted by scholars as a lustral basin for ceremonial bathing. When archeologists dug these objects out of the earth some things were in a jumble and they didn’t know where the basin belonged. On the far side of the room from the alabaster chair, several steps lead to a lower level.
I believe that would be a more likely place for the basin, deeper in the earth, and put it there in my stories. I don’t portray this room in the first part of Book One, although there were several lustral basins around the temple, and I managed early on to come up with a steamy scene in one of those.
I depict this room as part of the temple’s reconstruction after a dramatic earthquake. The extension of the room beyond the black pillars tends to create a space both infinite and intimate.
The griffins portrayed on the wall represent three aspects of nature, the eagle’s head for the skies, the lion’s body for the land, the snake’s tail for the deep earth. They were likely considered sacred.
The Knossians seemed to wear their religion comfortably. Frescoes show them enjoying life, sensuous, wearing clothing that clearly reveals their sexuality, but without guile, suggesting a healthy acceptance of this aspect of life. You see no seductive scenes like those found in the Roman ruins of Pompeii. Nor do you see scenes of war and aggression so common in other art of the day. Clearly, Knossos was different. But it would not go unchanged.
I stopped in the afternoon to enjoy a wonderful Greek salad in a restaurant within the compound, perfect fresh-picked tomatoes and Greek olives and more, topped with a thick square of feta cheese, sprinkled with dill and other herbs, and drizzled with Greek olive oil, a delicious sliced baguette on the side.
Restored, I climbed the grand staircase. The receiving room is just beyond the anteroom on the ground level to the right of the staircase shown above. Then I trudged up the north ramp past the relief fresco of the charging bull. And I peered into column-lined rooms.
The jet lag I feared didn’t hit. I stayed and saw it all. Sometimes I rested on a low wall and just let the wonder of the place seep in. I took notes. I studied the maps I had copied for the little trip booklet I put together. I imagined scenes and assured myself that I had relayed the sense of place I needed. Uncertainties arose and I went back to check again.
I began to wonder if I needed to spend another 15 euros for the full second day I had planned for Knossos.
That question of necessity turned out to be a good thing. More on that in the next post.
For this day I felt fully satisfied. Resonant with joy.
NEXT: Crete in Delight and Distress
Before I launch into Day One about my recent research trip through Greece and Portugal, the UK and Ireland, it occurs to me that it might help clarify my reasons for this journey and my reasons for writing the ancient historical series if I backtrack to the beginning. My focus on the Greek Isle of Crete started in 1994 when I set out to research a mystery novel on that exotic Mediterranean island. I had been writing books and pursuing publication for about 14 years, without success. I had moved from Roseburg, Oregon, to San Francisco in late 1989, ending a long-term marriage, and I was seeking answers for my life.
During this time I read a New York Times bestselling book by Riane Eisler called The Chalice and the Blade, where she describes nothing less than the overturning of the world’s cultural norms from woman-centered civilizations to a patriarchal world ruled by contentious warriors. I was fascinated. One chapter stood out for me, where she describes Crete as the “essential difference.” Because of its isolation in the Mediterranean Sea, this island remained one of the last holdouts of those woman-centered cultures. Its primary city of Knossos offered stunning revelations about these Bronze Age people when archeologists began uncovering the fabulous ruins some 100 years ago. Eisler describes Crete as the highest technological culture ever found where women were not dominated by men. I wanted to see this place.
When I visited Knossos and stepped into the partially reconstructed ruins of its central structure, the place seemed to wrap itself around me like a mother’s loving arms. I no longer wanted to write my mystery novel. I wanted to immerse myself in this world and come to know the mystery of the ancients who once thrived there.
The British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans who uncovered Knossos in the early 1900s was struck by what he found–grand staircases and pillar-lined corridors, technological wonders like flush toilets and an elaborate drainage system, frescoes revealing a free and sensuous lifestyle with women standing proud at the center. He believed he’d found a matriarchy but as a man of his times he thought they needed a king to run it. He saw this as the Palace of King Minos mentioned by Homer and Hesiod. But later scholars suggest it may have been a temple, an idea I adopted for my books, and I drew from one of Eisler’s thoughts on King Minos, depicting him as a Mycenaean warrior with designs on Crete–and a couple of Cretan women.
While in Crete I met a man who helped me understand the attraction, the delight, the frustration that can happen when cultures clash. The experience found its way into my story which opens on this peaceful isle on the day the warriors come.
The frescoes shown here are reproductions of originals that are housed in the excellent Archaeological Museum in nearby Heraklion, Crete, the island’s primary modern city. The bull-leaping fresco appears in the opening scene of my Book One, now called Beyond the Waning Moon. And readers will experience a bull-leaping event in the second scene when the protagonist faces a fierce bull in the court.
I wrote the book and continued editing and revising for several years as I sought its publication. Riane Eisler kindly critiqued the opening and when I addressed her concerns she called the result powerful, responding “Brava!” The novel eventually became a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest. The next year I found a way to tie the people of Crete to their counterparts in the distant isle of Ireland, another place that had touched me deeply and where I have personal roots.
My search for life’s answers led me to mythologist Joseph Campbell and especially his four-volume work, The Masks of God. My focus riveted on his discussion of Ireland and how he could see behind the Irish myths to a culture of Mother Right, essentially a matriarchy that would have preceded the later patriarchy. As Eisler points out in Chalice and the Blade, this isn’t the flip side of patriarchy where women rule over men but more of an egalitarian society accepting the full worth of both genders. Neither writer suggests any kind of utopia but at least a much more equal situation than we came to know.
I first visited Ireland in 1993 because of my roots and had set one of those mystery novels there. But I wanted to tap into the ancient times that paralleled my Cretan story and find the lost culture of Mother Right, which Campbell talked about.
The Cretans of my ancient story decide to send out a fleet in search of a place the warriors haven’t come. These early Cretans were known as mariners, their frescoes and other art showing them sailing around the Mediterranean. I figured if they could sail around the eastern Mediterranean they could surely venture to the west and even out through the gate to the Atlantic, as long as they kept the shores in sight. But for a little excitement they get caught in a horrific storm and one ship crashes on the rugged rocks on Ireland’s south coast. Voila! A sequel–albeit loosely tied.
I completed the sequel in 2004 and went back to Ireland in the spring of that year, focused now on stone circles and this rugged south coast near Rosscarbery in County Cork.
I again entered the PNWA literary contest, and this Irish one was a finalist too, just one year after the Cretan book. I thought I was surely on the road to publication then, but could not find an agent for these stories of strong women facing formidable challenges of their time. I began to get discouraged.
My father died in 2007 and I decided to keep the farm founded by my great-great-grandmother Martha in 1868. I left the ancient stories on the shelf and pursued a story about Martha, discovering I had a strong woman in my family who’d faced challenges of her own time. Finally I found an agent, Rita Rosenkranz, who helped me meet my goal of publication with Martha’s story.
But I hadn’t forgotten the ancients. I had a flash of inspiration about Book One and decided to make some substantial changes. When I finished those I realized I definitely needed another sequel that would be closely tied. I wanted to launch into it but I had another story set in the same pioneer period as Martha’s story. My agent and I agreed I should take advantage of the publisher’s interest and bring that pioneer story out first.
By the spring of 2014, with the two pioneer stories in the pipeline, I finally had time to draft the closely tied sequel to the Cretan book. By Christmas I was ready to write one more book to continue the ancient line, but it just wasn’t happening until my muse started whispering to me. I told about that experience on this blog here so won’t repeat it. Suffice it to say this fourth book was drafted by the spring of 2015. I had planned to write a fifth that would bring Crete and Ireland back together but realized I had a 16-year gap in the Irish years. Why not fill the gap with another story?
Because of all the questions I had left at the end of the first Irish book, I wanted to portray the events of those 16 years. I would take readers to the homeland of the Iberians who’d been capturing slaves off the coast of Ireland. I would show my bad guy back in his personal haunts.
But the Iberians couldn’t all be brutes, could they? I learned about their amazing citadel of Zambujal north of today’s Lisbon. They must have enjoyed a sophisticated culture I needed to know more about.
And I would take readers to the Grand Isle of Britain where my protagonist runs into some intriguing outlaws in the Lake District of northern England.
I finished the rough draft of the gap story in 2016. Then in 2017 I drafted what became Book Six, or the third in the second trilogy, which took me back to Iberia.
I had never been to the Iberian peninsula, where there’s a stone circle (or oval) more ancient than the circles of Ireland. I needed to see that, as well as Zambujal. And I had never been to the Lake District in England.
Also, the new books ventured into places in Greece and Ireland I hadn’t visited before. Thus the need for another trip. Once you’ve crossed the pond, that’s the biggest single expense. I decided I might as well put it all together.
So, that’s how the project started and why the extended trip. Next up, I invite you to come with me on my solo journey in Greece and Portugal and my continued trek with writer friend Lynn Ash through the British Isles. I’ll start the next post with Day One in Heraklion, Crete, and the nearby site of Knossos I have come to love.
I’ve just returned from a trip to research sites for my upcoming trilogies set in Greece and Ireland and points in between and will be sharing my adventures on this trek over the next few weeks. I started in the wonderful Greek Isle of Crete where I visited the center of the first trilogy, the ancient ruins of Knossos.
This fabulous site was uncovered about 100 years ago after being buried for some 3,000 years. The archeologist restored parts of the buildings, the unique red columns, steps, and rooms, a controversial practice not accepted by today’s archeologists. But the reconstructions do offer a sense of the place I found intriguing. It was a visit to Crete several years ago that started my whole series. When I saw Knossos I knew I wanted to write about these ancient people known today as the Minoans. So I began to write what would become my First Golden Threads Trilogy.
I visited Greece a couple of times before this year’s trip and Stonehenge in England, and visited Ireland a couple of times as well, but as I continue with the series, new books take my characters to different places in these lands, sites I had not seen before, and I wanted to see those places on this trip.
So, why do I go? I could try to create an entire world in my own imagination, with a little help from Google Maps. But if my setting takes the reader to a real place, I’d like to see and feel the place firsthand. Why isn’t my imagination enough? Well, for one thing the natives tend to get annoyed when you misrepresent their landscapes. But there’s more to seeing a place than getting the description right.
I believe every place has a personality that comes out of the nature of the land, the people who touch it and change it. For historicals, can I feel the echoes of people who lived there before? Echoes of events that affected their lives? Maybe. I’d like to believe so. It certainly seems to happen.
Maybe I’m only reflecting my own feelings off the land around me. But what if there’s a resonance reflecting back? I’ll reach for that. Open myself to it. Let it come in, perhaps in the moment I walk in that place, perhaps later as memory and inspiration slip into my mind.
While in Crete I also visited peaceful Fodhele Beach where a battle rages in one of my books. The water is so clear you can see the rocks in the bottom far out from the shore.
From Crete I went on to the Isle of Santorini, officially called Thera or Thira. Anglicized spellings vary in Greece due to the translations from a language with a different alphabet. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.
Next stop was lovely Nafplio in the Peloponnese peninsula on the Greek mainland. From there I took day trips to the ancient Mycenaean sites of Tiryns and Mycenae itself, home of the warriors who sail to Crete in about 1470 B.C. and change the island forever.
From Greece I flew to Portugal to visit the ancient citadel of Zambujal north of Lisbon and had an amazing experience I’ll talk about in a later post. It had to do with modern-day archeologists working on this site, as shown above.
More wonderful encounters awaited me near Évora in Portugal’s interior.
From Portugal I flew to London’s Heathrow Airport where I met my writer friend, Lynn Ash, who would continue the trek with me.
After a little struggle finding each other (more on that later), we took a bus to the charming town of Amesbury, which is only a couple of miles from the famous stone circle, Stonehenge.
The next day we visited those massive stones, along with a gazillion or so ravens. Caught a couple in my photo. They seemed to add to the haunting aspect of the ancient circle.
From Amesbury we traveled north to the Lake District where we were surprised by the rugged mountains and thrilled to the beauty of the lakes. I got partway up a trail above Buttermere Water, where the outlaws in one of my books hang out. The trail never got much easier than what you see below.
From the lakes we wended our way into Scotland and across to Cairnryan on the coast where we caught the ferry to Ireland, center of my second trilogy, which intertwines with the first. We finally reached Rosscarbery and the bay I call Golden Eagle Bay for the Golden Eagle Clan of my story whose village lies a short way above this cove.
As daylight dimmed on the bay the search for story sites came to a close. I had a much stronger impression of the places I visit in story. It will take time to absorb all I’ve seen, but already these worlds have become clearer in my mind, and I want to pass that clarity on to my readers. From this overview I’ll share the highlights on my blog in more detail in the coming weeks and hope you’ll join me on this trek from Greece to Portugal to the UK to Ireland, 37 days of reaching into the hearts of lands where my characters roam.