Homer called Crete "hospitable, handsome and fertile". How to explore the island through modern literature.
At the heart of the sparkling Mediterranean Sea and standing at the crossroads of three continents, Greece’s mesmerizing megalo nisi (big island) has inspired some of the world’s greatest literature.
Unique in its cultural diversity, the home of the Minoans - Europe’s first evolved society – is a hotbed of historical, culinary and cultural influences gleaned during successive occupations. Despite centuries of foreign rule, however, the Cretans - who are famed for their resistance against invaders - are open, friendly people who’ve filtered and absorbed all these different cultural influences without watering down a vital sense of their own unique identity.
Although travel guides are excellent tools when travelling to a new destination, the best way to glean real insider’s insights into the lifestyle and culture of this fascinating island - where countless greats ranging from artist El Greco to singer Nana Mouskouri were born - is to read these one – or all! – of the five fabulous books listed below.
- Eleftheria i Thanatos (Freedom or Death)
What is it about? Set in the last days of the Ottoman occupation in Crete, the central character is the black-clad Captain Michalis, who is said to be based on the writer’s father. ‘Freedom or Death’ was the battle cry of revolutionaries during the Greek War of Independence and the book follows the struggles of the rebellious main character, who has sworn not to laugh, or wear any other colour but black, until Crete is freed from its Turkish oppressors.
Why read it? A poignant blend of love and hate, joy and misery, this breathtakingly human novel offers an excellent portrait of Crete and its people.
Who wrote it? Born in the Cretan capital of Heraklion in 1883, Nikos Kazantzakis - considered to be the island’s ‘intellectual father’ - has captured the spirit and energy of Cretan people and their insatiable desire for liberty in a way that no other writer has done before, or since.
Other must-read works include his masterpiece The Last Temptation of Christ, which was also made into a (controversial) film by Martin Scorsese, starring Willem Dafoe as Jesus.
- The Island
What’s it about? Victoria Hislop’s deeply emotional novel gives a spellbinding picture of life on Spinalonga Island when it was a leper colony from 1903 to 1957.
Why read it? Now a UNESCO heritage site, the Venetian fortress and abandoned leper colony of Spinalonga is less than an hour’s ride from Abaton Island.
Reading the story before visiting this site will create a strong emotional bond with the leprosy sufferers, who were taken away from their families - often as children - to grow up away from their homes, yet still managed to maintain love for their fellow sufferers and faith in a better future.
Who wrote it? Philhellene Victoria Hislop was inspired to write the novel - which was subsequently made into the TV series To Nisi – after visiting the abandoned leper colony.
- Ill Met by Moonlight
What’s it about? This thrilling book recounts the breathtakingly daring tale of two heroes, Stanley Moss and Patrick Leigh Fermor who, with a team of young Cretan partisans, carried out one of the most daring missions of WWII.
Why read it? The James Bond-style tale of the abduction of Heinrich Kreipe Commander of the 22nd Air Landing Infantry Division and Commander of Crete will have your heart beating with excitement from start to finish.
Who wrote it? British soldier and writer W. Stanley Moss wrote this gripping, partly autobiographical account. It was also made into a film starring Dirk Bogart as Patrick Leigh Fermor.
- Zorba the Greek
What’s it about? This moving - and often amusing - novel focuses on the encounter of the charismatic, roguish Zorba - who believes in living life to the full - with a young bookish intellectual, thinly disguised as the author.
Why read it? For incomparable insight into the Cretan way of life, and Zorba’s wise and pithy sayings, including: “God changes appearances every second. Blessed is the man who can recognize him in all his disguises,” or: “Man is a brute...If you're cruel to him, he respects and fears you. If you're kind to him, he plucks your eyes out.”
Who wrote it? This is another masterpiece penned by Nikos Kazantzakis.
Most readers will know the 1960’s movie, Zorba the Greek, which was inspired by the book and stars Anthony Quinn.
- A History of Crete
What’s it about? This fascinating tome gives a detailed analysis of Cretan history, from the Neolithic Age until the end of the Second World War.
Why read it? One of the most recognized books on the subject of Cretan history, this book will help you to better understand the island’s archaeological sites and monuments. It will also give you greater insight into the historical artefacts on display in the island’s museums.
Who wrote it? Dr. Theocharis E. Detorakis is a skilled local historian and Professor of Byzantine Philology at the University of Crete.