Confessions of a Type Cast Writer
I like to admit it or not, I think I’ve been type cast. Not that I’m bothered, mind you, because there are a lot worse things than having your series labeled by The New York Times as, “thoughtful police procedurals set in picturesque but not untroubled Greek locales.” But since then, I’ve noticed a common theme emerge among reviewers. Nearly all make some mention of “vivid descriptions” of the culture, food, and glorious Greek settings, and how “travel buffs will be enchanted.”
I hereby plead guilty as charged. But with an explanation. I challenge anyone to point to a square inch (excuse me, centimeter) of Greece which hasn’t played some role in epic tales cloaking that ancient land in mystery and drama since its gods first ruled the earth. How then, is it possible for a mere mortal writer to place a story anywhere in Greece without the chosen locale insinuating itself into the plot as a primary character? Permit me to show you what I mean through this brief tour of some of the places that led me to set my upcoming release on Naxos, the largest and greenest of Greece’s Aegean Cycladic Islands.
Let’s start with a bit of historical background:
In mythology, Naxos is where Zeus was raised, Ares took refuge, and Dionysius called home. In antiquity, Cycladic life began on Naxos before Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece, and Naxos flourished as a society through most of antiquity up until the Persians ended its long independent run. Then came the Athenians, the Spartans, and a string of other Greeks, followed by the Romans, Venetians, Turks and a touch of Russians, though the most lasting influence is clearly Venetian.
Today, a flight from Athens to Naxos takes about the same time as a flight to its neighboring island of Mykonos, two islands different in practically every way imaginable. Shaped like a broad granite and marble arrowhead pointing north, Naxos is four times the size of Mykonos, Naxos had long ago been deforested, but is still green, agriculturally blessed, and since antiquity, famous for its marble and emery mines. Though Mykonos once had its barite mines and grain windmills, it’s a dry, arid, and rocky place, with modest agriculture that in no way rivaled Naxos natural riches and virtual self-sufficiency.
But times changed, and today Mykonos possesses a high-end tourism reputation that is the envy of every Greek island seeking to maximize its own tourist potential. Many have wondered how long it will be before Naxos embraces the same tourism fervor so many of its island neighbors have—a question that ties into a central plot line of my new book.
Okay, now that you know a little bit about Naxos’ history, let’s take a walk around the town.
The port town of Naxos, or Chora, as every island’s namesake town is called, sits on the west coast, virtually equidistant from its northern, southern, and eastern edges. Entering the Naxos harbor, you pass the massive marble Portara, the 2,500-year-old gateway to a never completed grand temple to Apollo and the modern day symbol of Naxos.
Beyond the harbor the old town spreads out and rises along a hillside covered in low whitewashed buildings. Flagstone lanes beneath soaring stone archways lead up to a 13th-century Venetian castle that still dominates the town. The Castle, or Kastro area, constitutes the upper part of the old town, distinguishing it in topography and social standing from the old town’s lower Bourgo section
Along the harbor you’ll find an endless line of tavernas, bars, and tourist shops, many trying to look more modern and chic than the next, but not quite pulling it off. Then you’ll come upon a wide marble harbor front square where local children ride their bikes and scooters helter-skelter among the passing tourists. It’s as if all the world is their playground. If you wish you can leave the harbor and wind your way up the hillside along archway-covered lanes lined with stone and stucco buildings, all plainly laid out without any plan other than to confuse marauding pirates. Just keep climbing through a residential area randomly trimmed in geraniums and bougainvillea, following signs promising to lead you to where you’ll find the Kastro.
At the top, by the far end of the hilltop square, you’ll find the 17th-century Naxos Archaeological Museum, a well-tended garden of oleander, geraniums, bougainvillea, and a host of other flowers, and the Naxos Cultural Center, formerly the Ursuline School for Girls, representing 17th– and 18th-century efforts at educating them.
After that hike, I suggest a drive to a beach close by a truly mysterious place, and then perhaps lunch at one of my favorite tavernas of all time.
If you follow the main road heading south out of Chora to its paved conclusion, and turn right onto a narrower paved road running between cedar-dotted sand dunes, you’ll pass parked cars sitting off to both sides of the road. Keep going, and turn left at what seems more of a sandy path than a road. It will open up at an impromptu parking area separated from the beach by a line of cedars. You’ve now have arrived at the half-kilometer long Alyko Beach, perhaps the most beautiful and undeveloped beach on the island.
It’s also a place literally surrounded by mystery, for high above the northern end of the beach stands a solitary church and what looks to be the skeleton of some sort of abandoned concrete and stone construction.
If you wish to explore what may be there—and what mystery lover can resist that temptation–head north toward the skeleton along a dirt path that dips down to a small concrete pier by the water before leading up to a wide promontory overlooking the sea.
Near the top, the full scope of the project, seen only in part from the beach, comes into view. One- and two-story stone skeletons track along the rim of the cape in an architectural theme reminiscent of the Roman Coliseum’s penchant for archways, commanding an unobstructed view of the sea.
Leave the shrubbery-lined path and walk between the perimeter buildings into a broad, open space covered in concrete. Unkempt gorse and other hardy greenery compete for random patches of available dirt. Be careful where you step, because parts of the concrete have collapsed into the hollow below, but this is where a grand surprise awaits you. Stop, lift your eyes, and look all around you.
Huge, colorful murals of mythical creatures—faces, birds, and omens—leap out from almost every vertical surface. Long abandoned concrete walls turned into gigantic canvases, one more challenging to the senses than the next.
They are the creation of a Balian street artist who lives in Athens. And within the skeletal maze of unfinished rooms and hallways there are more inside. But be careful where you step.
Have you seen enough? Let’s go for lunch.
A few minutes north of the beach you enter the area of Kastraki, passing between fields of hay, olives, and pasture, all bordered in the distance by clusters of modern white villas. Beyond a row of beach pines, turn right into a dusty parking lot and stop beside a pale ochre roadhouse cloistered by olive, fig, apricot and pomegranate, well-tended gardens, and a veranda draped in bougainvillea, hibiscus, and grape. You are now in what many claim to be the best taverna in the Cyclades.
Order off the menu from a wall-mounted chalkboard listing specials, such as mussels in wine, grilled figs with local cheese, deep fried little fishes, and sardines stuffed with capers and cherry tomatoes, mackerel and fava, shrimps in lemon, rabbit in tomato, oven-cooked chicken with potatoes, and all accompanied by the house’s homemade wine. I promise that dish by dish, you’ll be uttering praises like “best ever,” “fantastic,” and “amazing,”
Now that you’ve seen the town, been to the beach, enjoyed some wild art, and had lunch, I’ve got to get back to creating the plot lines and characters that rely upon these backgrounds to bring thrills and chills to my readers.
For those of you who’d like to see more of Naxos without leaving home, there is a way…coming April 6th.