Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Vicarious Tour of the Mediterranean

Next week my sister and I leave for our cruise around the Mediterranean.  It starts and ends in Rome and we're also stopping in Croatia, Sicily, Athens, and several of the Greek islands.

Normally when I'm going on a major vacation I stock up on guidebooks and phrasebooks months before I leave, and do my best to plot out what I'm going to see and learn at least a few words of the language if I don't already speak it.  This time, though, Sue and I made our cruise reservations only about six weeks in advance, and those six weeks and the preceding month were crammed with activity and anxiety over my cat, my job(s), and our parents.  We finally agreed to take one of the cruise line's shore excursions at practically every stop, which greatly reduced the need to plan what to see or to add to my small Italian and Greek vocabulary.  Instead, in my scraps of spare time, I've been re-reading my favorite books set in Italy and Greece.  Some of them are so old that the country in which they took place has probably altered all out of recognition, but the fact remains that these are the stories which originally made me want to visit Rome and Athens and the Greek islands.

  • The Greek novels of Mary Stewart.  These are the books which convinced a teenager from South Dakota (which had NO Greek restaurants at the time) that some day she had to try roast lamb, Greek salad, feta cheese, retsina, and ouzo.  (Love the food and the retsina; can take or leave the ouzo.)  Tightly plotted, great characters, atmosphere that breathes from every page.  My Brother Michael (Delphi); The Moonspinners (Crete, and much better than the movie with Hailey Mills), and This Rough Magic (Corfu).
  • Two books by Barbara Mertz: The Sea King's Daughter (as Barbara Michaels, set on the Greek island of Thera) and The Street of Five Moons (as Elizabeth Peters, set in Rome and the nearby countryside).  Barbara Mertz is an archaeologist, and many of her books reflect that.  The heroine of The Sea King's Daughter manages to explain a lot about underwater archaeology and the history of the Minoan civilization while being chased around the island by a local cult, and the plot of The Street of Five Moons centers around the forgery of historical art objects and takes us through a number of museums, historic homes, and quaint Roman shopping venues along the way.  Nobody else can make a dangerous situation seem quite as funny as "Elizabeth Peters" does.
  • A Cluster of Separate Sparks by Joan Aiken.  Set on the Greek island of Dendros, this is a parody of the traditional romantic suspense novel.  The heroine is hired as a teacher by a Greek millionaire, and at that point the book diverges wildly from its supposed genre - not least in its extremely unusual leading man.
  • We're not going to Venice, but I had to re-read Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell anyway.  In the classic epistolary tradition of Camilla, this story is told almost entirely in the form of letters from Julia Larwood, a London barrister on an Art Lover's Holiday in Italy.  Venice, art, love, murder, and quite possibly the most hapless and absent-minded heroine ever conceived - one of my very favorite books.
  • Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany by Frances Mayle.  No, we're not going to Tuscany, either, but the descriptions of the food, the landscape, and the Italian people still make these better reading than any dry guidebook to Italy.  Again, Under the Tuscan Sun is much better than the movie of the same name.
I will be buying a block of Internet minutes from the cruise company in order to stay in touch with my clients, my sister's office, and the cousin who will be looking out for our parents while we're gone, but I may be too busy to blog.  In any case, I should have enough photos and stories from this trip to keep you amused for weeks after our return.

“I want to see the Parthenon by moonlight." ~Daphne du Maurier, Echoes from the Macabre: Selected Stories

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