Mary-Anne O’Connor is known for sweeping historical romances set in stunning locations, so we asked her to tell us why she chose Crete as the latest setting for a book.
Many Australians have Greece on their bucket list of places to travel to, and, if you’re one of them, you’re probably thinking of jewelled beaches and amazing ruins, delicious food and local wines. That’s Greece alright but make no mistake: Crete takes that experience to a whole new level.
Crete become part of Greece in 1913 and is all of those wondrous things you associate with the Greek experience, yet it remains uniquely and unmistakably Cretan too. I’ve been lucky enough to visit this ancient island and loved it so much I decided to write a novel set on its shores. Never To Surrender is the result, a tale about the Battle of Crete during WWII and a romance between an Australian soldier, Carl Smith, and a Cretan resistance fighter, Athena Papadakis.
I thoroughly enjoy writing about war and love, but putting some of Crete’s ancient history and scenery down on the page took me back across the seas and allowed me many happy moments to reflect on my time spent there.
I have put together my top 5 reasons why Crete is a must-visit destination, especially if you’re a history buff like me, but also if you like the idea of experiencing the blissfulness and romance of Mediterranean life. What’s not to love about that?
1. The Ruins
Greek has fascinating ruins everywhere you go but Crete’s ruins are exceptional with a controversial twist. For example, the palace of Knossos dates back to 7000 BC and was excavated by English archaeologist Arthur Evans in the early 1900s. Despite being remarkably well preserved, Evans decided to reconstruct elements of the palace, including having frescoes repainted and sections rebuilt. Many believed Knossos was desecrated by this reconstructive work and should have been left as was, with what was missing fodder for the imagination.
I agree that it should have been left unaltered, but I have to admit it is incredible to wander around a palace that has so much ‘intact’ (or recreated). There is an ancient throne room, the exotically decorated queen’s chambers, giant bull horn statues used in ceremonies during ancient times, water cleansing ‘lustral’ basins and workmen’s benchtops, sitting as if waiting to be used. The Minoans were the first European civilisation and they ruled the Mediterranean. It’s easy to imagine this progressive society as it was when you explore Knossos. Truly a once in a lifetime experience.
2. The Food
Cretan cuisine is largely local and you can well understand why some historians believe it was the ‘the land of milk and honey’ (as described by ancient scribes when referring to the ‘land of Canaan’). There is milk, goat or cow’s; there is honey too, along with citrus fruits, vineyards, olive groves and freshly caught seafood. Yet there is so much more. Some of my favourite dishes are as follows:
Dakos: A very popular type of dish similar to bruschetta but the chopped tomatoes are served on paximadi, a type of barley rusk usually soaked in olive oil, instead of bread.
Sfakia pies: These look like pancakes but are flavoured with the Cretan liquor raki and have soft goat or sheep cheese at the centre. They are then fried lightly in olive oil and drizzled with heather honey. (I know, right?)
Apaki: This is a type of salted pork meat that has been marinated in local herbs and smoked for hours using olive wood. Apaki is served in fine, delicious slices, usually as an appetiser.
3. The Beaches
There is no blue quite like the Mediterranean and the Cretan coast is simply exquisite, filled with pristine coves that are perfect for snorkelling in and exploring. The Cretans often rest during mesimeri, the quiet hours of the afternoon, and you might like to enjoy having the beach a bit more to yourself. Or laze on the sand and fall asleep listening to the endless lap of the waves. Either way.
4. The Mountains
The White Hills or Lefka Ori have protected resistance fighters and Crete’s people and soldiers for centuries, and there’s something very Cretan about winding along narrow pathways up into the mountains, to be rewarded with stunning views. It’s easy to see how navigating a labyrinth literally twisted its way into their ancient mythology (with the myth of Theseus killing the Minotaur in its labyrinth to secure the heart of Princess Ariadne) which is still intrinsically linked to the culture, even with Christianity now the dominant religion. Shrines to saints are everywhere, with little altars overflowing with flowers – another indication of the deep spirituality of the Cretan people. Speaking of which …
5. The People
Cretans are famously hospitable and pride themselves on their generosity. You will never leave a table hungry and they love nothing better than to see you enjoy their food and wines, which they are justifiably very proud of.
They are a fiercely independent people and have fought hard over many centuries against foreign oppression and occupation, including the Ottoman Empire and the Venetians, the evidence of which is reflected in the sometimes eclectic yet beautiful architecture. They also have never forgotten what the Anzacs did for them during the Battle of Crete and tend the shrines and graves of our wounded reverently, which is an especially moving thing to see.
Cretan people own their past and their present and have preserved their culture against all odds. What a reward it is for we visitors that they have managed to do so.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mary-Anne O’Connor
Mary-Anne O’Connor has a combined arts education degree with specialities in environment, music and literature. After a successful copywriting and marketing career she now focuses on writing fiction and non-fiction as well as public speaking.
Mary-Anne lives in a house overlooking her beloved bushland in northern Sydney with her husband Anthony, their two sons Jimmy and Jack, and their very spoilt dog Saxon.
Don’t miss Never To Surrender
1941. A young German-Australian soldier meets a passionate Cretan girl and together they are caught up in guerrilla warfare during the brutal Nazi invasion of Crete. A heartfelt, sweeping saga of World War II, from the peaceful farmlands of NSW to the Mediterranean’s glittering, dangerous shores, for readers of Fiona McIntosh, Nicole Alexander and Natasha Lester.
1939: Australian-born Carl Smith loves his country and despises fascism, but he never meant to go to war. He is training to be a doctor and wants to protect lives, not take them. But if enlisting is the only way he can save his German-born father, Dr Louis Schmidt, from an internment camp, he will.
1941: Athena Papandrakis has grown up on the island of Crete, swimming in jewelled waters and exploring ancient ruins. Now her home is under threat and she is ready to fight to defend it from the hated Nazi invaders, just as her ancestors sought to protect their island home in the past.
When Carl arrives in Crete with Allied Forces soldiers evacuated from the Greek mainland, he and Athena are intoxicated by each other. Carl is not the man her traditional parents would have chosen for their daughter, however, and hiding the secret of his German heritage from Athena could further threaten their love.
Decisions must be made when they find themselves in an intense final stand against the Nazis as the Allied Forces retreat and the Cretan peasants are forced into guerrilla warfare. For Carl and Athena, it becomes a desperate quest for survival … and love, loyalty and trust will fight a battle to the last.