A Thing of Beauty
A Thing of Beauty by Peter Fiennes describes ‘Travels in Mythical and Modern Greece’ and places the Greek Gods in the context of modern-day Greece.
Here at Greece Travel Secrets we’re suckers, of course, for
travel books about Greece. Our shelves are sagging with them. They include
classics like Patrick Leigh Fermor, Lawrence Durrell, and Henry Miller, to more
recent must-read titles like Eurydice
Street and Wild Abandon. To this
list can be added A Thing of Beauty
by Peter Fiennes, an evocative and informative book whose sub-title sums it up:
Travels in Mythical and Modern Greece.
A Section of Our Bookshelves
used to be the publisher of London’s Time
Out, the magazine and book publishers, and as such he says he says he spent years trying to create the perfect
guidebook. Speaking as a guidebook author, I know that’s a laudable but
impossible task. He’s also an author, his books including Footnotes:
A Journey Round Britain in the Company of Great Writers (shortlisted
for an Edward Stanford Travel Writing Award), To War with God: The Army Chaplain
who Lost his Faith, and Oak and Ash and Thorn: The Ancient Woods and New
Forests of Britain. This last was chosen by The Guardian as a Best Nature Book of the Year.
A Thing of Beauty
You would therefore expect his new book about Greece to
shine when it comes to the nature writing, and it certainly does, though that
is only one part of its multi-faceted appeal. It’s for anyone interested in the
Greek Gods and their myths, the Greek countryside and wildlife, Greek politics
and history, climate change and sustainable living, whether there’s any hope in
the world today… and just how many Greek salads can one man eat? If you’re
interested in more than one of those topics, it’s definitely the book for you.
Epidavros in the Peloponnese
Travels in Greece
It’s the theme of the Greek myths which holds the book
together, though, as the author travels around the country visiting the places
where some of the more famous myths are said to have taken place. Beginning in
Athens and ending in Epirus, via a drive around the Peloponnese, the author retells
those myths as well as talking to present-day Greeks – some in pre-arranged
meetings and others by chance – and asking everyone the question he’s most
curious about: is there hope? It’s a serious question although the book itself
is far from sombre, as the author has a light touch and is extremely funny in
In fact A Thing of Beauty begins not in Athens but in Nottinghamshire
in England. At Newstead Abbey, to be exact, the ancestral home of George Gordon
Byron, 6th Baron Byron, better-known to the world as Lord Byron, poet and
Grecophile. The author’s travel plans were scuppered, or at least delayed, by
the outbreak of Covid. But it’s thanks to this that we get a hugely
entertaining chapter about Byron and his family, filled with salacious details,
leading up to his love affair with Greece. Well, he’d had every other kind of
love affair, why not with an entire country?
And while Covid is initially an impediment, it turns out to add what was probably an unexpected dimension to A Thing of Beauty. After all, it’s not in the least bit far-fetched to look upon the pandemic as a curse brought down on mankind by the Gods above, Greek or otherwise. This is another theme the author skillfully weaves into the tapestry of his story.
On the Road in Greece
Renting a car, and leaving his wife and son behind after a
few family days, the author drives around Greece visiting such places as Eleusis,
Corinth, Mycenae, Epidavros, Olympia, Delphi (where he encounters an online
Oracle), Messolonghi (where Byron, or at least his heart, is buried), and
ultimately to the wilds of Epirus, a majestic landscape threatened by voracious
oil developers and by fracking.
Lost and Found
While dealing with the immortal and
almighty Gods, the author proves himself to be all-too-human, and very
self-deprecating with it. He manages to get lost several times while hiking during A Thing of Beauty, stumbles across
German nudists on a beach (not quite literally), and when he has at last treated himself to a
decent hotel for the all-important visit to Delphi, he ends up in the worst
room in the building, with the smell of tobacco and the sound of conversation –
which is seldom whispered in Greece – both wafting in from a ventilation shaft
of some kind.
For me the book builds to the best part, towards the end,
where the author visits Epirus. Here he meets up with an ornithologist contact,
Julian Hoffman, who lives in Prespa, and we’re treated to sightings that show
just how rich parts of Greece are in birds and other flora and fauna. Even the
ornithologist is impressed ('Good Lord!') by what they see in the Ambracian Gulf, a stone’s
throw, literally, from the airport at Preveza which brings holidaymakers in by
the charter-flight planeload throughout a normal summer.
In this section I learned where I’m definitely going to eat
if I ever find myself in Mitikas, just outside Preveza: the Doctor of Hunger
steakhouse, it has to be. It’s also in Epirus, at the Monastery of Rodia, that
the author and his ornithologist companion meet an eccentric elderly Greek man
named Costas, who for some reason seems to be gathering cyclamen. As they’re
about to leave, Costas hands them a bunch of cyclamen and tells them with great
feeling: ‘Remember what men are here for. It is to share stories about the
things that matter.’
It’s a wonderful summing-up of what’s important in life, and
Peter Fiennes should be proud of himself that in A Thing of Beauty he has done just
that. He’s shared stories about things that matter.
Buying a Thing of
You can find links to where to buy the book, and read more
about it, on the Oneworld
Other books pages
The very thorough A-Z Guide to Santorini by Tony Oswin is now in its 15th edition, a sure sign that the guidebook is both popular and kept up-to-date.
Heaven on Earth is a collection of 19 travel pieces about Greece by Mike Gerrard.
If planning a trip to Greece, what are the best books about Greece to read before you go, or to take with you, to give you a sense of place?
Greece Book Reviews on the Greece Travel Secrets website with reviews of the best guidebooks to Greece, the Greek Islands, Athens, Crete and elsewhere.
Taverna by the Sea is an account by Jennifer Barclay of her summer spent working in a taverna on Karpathos and a welcome new book of Greek travel writing.
Wild Abandon by Jennifer Barclay and published by Bradt Guides is A Journey to Deserted Places of the Dodecanese islands in Greece, including Rhodes and Kos.
The Summer of My Greek Taverna by Tom Stone is a memoir of his time on the Greek island of Patmos in the Dodecanese, running a restaurant.
The Bradt Guide to Northern Greece is a detailed guide to Thessaloniki, Halkidiki, Macedonia, Thrace, The Pelion, The Sporades and the rest of Northern Greece.
Greece Travel Secrets reviews the photography book Monemvasia with extracts from works by Yiannis Ritsos and Nikos Kazantzakis.
Mermaid Singing by Charmian Clift is a fine example of 1950s travel writing about the Greek island of Kalymnos in the Dodecanese.
Margarita’s Olive Press is a modern gem of a book of Greek travel writing, in which the author falls in love with and renovates a property on Zakynthos.
The Lonely Planet guide to the Greek Islands is a thorough and helpful guide to all the Greek island groups, with Athens included.
The latest edition of the Lonely Planet travel guide to Greece is a comprehensive 750-page guidebook to the whole country.
Lonely Planet Crete is an excellent and thorough guide of almost 300 pages to the largest of the Greek islands.
Ikaria by Meni Valle, brings together the best and healthiest Greek recipes with an evocative travelogue about Ikaria, one of the world’s Blue Zone places.
Peel Me a Lotus by Charmian Clift is a Hydra travel writing classic, describing her family’s life on this tiny Greek island near Athens in the 1950s.
There are many great Greek poets, with two authors winning the Nobel Prize for Literature and names include Sappho, Cavafy, George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis.
Fire on the Island is a romantic thriller novel by Timothy Jay Smith set on a fictionalised version of the town of Molyvos on the island of Lesbos.
Eurydice Street, A Place in Athens by Sofka Zinovieff is an honest account of what it’s like to move to Athens and live as a foreigner, learning Greek customs.
Greece Travel Secrets reviews the book Culture Trails by Lonely Planet, which has a section on Artistic Athens and 51 other perfect weekends for culture lovers.
The Bradt Guide to the Peloponnese is the best book on the Greek region which includes attractions like Mycenae, Epidavros, Olympia, Monemvasia and Nafplion.
The 2022 edition of the A-Z Travel Guide to Kos is the 15th edition of the best and most comprehensive guidebook to Kos in the Dodecanese islands of Greece.
A Rope of Vines by Brenda Chamberlain is an evocative memoir of the author’s time living on the Greek island of Hydra in the early 1960s.
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