Bradt Guides publishes excellent guidebooks but they also publish travel narrative books, and Wild Abandon by Jennifer Barclay is one of those.
Jennifer Barclay is the perfect author for a book like this, as she has made her home on Tilos in the Dodecanese, has lived in Athens, and has travelled widely throughout the Greek islands. She’s also an adventurous traveller and a lover of deserted places, and has written two other books about Greece: Falling in Honey and An Octopus in my Ouzo.
In Wild Abandon she decides to focus not on the main sites in the Dodecanese, like the Old Town of Rhodes, but visits places few visitors are likely to discover for themselves. Some require some energetic trekking and camping out, and for most of the trips she’s accompanied only by her faithful dog, Lisa.
In Wild Abandon she visits eleven of the islands in the group, and as I’ve visited seven of them myself it was a fascinating read… making me now want to visit the four I’ve not been to so far. She includes the main islands, known for their busy tourist areas, like Rhodes and Kos, but you’ll see sides of these islands you probably didn’t know existed. Each island gets a chapter to itself, and the others are Tilos, Nisyros, Kalymnos, Astypalea, Kastellorizo, Karpathos, Kasos, Halki, and Arki.
The book starts and ends on Tilos, where the author lives and which naturally she knows intimately. Here, among many places, she talks about the Harkadio Cave, which she can see across the valley from her office desk and is ‘where the last elephants in Europe died four thousand years ago.’ Elephants in Europe only four thousand years ago? This is the kind of entertaining and unexpected fact the author loves to dig out and entertain the reader with.
On Nisyros she uncovers the Pantelidis Baths, a grand therapeutic spa built in 1910, once visited by thousands coming in shiploads from all over the Mediterranean, but now lying in ruins. Who knew this was on Nisyros? Certainly not me. The Nisyros chapter is typical of the author’s detailed and descriptive writing.
‘As I stand outside the taverna to get a signal on my phone, I watch a little black cat sitting in a hole in the wall. Lisa sees it and growls, and it jumps away. Yiannis, appearing from the kitchen, points to the hole. “Put your hand inside.” I feel warm steam. It’s a geothermal apiria, or blowhole of the volcano.’
I realise as I read through Wild Abandon that I could quote from every chapter to give a feel for the book, for the contents and the author’s style. Here, from the chapter on Kos, called ‘Faith in Water’, she discovers the village of Pyli, where not all the houses are inhabited:
‘Others are obviously long abandoned, broken glass in the windows and rubbish in the garden. I tread carefully through tall grass to peek through an open window. There are black-and-white photographs on the mildewed wall. An old black travelling trunk sits open with a New York address painted by hand on the side.’
Don’t you immediately want to know about the trunk, the photographs and the New York address?
‘Even in August, it felt excitingly wild and empty. The land was dramatic, fearsome even, with craggy grey cliffs, rust-streaked, dropping down steep inclines almost five hundred metres to the sea. Waves surged relentlessly from the northwest into the narrow inlet where aquamarine water almost glowed. I saw a diver in a wetsuit swimming close to the black rocks, then I watched it moving and realised it was a seal.’
Every chapter has gems of lovely, lyrical writing in it, along with detailed descriptions that make you feel you’re standing there alongside the author seeing what she’s seeing.
One piece of advice – if you’re reading the book then have
this website open alongside you:
The author has put it together to enhance the book, and it’s full of her colour photographs of the islands covered. You can see some of them on this page. Unfortunately I only looked it up after finishing the book and it’s clear that lots of the photos are of places referred to in the text. It will bring the book even more to life if you can see the photos at the same time.
If you’re planning a trip to any of the islands covered in the book, buy a copy of Wild Abandon to sit alongside a conventional guidebook. If you like reading good travel books about Greece, or about anywhere for that matter, then put Wild Abandon on the shopping list or in your Amazon basket. It’s excellent. Or, as Victoria Hislop said: "A vivid and intoxicating account of these beautiful islands".
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