The Greek Islands by Lawrence Durrell written in 1978 remains one of the most exciting travel guidebooks of all time. Durrell’s book is a marvelous launching place for learning about Greek history, its unique islands, and its lovely people.
by Patrick Garner
Lawrence Durrell was one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers and a philhellene, following the 19th century’s Lord Byron in Greece’s literary inspiration. He was known for his wildly popular novels like The Alexandria Quartet and for his travel writing, which focused on Greece and Sicily.
Durrell’s travel masterpiece, The Greek Islands, was written from his copious notes taken during his years living on Corfu. The book, still in print, was last revised in 2002. Written in his usual warm, almost poetic prose, The Greek Islands specifically describes 53 different islands.
Born near Tibet in 1912 of English parents, he left India for England at age 11 and never properly adapted to London. He later explained his reaction, saying, “English life is really like an autopsy. It is so, so dreary.” Within 12 years he fled to Greece, which he then adopted as his physical and spiritual home.
Life in Greece was a revelation; colors were pure, the sky endless, the food simple, and the people open. In The Greek Islands he writes that he was, “… electrified by Greek light, intoxicated by the white dancing candescence of the sun on a sea with blue sky pouring onto it.”
He settled in the village of Kalami on the island of Corfu, Greece, in 1935. As a young man—and having found a small house overlooking the sea which he called the White House—Durrell persuaded his mother, siblings, and wife, Nancy Myers, to join him to escape the English winter.
Like so many travelers before him, he felt he had come home. Life on Corfu kicked off his writing career. At the same time, he reached out to other writing luminaries. During that period, Durrell stumbled across Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and wrote Miller a fan letter. Thus began a forty-five-year friendship based on their love of literature and their personal and artistic setbacks. Another luminary, the famous poet T.S. Eliot at Faber and Faber in London became his friend and publisher.
While on Corfu, he bought a small sloop which he named the Van Norden after a character in Miller’s book. He and his wife Nancy made frequent trips from Corfu to islands throughout the Cyclades and beyond. These adventures later inspired his book, The Greek Islands, giving his descriptions an unusual authenticity.
After alternating for six years between Corfu and Athens, Durrell fled Greece in 1941, days ahead of the invading Nazi army. He and his wife initially settled in Cairo along with their baby daughter. At the end of the war, “liberated from my Egyptian prison,” Durrell returned to Greece.
The sailing trip to 53 Greek islands
The format of his travel masterpiece, The Greek Islands, imagines a long sailing trip. We join Durrell on his ancient sloop. We begin our travels where Durrell had lived on Corfu. We then launch to the nearby Ionian islands, including Paxos, Antipaxos, Lefkas, and Odysseus’ former kingdom, Ithaca.
From there, we traverse to the southern Aegean, tying up at ports on Crete, Cythera, and of course, Santorini. Then, we cross to the southern Sporades. We tie up first in Rhodes, where Durrell was once stationed after the war. After lingering a bit to enjoy the local pleasures, we cross blue waters to Casos, Tilos, Symi, Cos, Leros, Patmos, Icaria, and others. We then continue north to the islands of Samos and Chios.
From there, Durrell once again hoists his sails and points us into the northern Aegean. We arrive and hike through Lesbos and Lemnos, circle ancient Samothrace, Thasos and Skiathos, finally touring Skyros.
And we hardly neglect the Cyclades. With Durrell as guide, we celebrate Dionysus’ old stomping grounds on Naxos, then visit Paros, stop at the glittery Mykonos (which was far from glittery in 1976), then visit gloomy Delos, its sister Rhenia, Tinos, Andros, and Syros. We’re not through as Durrell insists we see Kythnos, Kea, Milos, Ios, and a half dozen other old volcanic rises that each has houses, old temples, and charming ruins tucked everywhere.
On our return trip, we swing by Salamis, Aegina, Poros, Hydra, and Spetsae. Along the way, we’ve learned about Greek history, flowers, and the numerous festivals unique to each island. The one island he purposely omits is Cyprus: then and now, encouraging visits to an island torn apart by politics is difficult.
The Greek Islands could be used today as guidebook for touring the Greek Mediterranean. Since its original publication 45 years ago, some of the islands have lost a bit of their quaintness. But many have not. And Durrell’s book is a marvelous launching place for learning about Greek history, its unique islands, and its lovely people.
Patrick Garner is the author of three novels about Greek gods in the contemporary world. He is also the creator and narrator of the breakout podcast, Garner’s Greek Mythology with listeners in 134 countries.