Greece of old for armchair travelers

« Traveller’s Greece: Memories of an Enchanted Land» (Anagnosis 2002), compiled by John L. Tomkinson, is a compendium of travelers’ writings about Greece. At more than 600 pages, this is far too voluminous a tome to take on a journey, as its compiler acknowledges by offering it to the armchair traveler. Tomkinson, a teacher of history and the theory of knowledge and a long-term resident of Athens, has already published several titles in the «Greece Beyond the Guidebooks» series. For the selections in «Traveller’s Greece,» he trawled the treasure trove of writings by visitors who traveled in Greece in earlier days, mainly from the 17th to the 19th century. The texts have been pruned of any excessive archaism or print conventions that hinder accessibility, but their essence remains intact, and extremely revealing. Tomkinson has not confined himself to philhellenes, though their writings outnumber the negative accounts. But whatever their source, these excerpts say as much about their authors and their backgrounds as they do about Greece. William Mure, writing in 1838 about Arnaut, an Albanian from Ioannina hired in Corfu as a servant to accompany the author on his travels in mainland Greece, describes his own struggles to understand how his dragoman can be so widely traveled and capable in several languages, yet totally uninterested in the ancient sites that fascinate Mure. His unsuccessful attempts to get Arnaut to keep certain items separate are instructive. «In spite of all the precautions, amid the frequent extractions and insertions that occurred during the course of our day’s march, often without stopping or dismounting, I almost invariably found, on emptying our treasures at the halting-place, that sausages, salt herrings, cheese, figs, sketchbook, journal, woollen comforter, Homer, Pausanias, Gell, had all been thrust into the same receptacle, and came forth presenting, both to the sight and the smell, too palpable tokens of the uncongenial contact into which they had been forced. On the first two or three occasions of the kind, I could not help being diverted by the delinquent’s total unconsiousness of having been in the wrong, and the contempt which he plainly exhibited, when taxed with his fault, for my squeamish attention to such trivialities. But this soon gave way to unmixed wrath at the inveterate slovenliness of his ways. Finding it, however, impossible entirely to correct them, I was obliged in the end patiently to submit; and, keeping as good a lookout as I was able on the more precious part of my stock, to leave the rest to its fate.» Whether it is the American poet N. Parker Willis perturbed by the sight of British soldiers on Corfu in 1850, or Sir Kenelm Digby filching marbles while on a naval campaign to harass the Turks in 1627, there’s plenty to delight and enrage here. Those unfamilar with Greek history may wish for more extensive introductory notes, but it is certain that many will be inspired to consult the original works.