Going There #6: The World of Mycenaean Warriors

Mycenaean Armor, Náfplio Archaeological Museum, Greece

Stand on the ravaged rocks of Mycenae and fall back in time some 3,500 years. Look at the world around you. Will you see a warrior in full bronze armor? Maybe. If he’s an elite charioteer from the late 15th century B.C.

The first Cretan book in my series opens in 1470 B.C., a little early for this suit of armor, but not too early for the boar tusk helmet.

The crowning glory of the archaeological museum of Náfplio, Greece, this set of Mycenaean bronze armor with boar tusk helmet, is the only complete set of armor ever found for this early Mycenaean period. During my stay in Náfplio I visited the museum to see it. The assembled armor stands in a lit glass case in full view when you walk in. The museum offers a film that describes its remarkable discovery by local people in the village of Dendra near Náfplio, a great source of pride for them. The impression of the wearer’s body could be seen inside the hammered bronze.

I had read about the armor and debated whether to put the Mycenaean warriors of my books in metal rather than the leather armor I had initially chosen. When I saw the fine exhibit and the film I debated again. A couple of people watched the film with me and we all returned to the exhibit afterward to observe the armor again. We began to chat about it and I learned that one was a British archeologist named David Mason (not to be confused with another archeologist of the same name). This archeologist was currently working at the ruins of the acropolis at Mycenae.

Mycenaean Boar Tusk Helmet

We discussed the relative merits of this armor, which would have extended to a warrior’s knees. The statement on the exhibit says bronze armor was associated with chariot warriors, their role limited to dramatic displays along lines of combat conducted by foot soldiers.

I doubted whether the Mycenaean king would allow Mycenaean mercenaries serving Crete to take such valuable armor with them. I also wondered how thrilled warriors would be to wear such cumbersome gear and whether it was used much at all. David didn’t argue the point, but he did think it would be cool to have my Mycenaean warriors wear the boar tusk helmet. I agreed and am making the change.

I later found a site online suggesting this bronze armor wasn’t produced until late in the 1400s, which won’t make it a factor until the third book in my series. But boar tusk helmets were used throughout the period. Homer describes them and artwork of the period shows them. The slivers of tusk are attached to a leather helmet, often with bronze cheek guards. A plume or tassel would sometimes adorn the top. Only the tusk slivers were found with the exhibited armor. The original leather would have disintegrated, being biodegradable.

Bronze Greaves and Arm Guards

The display includes unique arm guards found at Dendra and greaves to cover the shins. Linen was more commonly used for shin guards, so the bronze may have been more for a show of status.

The earliest bronze was limited when it came to working it into the kind of intricate shaping a helmet would have required, so you don’t find bronze helmets until periods long after my stories.

Even this body armor lacked the sophistication of later metalwork. But it’s pretty impressive when you stand before it, realizing how very old it is.

The Citadel of Tiryns

Those ravaged rocks of the citadels where men might have worn this armor topped my list of things to see in Greece, and I planned to follow suggestions to first visit Tiryns, one of Mycenae’s protectorates. I opted for the short bus ride from the center of Náfplio to that nearby site, which I had passed on my arrival in Náfplio.

At breakfast I was chatting with the hostess when she advised me I should catch the 9:30 bus to Tiryns. Seeing that it was already 9:19, I hurried to my room to brush my teeth, grabbed my hat, and headed out. Didn’t somebody say it was a 5-minute walk to the bus stop? I would test that. I found the ticket office and told the woman at the desk I wanted a return ticked for Tiryns. She said, “Go now, the second bus.”

Colossal Walls of Tiryns, Greece

I rushed out and asked the driver of the second bus if he was going to Tiryns. He nodded and asked for one euro and eighty cents. Good grief, the buses are cheap in Greece!

We rumbled out of the city center in air-conditioned comfort and I soon caught sight of the great stone wall. The bus didn’t slow down, so I called out, “Tiryns!” The driver screeched to a stop. He had forgotten me, but he pulled over along the street near the entrance.

Tiryns is an amazing place, the stones as colossal as reported. The elongated compound stretches over two levels. I guessed the palace was on the high ground, which the attendant confirmed. Low walls marked out many rooms, large and small. Mighty mountains loomed on the horizon.

Rooms of Tiryns

I couldn’t be sure of the layout but a sense of the power seems clear enough. It’s easy to see how the builders took advantage of the outcropping on which to set the walls. And such walls! The outer bulwarks had to be at least six feet thick.

Thick Walls of Tiryns

In my rush I hadn’t gotten water but supposed I could buy it at the site. I explored the ruins until I needed a drink, but the facility had no palatable water. I still wanted to explore Tiryns more fully. The woman at the site assured me it wasn’t far back to a shop. By then the day was heating up and the walk seemed long.

Approaching Tiryns

On the way back I met a British guy who was unsure of his directions to the site’s entrance. I assured him he was on the right track. He had walked from Náfplio and was suffering. I was so glad I hadn’t done that.

By the time I returned to the compound, heat was rising fast, and it was only a little after 11 am. A pleasant breeze softened the warmth on the palace level, and I strolled through rooms, imagining the poignant scenes of my story that take place in some of them.

The citadel of Mycenae

For all Tiryns’s majesty, nothing matched the reigning center of Mycenae. That was my destination the next day. I got up earlier to avoid the rush of the day before. To get to the acropolis of Mycenae I had to catch the same 9:30 bus I had taken to Tiryns. Mycenae was farther inland at 13 miles.

At the bus station there was my friend from Britain who’d walked to Tiryns the day before. We greeted each other, commenting on our continued explorations, and took separate seats on the bus.

Acropolis of Mycenae

The ancient stronghold of the Mycenaeans resonates with the power they wielded over their realm. Note that most of the walls at the top of the ruins are low, their upper portions having long since tumbled away. Imagine high walls and a pitched palace roof extending upward, creating an even more dominating complex. The peaks on either side add to the impact, with deep ravines between them and the mound on which the acropolis was built.

The view from the top gives only a small glimpse of territory ruled and the majesty of the citadel’s position, even on the hazy day I saw it. The great rooms loom above the land below, partly because of their position and partly because the compound has crumbled away on that side.

Great Rooms of Mycenae

I scrambled over the site, absorbing the atmosphere, imagining the scenes I had placed there. I could only get a sense of it. The Mycenaeans themselves had changed it considerably from the period of my stories, and time had taken a severe toll. But the contour of land is there. The power is there.

I wasn’t ready to leave when it was time for the next return bus so I visited the small museum on the site, went across to a kiosk for lunch–a large fresh-squeezed orange juice and turkey in a baguette. I was really enjoying the orange juice of Greece. Orange groves are new to Greece since Mycenaean times, but the trees thrive there now.

I turned back to the raw ruins and saw the flowers. A hush settled over me.

Life Beside the Quiet Stones

Ah yes! Life blooms beside the quiet stones, where deep time stills the voices, the clack of hard-soled boots, clash of swords, death cries, murmurs of desire–all caught in the eternal cycle, reborn in remembrance.

After another climb over the ancient site I went down early, not wanting to miss the last bus.


My British friend was waiting on the porch of a local postal facility looking out on the large parking area where many tour buses came and went. We spoke, and I commented that I hoped we would recognize our bus among all the others, most of them white. He said we’d know it because it would be big and green. We kept watching for the big green bus with the sign “Náfplio” in the window. The time for its arrival came and went. But I wasn’t worried. Yet. The bus that brought us had been late.

When it was a half hour late we began to ask around. The man in the postal building said it had already left. I insisted we had been watching all this time. It never came. Now I was worried. How would we get back to Náfplio? The cost of a taxi would be prohibitive. I talked to the people in the ticket booth. They shook their heads. If the bus hadn’t come by this time it probably wouldn’t. But we could get a taxi to the nearest village, Fihtia, and catch a bus there.

Seeing no taxis at the taxi stop outside the facility, my friend tried thumbing a ride. A couple of cars did stop. Two women would have taken us to another town where we could get a bus, but they had no place for us. Their back seat was full of baggage. Another couple was headed the wrong way. Finally a taxi came. The driver said he would take us to Fihtia for 10 euros. We flinched and agreed to share the cost.

A jovial man, the driver asked where we were from. When he heard England and the US he said we should come live in Greece. We would live long and healthy lives. His father lived to be 104. My companion, a somewhat reticent fellow, told him we weren’t together. “Why not?” the driver asked. We let the question go.

In Fihtia we just missed the bus, which came hourly. So we waited. I finally asked my companion’s name. Andrew. When our chariot came at last, it was a big white bus.

Later I told people about the last chariot from Mycenae that never came, but I began to wonder. We were looking for a green bus. What if our bus was white like so many of those tour buses and we just didn’t see the “Náfplio” sign in windows we were disregarding? In any case we were a few euros poorer, given the taxi fare, but had shared a small adventure. We bid good-bye in Náfplio, laughing over the day’s mishap, and went our separate ways.

My journey leads next to Portugal on the Iberian Peninsula, land of another ancient warrior culture. With that move we leave the world of my first first three books, which center in Crete, and enter the world of Ireland found by a ship in the Cretan fleet and the realms that impact it. The worlds of Crete and Ireland intertwine, but the center shifts for a while.

NEXT: The Magic of Zambujal

Going There #5: A Warrior’s Dream

It took me only minutes to be ready for my early morning flight. I opened the curtains for one last look at my view and clapped a hand over my heart. The sun had risen over the eastern shores of Santorini, and the strains of a melody swept through my mind.

“I’ll see you in the sunrise …”

Santorini Sunrise

A few years ago when my muse whispered a story for my series (as told here) I was also inspired to write a song for the book. I’m not a songwriter, but this one haunted me and I eventually wrote it down. The line above comes from that song. As I watched the sunrise in this place so important to my characters the refrain touched my heart.

Now I was on my way to Mycenae, an important location for the series. A knock sounded on my door. The grandmother at my family hotel told me the taxi was there, and I hurried out. Having left too early for breakfast at the hotel I wondered what I would find to eat in the little Santorini airport. At a small kiosk I found fresh-baked pastries and chose what they called a cheese pie, white cheese wrapped in pastry, and they actually had green tea, my beverage choice for morning caffeine. Once a seat cleared in the crowded waiting area I sat and bit into my cheese pie. What a tasty surprise!

My destination was the beautiful city of Náfplio on the Greek mainland, a port in the Peloponnese region today as it no doubt was in Mycenaean times. For my books I call the city Tiryns, naming it for the ancient citadel of Tiryns just north of the docks. With the single square sails of their wooden ships they would have sailed into port in the place shown below. Just envision that boat in the picture a little larger, put a square sail on it, with rowers on either side, and you have the image. A number of my book scenes happen in this port town and I planned several days here.

Port of Tiryns (Náfplio, Greece)

I couldn’t sail there myself, so before leaving home I’d spent considerable time figuring out how to make the jump from Santorini to Náfplio. From online forums I gleaned what appeared to be the best route.

I opted for a plane to Athens and a bus from there to Náfplio. To catch the bus to Náfplio I had to go from the airport into the sprawling city of Athens. It sounded a little daunting but I wrote down the information on how to find the right bus at the airport to get to Kiffisou Bus Station in the teeming city.

At the Athens airport I went out the door Rick Steves advised and found the ticket booth, hurrying to get in line so I would be able to find a seat on the bus and get to Kiffisou in time for arrival in Náfplio at a reasonable hour. I forgot to buy a bottle of water but didn’t want to lose my place in line. I bought the ticket and was right up front waiting for the bus. When the bus came people swarmed onto it. I don’t know how it happened but by the time I struggled on with my big bag there wasn’t a single seat left and no room in the baggage racks. I faced a good hour’s ride into town clinging to a bar as I stood and gripped my bag. A man sitting in a single seat near the door glanced up at me. He looked like a guy who could handle himself in the dangerous streets of Athens. I wouldn’t have crossed him. But he rose to his feet and motioned toward his seat in offering. I adored him in that instant. Thanking him profusely, I pushed my bag in front of the seat where there was plenty of room, and I sat. That was a long hot ride. My tongue was parched, but I was sitting. Angels come in many guises.

My first stop in Kiffisou station was a place that sold bottled water. The moment I paid for a bottle I took a long swig and let out a heavy sigh. The store clerk grinned. Next I needed lunch and found another cheese pie. That seemed to be my meal du jour.

I was soon surging down the highway on a comfortable air-conditioned bus, my cumbersome bag in the storage space underneath. A beautiful drive through more of the rugged Greek countryside—rocky hills sprinkled with scrubby maquis, patches of olive trees and grapevines. I had to believe this land must contribute to the rugged Greek character, a people embracing joy in the moment with emphatic submission to life’s inevitable tragedies. I remembered the man in blue at the Heraklion bus station. “We don’t worry in Crete.” He might have included the entire nation. Life happens. Meet it with gusto.

Colossal Walls of Tiryns

As we swung around the coast past the isthmus at Corinth and turned south across the lusher plains I was surprised to see familiar mountains in a place I’d never been, then realized I’d seen this on Google Maps. I looked to the left and there were the ravaged colossal stones of the citadel of Tiryns.

Kokkinou Street, Náfplio

My hotel was an easy walk from the Náfplio bus station—at least until I reached Kokkinou Street, which I knew from Google was not street but stairs. A hot sun bore down on me as I looked up and up to where I must carry my bag.

Many stepped lanes climb like this up the steep slope of the ridge that runs along the peninsula where the old town of Náfplio lies. I have a character in the series who lives up here somewhere, an old trader named Tertulio. That would be Tertulio of Tiryns, one of those supporting characters I so enjoy.

I think I made it to the second landing of this long flight when a group of young people passed by and one of them asked if I’d like help with my bag. Another angel, this one with longish dark hair and beard. He carried it as far as the hotel gate and I didn’t even try to take it up to Reception at the top of more stairs.

Reception, Chroma Hotel, Nafplio

Thankfully my room was on a lower level, and someone from the hotel carried my bag the rest of the way for me. Called the Chroma Design Hotel & Suites, it was an intriguing place with friendly people who expressed an interest in my work. I would stay there three of my five nights in Náfplio.

I had hoped to stay a couple of nights near the citadel of Mycenae, the focus of my interest in this area because of the key role the Mycenaeans play in my books. It’s a group of Mycenaean warriors who show up in Crete in the first chapter of the first book, men who will make lasting changes to Crete and perhaps the world. They are three-dimensional people, so it’s a nuanced situation, creating plenty of tension that resonates throughout the stories. I hoped to get a better sense of them as I came in touch with their land.

I never heard back from the one hotel near Mycenae so I decided to stay the extra two nights in Náfplio and do day trips. But by that time the Chroma was booked for those extra nights. I found a nice room for the last two days in the Dias Hotel, where I also met friendly people interested in what I was doing, especially Michael, who has a great love for Greek history. We had some excellent talks, so it all worked out.

From the rooftop of the Chroma I took in the views. Those Mycenaean warriors must have dreamed of visits to this beautiful port city when they had some free time. I know one who did.

Náfplio from Rooftop
Chroma Breakfast Room

I had a stunning view from my breakfast table at the Chroma and could also enjoy sitting in there during the day. The view from my room was lower but nice.

On the top of my list for sites around Náfplio were those citadels of Mycenae and Tiryns. Guidebooks recommend seeing Tiryns first, so I would visit that my first day and Mycenae the second.

Given the significance in my series of the Mycenaeans and their citadels, I’ll devote a post to them in “Going There #6.”

Promenade, Náfplio

On the other days I visited more sites where book scenes take place. I did the promenade–twice–a walk around the perimeter of the peninsula that juts into the bay. For all the beauty, a harrowing scene occurs just ahead of that arch. The walkway would have been a simple gravel path, probably below the arch.

Overlook Behind Ridge, Náfplio

I visited an overlook on the far side of the peninsular ridge where a scintillating scene takes place. I walked through the city’s narrow streets in the daytime and through the twinkling lights of evening.

And I enjoyed some fantastic meals in the sidewalk cafes and fresh-squeezed orange juice in cafes and at breakfast at the Dias.

This aubergine and feta dish with tomatoes was one of the best meals, served hot in the iron skillet with herbed toast drizzled in olive oil and a huge pile of Greek olives that were almost gone by the time I thought to take a picture.

Aubergine and Feta with Tomatoes

NEXT: The World of Mycenaean Warriors