Virtual voyage around the Med – with Robin Hood
When I write historical fiction, I try to be as accurate as I can about the places where my heroes have their adventures. If possible, I like to go there myself and “walk the ground”, doing what I grandly call “optical research”, ie, having a bit of a look at stuff. But that can be prohibitively expensive so, more often these days, it’s a virtual voyage of discovery via the internet.
When I was writing Robin Hood and the Caliph’s Gold, I knew my gang of Sherwood hard-cases would be visiting a number of different countries and I could only realistically afford to go to one of the places – truth be told, if I was stinking rich, I’d spend a whole summer in the Med on my super-yacht with my family visiting them all. But . . . oh well, a novelist can dream.
So I decided to go to Crete for a week. Not only is it a lovely place to spend a few days doing research, but I also have history with that part of the world and the south coast of the island; particularly the village of Kokkinos Pirgos, near Matala (pictured below), which occupies a special place in my heart.
I lived in Kokkinos Pirgos for about six months when I was 19. It was a time between school and university – I actually took three years off between those two institutions but that is a story for another day. I lived on the beach, mostly, and sometimes in the empty, half-built houses that abounded then in Crete. I was usually penniless and quite often hungry.
And I had a whale of a time. At least I remember having a lot of fun – memory is wonderful like that. There were days of unbearably hot, back-breaking labour in the massive plastic greenhouses, clearing out the tomato plants (which knacker your hands). I worked in a cucumber factory, packing the fruits for German supermarkets. I did a bit of labouring on buildings sites in the baking heat. Now that I think about, it was brutal.
But that’s not really what sticks in my memory. I remember all the fun I had, the friends I made, the tourist girls I tried to sweet-talk, the long boozy days of sunshine, sand, swimming and silly jokes. I was 19 – and I probably have my rose-tinted specs on now looking back from the ripe old age of 54.
Anyway, Kokkinos Pirgos is Greek for Red Fort and I discovered when I was there more recently that there used to be a medieval tower around which the village was based. The castle is long gone, nothing remains, and the site is occupied by a fish taverna (below) called The Red Fort.
When I discovered there had been a medieval fortress there, I knew I had to include Kokkinos Pirgos in one of my books. And now it is – Robin, Alan and Co, attack the Red Fort in The Caliph’s Gold and slaughter a bunch of brutal pirates. Crete used to be a notorious haven for Arab rovers at this time.
The other fortress in the book – Ulldecona in eastern Spain – I have not had the pleasure of visiting in person, and doing my “optical research”. One day, perhaps. I had to learn all about that from digging around on the internet. These days, with a bit of detective work, you can get a really good sense of what a place it like just by looking at pictures online. This (below) is the Hospitaller castle that Alan and Co defend at the end of The Caliph’s Gold.
Until I can afford my own super-yacht, I will continue to use a combination of “optical research” and diligent internet investigation to research my stories. And, in these days of lockdown, I hope my work, the adventure tales I write, will transport you, if only in your imagination, to the sunny/stormy Mediterranean at the end of the 12th century, at least for an hour or two.
You can buy a copy of Robin Hood and the Caliph’s Gold here.