Bestselling author Victoria Hislop on gorge-walking, water skiing, the drama of Delphi and her favourite Greek beach
I have a very strong connection with Greece. Nobody knows where it comes from, least of all me. Many people in Greece think I must have Greek roots, but I haven’t found them. It’s just a deep feeling of belonging here.
My first visit was in the late 1970s when I was a teenager; I came with my mother and sister to Athens and it was love at first sight. That was 40 years ago and I’ve been back every year since. My sister, on the other hand, never stepped foot in Greece again.
This year, I’ve been to Greece every month for a few days. I rent an apartment in Athens and have a house in Crete. It is a place where I’m inspired to write, where I come to live. I’m an outsider and always will be, but I continually peel away the layers to find out what’s inside.
Balos Beach in Crete (Dreamstime)
Greece, first and foremost, has a beauty that’s unlike anywhere else. I have travelled to every continent in the world (I used to do a lot of travel writing and go around the place promoting my books) but there is nowhere else that has the aesthetics of Greece. The sky here has a unique translucence, the sea is especially blue, the stars are brighter and the landscape is dramatic, particularly in Crete where I have my house.
It’s very varied. Every island is a little country with its own traditions, dialects, music, dancing, landscape, so you almost have a whole universe just within the Aegean and Ionian. And the people are intensely friendly and hospitable.
The landscape and character of Greece have a huge impact on my work. For me, Greece is inspirational, perhaps because it is so very different from the place of my birth and, as a foreigner, I find things interesting here that local people don’t even notice. I am constantly asking ‘Why?’ when I am in Greece – and the answers are the inspiration for my writing.
Monastery in Meteora (Alexandros Kakolyris/Cartes Postales from Greece)
In my new book, Cartes Postales from Greece, the protagonist, a heartbroken man, goes on a journey around Greece and listens to people talking and hears their stories. I’ve absorbed many things about Greek culture over the years, and much of it is encapsulated in this book. It’s my love letter to Greece, complete with some elements of criticism, because I think ‘love’ means accepting even things that you do not like – and there are definitely elements in Greece of which I’m critical.
When I’m not writing, I love to have a Greek lesson. I have a fantastic teacher who teaches at the local grammar school and we have wonderful lessons working on a whole range of texts, from poetry and song lyrics to articles in newspapers to extracts from psychology books. I’m learning so much.
You can’t get close to a culture if you don’t speak with people in their own language. Language is absolutely key to understanding. Even the etymology of a word will tell you something about a nation’s mentality.
I’ve explored a lot of the historical and archeological sites. It would be negligent not to. Civilization in Crete goes back many thousands of years; the Palace of Knossos was built around 4000 years ago and was lavishly decorated and very sophisticated. Only today, I visited the new Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, Crete’s capital, which houses the treasures found from all the ancient sites of Crete. It was absolutely breathtaking, full of exquisite artifacts. The craftsmanship was exceptional, from jewellery to sculptures to wall paintings.
On mainland Greece, my favourite site is Delphi. It’s in the most wonderful and dramatic setting, but you really ‘feel’ something there. It has an energy that will always make me return.
I’m very keen on water skiing and Crete is a great place to do this. Close to Elounda, the waters are usually very calm, and when they are not, I sit back and watch the windsurfers and kite-surfers. There are some champions who go there to practice.
And I love gorge-walking. Crete is full of gorges, from Samaria in the west to Kritsa and Riktus in the east, and they’re spectacular and rewarding. Somehow you reconnect with the earth itself when you are walking between these very ancient rocks worn over past millennia by gushing waters. Any other walking seems a bit dull by comparison, especially when you are clinging on to the metal loops that have been stuck into the steeper parts of the rock face.
Greek meal overlooking the coast (Dreamstime)
I love Greek food. Fish and meat are great, but it’s also a wonderful cuisine for vegetarians because of the pulses – chickpeas, lentils, split peas – and wonderful vegetables. My favourite places in Crete are Krisofili’s and Maestrali in Agios Nikolaos and Zizikas and Mermikas in Athens.
One of my favourite beaches is Plaka, just opposite Spinalonga. The waters there are so incredibly clear and clean. Eating fish close by for a reward after a long swim… That’s a perfect day.
Cartes Postales from Greece by Victoria Hislop is out Sept 22 (Headline Review, £19.99). Victoria is also the author of The Sunrise, The Island and The Thread. See www.victoriahislop.com for more details.