Victoria Hislop on Greece and Philoxenia

The renowned English author of bestsellers including “The Island” and “Those Who Are Loved” offers her recollections of Greek generosity.


Greek Philoxenia: my definition

I like the myth of Zeus traveling in disguise and sometimes (and sometimes not) experiencing philoxenia [hospitality] from strangers. In Crete, where Zeus was born, of course, in a cave not far from my house, strangers always seem incredibly generous. It really is as if the Cretans think that you might be a god in disguise – so they give you as much food as possible!

The first time I truly experienced it

My godmother, Margarita, is the most hospitable person on the planet. She is an amazing person with deep religious faith, and overflows with kindness and generosity. But to me, the definition is this – I went to her house once with some friends, and friends of their friends (who even I didn’t know), just to say hello. From nowhere, she produced fifteen dishes of food (amazing food, from her own garden and flock: artichoke hearts, broad beans, lamb, snails – really I don’t know how she did this) and was so happy to see all these total strangers eating. She didn’t even know their names. This would never happen in the UK.

My idea of a perfect day (and night) in Greece

A perfect day for me is a summer day. I get up early and go down to the beach close to my house in Crete (Voulisma Beach near Aghios Nikolaos) before the crowds get there and swim out to a distant buoy, then back, and dry off in the sun. At 9.30 I go back to the car and buy a coffee on the way home and by 10:00 I’m at my desk. I write for a few hours. I have lunch (tomatoes and feta and olives, generously covered in olive oil) and then read for a while (if it’s very hot, I nap for a bit). Then it’s back to my desk for an hour, then a late afternoon drive to Aghios Nikolaos to the local beach to find my god-daughter and her mother.

This is the best time on the beach, when the sun is going down. All the tourists have gone by now. We play in the waves and then make a sandcastle. After that, there’s a cantina close by, which serves the best souvlaki in Greece, salad and unbelievable patates tiganites [french fries]. With the sound of the waves crashing on the stones, we sit until midnight, sipping white wine and talking. By then, my god-daughter is sleeping peacefully in her stroller, tired after all the fresh air. Someone often brings a laouto or bouzouki so music will extend the evening even more. When the moon is high, we eventually go home.

One local custom that stunned me
This probably sounds normal to everyone reading… but I was amazed. Every week, a refrigerated lorry arrives in Aghios Nikolaos to collect food in Tupperware from the mothers of the town to take to their children studying in Athens… In the UK, university years are about cutting those umbilical cords, learning to stand on your own two feet, learning how to cook, how to survive alone. So this is very touching, but I think it turns “parenting” into “controlling.” Yes, it’s nice for kids to eat well. But…? So this is a custom that’s both good and bad.

The best place I’ve ever stayed
The most expensive place was Amanzoe in Porto Heli – but, to be honest, I don’t really love luxury hotels… I find them hard to relax in. I prefer simpler places. My top hotel in Greece is the Daios Luxury Living in Thessaloniki – it’s on the seafront. I’ve stayed there more times than I can count and every time, it’s like coming home. And it has the most gorgeous signature scent!

The most unexpected place I’ve ever stayed
I once had to sleep on a beach in Tolo. I was a student, and we couldn’t afford any of the local hotels – it was surprisingly comfortable, but I am happier in a bed!

The best meal I’ve ever had in Greece
I have eaten thousands of times in Greece… how to name the best meal? For me, a meal is about the ambience, the company, the mood, the location, not just the food. One of the best and most memorable meals ever was in Plaka, in Crete, at Haroupia. I was with my children and lots of their friends, we had been on the beach all day, and the mood was high – it was the birthday of my son’s best friend, so there was a special cake and singing. We ate meze, drank wine, and there was live music. It was magical.

A social occasion I’ll always remember – and why
The wedding of my friends Zoi and Leonidas in Crete. I think there were nearly a thousand people (they tell me this was a small wedding) and the tables were all laid out in the schoolyard. This was no ordinary schoolyard – it’s near the top of a mountain in the village of Kroustas, so it’s surrounded by trees and spectacular views.

Everything was simple and natural – amazing aesthetics with brown paper and string and fresh wild flowers. It was really cool and original – and, above all, totally unpretentious. Nothing plastic, nothing garish. It was typical Cretan food – lots of it cooked by Leonidas’ mother (who is the best cook in Crete) and the meat was baked by local people. The wine and raki flowed, and we danced until dawn. Everyone was taken over by the spirit of the place, and the joy of this marriage.

The best traits of the Greek people
Friendliness. Everyone loves talking! I’ve never met a sullen person, not once in my 45 years of coming to Greece.

The most “authentic” Greek person I’ve met
I‘ve met so many wonderful people over the years… but the most memorable is Manoli Foundoulakis, who was an inspiration to me. He lived in Elounda when I met him, he was 80 years old and had suffered in the past from leprosy. He was the kindest, most hospitable and funniest person I ever met, and the reason I learned to speak Greek.

We spent wonderful times together – a man of huge charisma and wisdom. He helped us with the filming of “To Nisi” – to get things “right.” Sadly he died just before the first episode went on air, but the series was dedicated to him. And he lives on in my memory – and in those of everyone who met him. A totally “authentic” person if ever there was one.

When in Greece… The three first tips I’d give to a friend who visits the country for the first time
Go to the Acropolis (it’s obligatory).
Take a ferry to an island.
Watch the sun rise.

There’s something about Cretan hospitality… but what is it?
It has no limits. None at all.

This article was originally published in the print magazine Greece Is Philoxenia 2019-2020. To browse or download a digital copy of the magazine click here. Hard copies can also be ordered from anywhere in the world via our e-shop at only the cost of postage and packaging. 


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