She had scarcely travelled anywhere at all. Yet, recently separated from my father and keen for adventure, my mother, Mary, decided to whisk my sister and me to Athens.
It was the late 1970s. I was 17 years old — and promptly fell in love at first sight.
Not with a dark-eyed local boy, but with Greece itself. That first experience of clear, bright Aegean light and delicious warmth from the Mediterranean sun has remained with me ever since.
Inspired: Novelist Victoria Hislop has been made an honorary citizen of Greece for promoting modern Greek history and culture through her writings. Pictured is Rethymno harbour in Crete
Victoria and mother Mary, who ignited her lifelong Greek passion
My mother approached that first visit with her usual energy. We ticked off with appreciation every archaeological site in the guidebook, going round on buses, frequently getting lost, trying to decipher street signs in an unfamiliar alphabet and almost melting in the August heat. It was hot, confusing and noisy, but I adored everything about it.
After we’d unpicked what we could of Athens, we took a ferry to the island of Paros, which was all whitewashed villages and blue-domed churches. Having spent most previous summer holidays on the pebbly beach at Bognor Regis, the soft white sand was a revelation.
My mother lit the spark which ignited my lifelong Greek passion and inspired my bestselling novel, The Island, set on Spinalonga, a tiny island off the coast of Crete, which was the last leper colony in Europe.
I thought of Mum last week when my phone rang at 10am on a quiet Thursday morning. I answered the unknown number that flashed up on my screen and heard the unexpected words: ‘I have the Prime Minister for you.’
The person on the line was speaking Greek so I knew it wasn’t going to be Boris Johnson. Then I heard what, for me, has become a familiar voice: that of Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek PM (I know his authoritative tones from the Greek equivalent of the Today programme which I tune into each morning).
Mr Mitsotakis was calling to offer me Honorary Citizenship of Greece for promoting modern Greek history and culture through my writings.
To say I was thrilled is an understatement. But it was a pity that I couldn’t share it with my mother. The call came in July, almost precisely four months after she died in a care home, aged 92.
Crystal clear: Victoria lived semi-permanently in Crete for 18 months, working on scripts and production for a TV series. Pictured is the water off Loutro, Crete
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Mum was there at the very beginning of my connection with Greece and years later accompanied me on my research trips to Crete. It was a huge pleasure when I had finished writing The Island to dedicate it to her, and I love to think there are at least five million copies of the book around the world dedicated ‘To my mother, Mary’.
A funeral was out of the question (only two people were allowed to attend a cremation at that time), so we had what we cheerfully called a ‘Zoomeral’ and gathered together on many different laptops to celebrate her life.
I asked several of my Greek friends to cast some flowers into Mirabello Bay, a place in Crete my mother had loved, and it gave me a real sense of peace that so many people had wished her goodbye. I am overlooking the bay as I write this.
After that first holiday with Mum I became what you might call a philhellene, visiting Greece every year, delighting in the huge variety of landscapes and the glorious summer climate.
Of course, there were endless trips to unspoilt beaches and secluded bays, so perfect for the many holidays with my husband Ian when our children (who still love coming to Greece in their late 20s) were toddlers, splashing about in those safe waters.
And, yes, there were just as many visits spent enjoying ancient Greek culture — Athens, Corinth and especially Crete, where there are thrilling remains of Minoan palaces dating from 4,000 years ago.
We also made spring-time trips, when walking was the major activity. In Crete, the mountains and gorges are spectacular, as are the huge meadows of wild camomile and irises, not to mention the waterfalls where you can swim.
Then, in 2001, everything changed on a family holiday to Crete. The children were still young and much keener to stay on the beach than look at pots in a museum.
I spotted a place that seemed to offer a compromise: a short boat trip to an island where it was possible to swim off the rocks, combined with a stroll around a Venetian fortification and a small settlement, once the site of a leprosy hospital.
We set off, the children lured by the prospect of ice creams, and were soon on the ten-minute boat trip across to Spinalonga. As we disembarked, I was struck by the unexpected beauty of this little island. I had anticipated that a place where people went with an incurable disease would be depressing, but I could see that here were all the characteristics of a thriving community: remains of shops, pretty houses, a bakery, a little church, a cafe.
It was clearly a place where people went to live, not just to die, and it filled me with optimism and admiration at how they had survived.
I decided I wanted to write a story about a group of patients and how it must have felt to be sent into exile, almost in sight of loved ones on the mainland. My mother was always supportive of everything I did but was bemused that I was writing a novel for the first time, and even more so that it was about leprosy.
I went back to Greece many times over the next few months to research it, and this time it was me who took my mother along.
We ambled about, driving to remote hillside villages, soaking up the atmosphere and the timeless landscapes of Crete. It was very different from our frenetic time in Athens all those years before. I would tease my mother because she continued to be beautiful in later life and often attracted the attention of elderly Greek men. If we were in a taverna, they would sometimes send over a carafe of wine.
Often, I used her as a ‘decoy’, pretending to take a photograph of her when I was actually taking a snap of some wonderful Cretan face in the background, whose photo would later inspire a character of mine. The Island was published in 2005 and to my delight it became a bestseller in English and was followed by translations into more than 35 languages, including, most exciting of all, Greek.
Colourful history: Victoria recalls visiting ancient sites in Crete, including the remains of Minoan palaces (pictured)
Ancient art: ‘I began to feel a sense of ‘coming home’ whenever I got to Crete,’ writes Victoria. Pictured – Frescoes in the palace of Knossos
A Greek TV adaptation then followed and I lived semi-permanently in Crete for 18 months, working on scripts and production for the 26‑episode series.
It was a time of full immersion, in the language, in the music, in the culture, in the mentality and in the Greek way of living. I began to feel a sense of ‘coming home’ whenever I got to Crete. I learnt Greek with a local teacher and my knowledge of its culture, music and poetry started to expand.
I bought a house on the island and got to know many Greek people. They started to treat me like ‘one of them’ — which meant being taken to places that were off the tourist track.
Tasteful: Victoria loves the simple delights of Greek cuisine. One of her favourites restaurants is Portes in Agios Nikolaos
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I remember a visit to a restaurant down a side street in Agios Nikolaos (not in a fashionable spot close to the sea) and eating food that was so authentic and freshly cooked it was like being in someone’s home (it’s called Portes . . . I am happy to share the secret).
Beaches were the same. Local friends took me to their personal favourites, one called Voulisma, which has a shack at the far end where only souvlaki and Greek salad are served, but they are the best in the world.
The Greeks are nothing if not welcoming. If you turn up in a busy restaurant, you are never turned away; they just move a few tables around to fit you in. If you go to a wedding, there aren’t a few hundred guests, but a few thousand (though, of course, that is much reduced this year).
I began to adore this inclusiveness. A key ingredient in the Greek personality is their tradition of philoxenia, ‘friendship to the foreigner/stranger’.
I have experienced this so many thousands of times and know the levels of hospitality and generosity that Greeks are capable of. Now they have invited me to be one of them — the ultimate act of friendship.
Since The Island, I’ve continued writing about Greece. Cartes Postales From Greece told of 21st-century Greece, with young people in a mood of desperation because of the debt crisis. Those Who Are Loved describes how 1940s Athenians starved in a famine.
Greece (a country with a population of less than 11 million — little more than Greater London) has endured extraordinary hardship and turbulence during several decades of the 20th century — but in spite of these crises, always survives.
I am aware of so many echoes in our language. There are thousands of words with Greek roots in English. One word I have felt the force of during lockdown has been ‘nostalgia’.
The word ‘nostalgia’ comes from the Greek nostos meaning ‘homecoming’ and algia meaning ‘pain’, and this was what I felt during these past months — the ache of absence, of missing the place where I wanted to be.
Today, not only am I in Greece, the country to which my mother had introduced me, but Greece chose this moment in my life to adopt me. It makes me, and would have made her, incredibly happy.
- Victoria’s latest novel Those Who Are Loved is out in paperback on August 20. Her new novel, One August Night, a sequel to The Island, will be out on October 29. Both published by Headline.