Greece has become more than a second home – it has also given me a second citizenship. In September, I swore my oath of allegiance to the Hellenic Republic and the day of the ceremony included meetings with the president, the prime minister and the general secretary of internal affairs. I am now the proud possessor of Greek identity.
Many of my Greek friends, smiling sardonically, tell me that I will now stop loving this country. A standard position in Greece is to be immensely patriotic but also deeply jaded and critical of everything about it. So far, I have felt no such transformation. The landscapes, the history and the people still provide constant inspiration.
With six novels behind me and 10 stops on each book tour, I have travelled the length and breadth of the country promoting the Greek editions. I have been to the north, to the Albanian border where bears sometimes appear, to the east (where Turkey is in view) and down to the southernmost town in Crete on the Libyan sea.
The contrasts in landscape and culture are fairly extreme – mountains, plateaux, rivers, lakes, hot springs, volcanoes; Greece has it all. It’s problematic to talk about my favourite places because I have thousands and I have not found anywhere lacking its own idiosyncratic charm.
As I write, I am sitting in the terrace café of the Acropolis Museum. It’s early October and I keep glancing up at the Parthenon’s golden stones under a blue sky, grateful for the light breeze. The temple is iconic and for many it represents some of the best things about this country, not least beauty and the aesthetic principles that the West have followed for millennia.
These five books are important works about Greece — fiction and nonfiction — and all of them will help any reader to understand the country in greater depth. Most importantly, they are not about ancient times, but Greece today, as it was shaped by events of the 20th century. All of them are very readable.
The Fratricidesby Nikos Kazantzakis (1964)
Everyone knows of Zorba the Greek (often because of the film), but this is another, equally fascinating novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. It is set during the civil war of the 1940s and shows Greece destroyed by war and occupation. Hope comes in the form of Father Yanaros, who tries to end the war in his village; the message, if there is one, is that hate and nationalism often go hand in hand. In this story faith goes some way towards repairing the damage — not just religious faith, but faith in your fellow man. The story has lots of contemporary resonance.
Eurydice Streetby Sofka Zinovieff (2004)
In this charming book Sofka Zinovieff describes how she moved to Athens with her Greek husband and two young children in 2001. She writes in a warm and often amusing way about a chaotic city, noticing the strange habits and traditions that locals take for granted, but outsiders are surprised and bemused by. As an anthropologist, she explores what lies beneath the surface of human behaviour and with affection and criticism paints a lively portrait of the real Athens. I learnt so much from reading this book.
When I visited Patra for the first time, I was baffled. Driving in from Athens through the modern sprawl along the coast, I couldn’t understand how the third largest city in Greece could be so lacking in charm. Where were the string of seafront restaurants that I was expecting, the sixth-century fortress and the museum? The two images that I took away then were of a kitsch hotel modelled on a castle, complete with crenellations: its windows were boarded up and weeds grew from the entrance. It was like something from a nightmarish, abandoned Disneyland. And then there was a sad, rusting ferry languishing in the port, its name, Ionian Queen, only emphasising the sense of a lost but glorious past.
On a return trip last year, though, I found another side to this city. In Patra, as in so many Greek towns and cities, beauty lives cheek by jowl with dereliction. Neoclassical nestles next to 1970s. To love Greece, you have to embrace rather than despair at this chaos, typified by the crumbling mansions, the black sheets at their windows flapping in the breeze. These buildings are funereal, dramatic, precarious, waiting to be saved, but even now adding to the city’s fascinating texture.
On that second visit, I approached the city from a different direction. It was via one of the most beautiful bridges I have ever seen. The graceful curve of the 2km Rio-Antirrio suspension bridge, which links the Peloponnese with mainland Greece, makes an exhilarating approach and, at dusk, when lit, is even more magical. (read the full article in The Guardian)
As Spinalonga enters the final stage of its nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the cast and crew of the iconic Greek MEGA TV show The Island look back and share their memories (Manos Drakonakis for Neoskosmos)
Once synonymous with suffering and death, Spinalonga, the jewel of Mirabello Bay, has risen to world fame through Victoria Hislop’s international best-selling novel, The Island – and the subsequent TV series, now regarded as the best fiction program in Greek television history. Building up to this cultural momentum, a movement was started with the intent of making the Elounda island famous around the world, claiming its place among the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The nomination was submitted last autumn, and it is now entering the final stage, which offers a great opportunity for the series cast and crew to revisit the island and express their support.
“This historical monument was based on the foundations of the Minoan Era”, says Antonis Zervos, mayor of Aghios Nikolaos, and a strong supporter of the cause. “It was very cleverly built and used as a strong fortress using an elaborate defence philosophy, unique for those times. In addition to this legacy, Spinalonga promotes human values. Our nomination file also stresses all the hard work needed for restoration in order for the epic island to not suffer.”
The Greek Ministry of Culture offered a budget of €6,000,000 for the monument’s maintenance. However last year the ticket price to enter was raised from €2 to €8 “due to an influx of tourists”, the mayor points out.
From his part, the series’ director Thodoris Papadoulakis shares his vivid memory of “the Exodus scene, with Victoria Hislop embracing the late Manolis Foundoulakis, who was in fact, the last resident of Spinalonga suffering from the Hansen Disease. He sadly passed away before the TV series premiere four years ago. On that last shooting, Manolis finally felt free from his curse”. However, before his demise, Manolis Foundoulakis had the chance to watch the first scenes of the series before the final cut. They were specially presented to him and he was very moved. The Island was dedicated to his memory.
For Margarita Panousopoulou, who played the part of Kalliopi, the series was an opportunity for her to walk through Cretan customs and culture. In fact, for her role she was taught how to weave using the traditional Cretan loom.
But it was the emotional lesson that still lingers on, as she realised, through her participation in the series, how “leprosy is still considered a curse, even nowadays”. It was through her interaction with the late Manolis Foundoulakis that she understood what it means to be cursed and exiled in Spinalonga.
She admired the Cretan people “for strongly supporting their beliefs and customs till the end. Crete remains always a symbol of fertility” for her.
Playing an outlaw who desperately tried to keep her healthy baby from forced adoption at the hands of the authorities – which was the norm during these dark times – Margarita herself remembers how she was encouraged by Victoria Hislop to ‘escape’ from the emotional toll that the shooting had on her, fondly remembering joining the author in hijinks with raki and the enthusiastic local joining them with signature Cretan kefi!
A delightful and original new book from multimillion-copy bestselling author Victoria Hislop, author of The Island and The Sunrise
Week after week, the postcards arrive, addressed to a name Ellie does not know, with no return address, each signed with an initial: A. With their bright skies, blue seas and alluring images of Greece, these cartes postales brighten her life. After six months, to her disappointment, they cease. But the montage she has created on the wall of her flat has cast a spell. She must see this country for herself.
On the morning Ellie leaves for Athens, a notebook arrives. Its pages tell the story of a man’s odyssey through Greece. Moving, surprising and sometimes dark, A’s tale unfolds with the discovery not only of a culture but also of a desire to live life to the full once more.
Cartes Postales from Greece is an extraordinary new book from Victoria Hislop, the Sunday Times Number One bestselling author of The Island, The Return, The Thread, and The Sunrise. It is fiction in full colour – magical and unique.
Cartes Postales from Greece is published on September 22.
My love for Greece began as a holiday romance nearly 40 years ago. I was a teenager and landed in Athens one blisteringly hot day in August with my mother and sister. It was only my second time out of England.
In spite of the dust, chaos, traffic and signs in a language and alphabet I didn’t understand, I was immediately enchanted. Perhaps it was the brilliance of the blue sky and the dazzling pale stones of the Acropolis, or simply the sight of swallows dipping and diving in the all-embracing warmth of our first evening there.
The charm that held me in its spell intensified when we sailed to one of the Cycladic islands. Paros, with its narrow streets of whitewashed buildings and bright splashes of bougainvillea, seemed a paradise. (Admittedly, the only real thing I had to compare it with was Bognor Regis.) We spent the day swimming in the crystal-clear sea and collecting tiny shells that were scattered across the pale sand. In the evening, we sat in waterfront tavernas, where dark-eyed waiters served generous slices of moussaka, fresh feta, sweet crimson tomatoes and huge smiles of watermelon. I had my first taste of Greek yoghurt.
It was thick and white, like cream. There was nothing like it in an English supermarket in those days.
Since then, I have travelled to Greece a hundred times or more. Turkey came later: I’ve taken a month-long overland trip in a minivan, crossing the plains of Anatolia. I’ve jumped off Mount Babadag to paraglide for an hour at 3,000ft, spying turtles in the sea below. And Istanbul is one of the most thrilling cities in the world. The restaurant bill in Turkey always comes as a pleasant surprise, too.
For me, however, if it were a choice, it would be Greece every time. I struggle to say whether I prefer the islands or the mainland. A particular city or a village? What do I love most? Is it the landscape or its ancient culture? The beaches or the mountains? The food? The climate? The people? It’s no single one of those. They are simply inseparable.
As a student, I travelled around the mainland on buses and slept rough on beaches. In between then and now, there were years of holidays in resort hotels, which were reliable and safe options for our small children. There have also been mid-range villas on the islands and mainland, and, most recently, a short stay at the Amanzoe, in the Peloponnese, which cost a staggering £750 a night.
It’s tempting to fly to Athens, then get a ferry straight out to the islands — but it would be madness not to make the hot climb up to the Parthenon and follow this with a visit to the cool spaces of the Acropolis Museum below. The milling crowds of young Athenians queuing for tables at Monastiraki, near the flea market, make the economic crisis seem far away. Likewise Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, which got so far under my skin, I set a novel there.
When I look at the list of 20 islands I have stayed on, the astonishing truth is that no two are the same: volcanic, otherworldly Santorini; lush Corfu; sweet-smelling, pine-covered Spetses; quiet, car-free Hydra; rugged Cephalonia; peaceful, spiritual Patmos.
I have the biggest space in my heart, however, for Crete. A few years ago, we bought a house there. Everyone said this was insane, and it was, given that the Greek economy was sliding to the edge of an abyss. But there have been no regrets. The island has everything: mountains, gorges, plateaus, beaches, ancient palaces, Venetian harbours and dozens of small towns and villages that still hold fast to a way of life that has never changed. A plate of fresh sardines served by the water in Moxlos, eastern Crete, is the definition of simplicity and perfection. Summer days here comprise little but swimming, eating, reading and backgammon, with night-times often spent watching stars shoot across the sky. After all these years, I feel I have only just begun. There are so many islands I have yet to visit (Skiathos is on my list this summer), walks to be done, seas to be swum, museums to be visited. My appetite for Greece will never be sated.
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