From moonlight pilgrimages to sacred monasteries and London-worthy fish tavernas, best-selling author Victoria Hislop shares her best Insider secrets about Crete – the magnetic Greek island that has stolen her heart.
How – and when – did your deep connection with the island of Crete begin?
My first visit was in 1980. I was travelling around Europe with a boyfriend and we arrived in Crete in the middle of August. I got on the first bus that we saw in Heraklion – without really knowing whether we were going east or west. It took us east – and I remember staying in a village where there was a sign saying “Rooms” – and we grabbed a room. We stayed for many days, spending all day on the beach, living on watermelons, tomatoes and bread (after six weeks of travel we had almost no money left for anything else). I remember the beauty of the landscape, how the mountains almost came down to the sea, and the wild waves. It was a very hedonistic and simple experience.
Has it changed much since then?
The wonderful thing about Crete is that it is…. Huge. I think of it as a country rather than an island! So yes, more houses and hotels have been built (particularly near Elounda) – but there is so much space, so I never feel Crete will be spoiled. Another very noticeable change has happened in Crete: the arrival of more and more great restaurants with really fantastic food made with fresh and interesting ingredients. I no longer just eat watermelons and tomatoes when I am there.
You have a summer home in Crete, near Aghios Nikalaos, that also serves as a writing retreat. What’s the view like from your window?
It is a seascape – the Mirabello Bay – and from my desk I see this huge sweeping expanse of ocean, with mountains in the background. For me this is the most beautiful view on earth. And the most wonderful thing about it is that it is constantly changing – every hour, every day, the colours are different – the sky and sea change from deep blue, sometimes to turquoise, sometimes many shades of grey! In the far distance, I can see some very high mountains that remain snow-capped often until May. I wish I was a painter, but instead I endlessly take photographs to try and capture the many moods of Crete.
The Writer’s Life aside, we hear that you’re also very into your active adventures when on Crete?
Crete is a fantastic place for walking in the autumn, winter and spring. The most famous place of all is the Samaria Gorge in the west. It’s an extraordinary landscape, and to begin walking just after dawn, and to emerge by the sea many hours later is a truly special experience. There are also many mountain tracks in eastern crete – ancient paths once used by shepherds but still visible for walkers. In August, I have done the pilgrimage that begins from Agios Nikolaos and ends at the Monastery of Faneromeni – it’s a night walk up the mountains and you finish as the sun is rising at the monastery. And, yes, watersports…. In the Gulf of Elounda, conditions are always perfect. For ten years, I have been going to see Petros who is based at the Royal Marmin Hotel. He and his son, Angelos, are both fantastic teachers and have made both my children accomplished wake-boarders. Some of the most exhilarating moments of my life have been crossing the wake at high speed on my skis with Petros at the helm.
How would you describe the mood of Crete?
Crete has great energy. It makes me feel very healthy in body and mind. The air is pure, the sea is wonderful, the food is healthy. Crete makes me profoundly happy, in a way that no other place does.
You’ve previously said that the landscape and character of Greece have had a huge impact on your work – and that as a foreigner you notice things that locals may not. Is that still the case after so much time spent here?
Yes, it is still the case and I think it always will be. I am an “insider” but still an “outsider” too, so I believe that I will always retain the same objectivity about Greece. And because I come and go on a continual basis, more or less every month, I can’t help making comparisons (some of them in Greece’s favour, some of them not). I will always be inspired by Greece and I think this inspiration comes from all the things that surprise me in Greece.
What’s your perfect summer’s day in Crete?
I always get up early – I can’t bear to waste a second of the day in the summer. I usually leave my shutters open so that I am woken when the sun rises – it’s a spectacular sight – at around 5 a.m. in August. But then I fall asleep again for an hour. Then I go to the nearby beach– it’s called Voulisma beach, in Istron. It’s a beautiful stretch of very golden sand. There is a café there that opens early, so I will grab a freddo cappuccino to drink when I get out of the sea. The whole beach gets very busy around 10.30 so I go back home and sit at my desk and write. Lunch is simple – Greek salad. And the evening is usually spent in Agios Nikolaos, meeting friends for dinner. This is my perfect day – it’s not complicated. It’s a perfect day that I can repeat and repeat.
Where can one go on Crete for an always fabulous dining experience?
There are so many good places in Agios Nikolaos! When I have friends over from London who are real “foodies” or if they have never been to Greece before and think that it’s horiatiki or nothing, I always take them to “Xrisofili’s” in Agios Nikolaos. Panagiotis, the owner, has a real passion for good food and wonderful ingredients. I love the aesthetics of his restaurant (and he changes something every year in terms of décor or design). If he (Panagiotis) opened in London and served his dishes, you would have to book a month in advance.
Tell us one absolutely unmissable experience for first-time visitors …
To sit watching the sunset with a glass of cold white Cretan wine, with a few olives in a bowl. The simplest things are always the best.
Do you have a favourite special memory or inspired moment on Crete?
Visiting Spinalonga for the first time was a very strong experience and I knew even in the first minute that I arrived there that I had to write about it. It was very compelling and very emotional. And I admit that this visit made a profound change to my life.
Insider Weekly, May 31, 2017.