Ten years ago–almost to the day–I hiked the Vikos Gorge in the western Greek region of Epirus, and did so as I’ve done all too many things in my life: impulsively. Small water bottle, no food, no hiking boots or walking stick or map or cell phone—and no plan for how I would get back to my hotel in the village of Monodendhri after I reached the other side of the gorge, a six-hour walk away.
On the long way down I passed a herd of goats. Later I stood astonished as wild ponies ran ahead. Following the dry river bed I made my way.
Now it is time to introduce today’s Greek word: philoxenia (φιλοξενία). Hospitality. Standing at the outskirts of the taverna (the only one, to my recollection) in front of me as I set foot at the top of the other end of the gorge, I surveyed the scene. One table held a group of policemen. Hmmm… The next held two middle-aged women, just finishing their dinner. Perfect. By nature I’m very shy and positively Hamletian in my hesitations but I’d just hiked the entire day and was dirty, hungry, and having the sudden realization that I needed to find a way back to my hotel and would have to act quickly before they left. Without a hitch they graciously took me in their car and we headed out.
We hadn’t gone very far before one announced, “Now it is time for a coffee,” and pulled into one of the picturesque villages in these parts. I was plied with Greek coffee and spoon sweets (intensely sweet preserved fruits—we had orange, I think, and watermelon), and though they spoke little English and I even less Greek, I learned that the two women were sisters, both doctors, from Patras. Two hours later we made our way down the twisty mountain highway, the two of them singing in the front seat, translating bits of songs for me, and pulled up to my hotel, where the owner rushed out to greet me, worried (with good reason) that I’d been swallowed up in the canyon. She took me inside and fed me hortopita (like spanakopita but with wild greens instead of spinach).
This time, a decade later, as my beau and I wound the rental car between villages I was struck by how far out of their way these ladies had to drive to deposit me safely back in my village, and was grateful all over again to recall their philoxenia.
The thing is, this is not an unusual story. There are reasons so many travelers fall in love with Greece.