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About Hydra...

Hydra, GreeceHydra is perhaps the most beautiful port village in all of Greece. The  small, boat filled harbor ringed with cafes, restaurants and gold shops is surrounded by a village of stone houses and mansions that rise up the hills like an amphitheatre. As my favorite writer, Henry Miller described it when he visited with the poet George Seferis in 1939 in his book The Colossus of Marousi...

"Hydra is almost a bare rock of an island and its population, made up almost exclusively of seamen, is rapidly dwindling. The town, which clusters about the harbor in the form of an amphitheatre, is immaculate. There are only two colors, blue and white, and the white is whitewashed every day, down to the cobblestones in the street. The houses are even more cubistically arranged than at Poros. Aesthetically it is perfect, the very epitome of that flawless anarchy which supersedes, because it includes and goes beyond, all the formal arrangements of the imagination. This purity, this wild and naked perfection of Hydra, is in great part due to the spirit of the men who once dominated the island."

Hydra 1963 by Nicholas EconopoulyHydra is the island that launched Greek tourism. Edmund Keeley's book, Inventing Paradise, explores this period of in lives of Miller, Seferis and Laurence Durrell, the men whose writings introduced the literary world to the romance and beauty of the Greek islands. As Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships, Miller and Durrell, (with Nobel Prize winning poet George Seferis and larger than life man of letters George Katsimbalis, acting as their hosts and guides), were the voices that sent an army of romantics to the wine dark seas, looking for the white-washed villages and the long nights of retsina inspired discussions in the cafeneons and tavernas of this far away but somehow familiar land. Thousands of young and old people came to Greece looking for the Hydra described by Miller and they were not disappointed. Hydra was visited in the sixties and seventies by Sophia Loren, Richard Burton, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Pink Floyd, Joan Collins, Jackie O, and many other famous and not so famous people. Poet-musician Leonard Cohen bought a house here in the sixties and his successful musical career single handedly created the idea among a generation of poets, musicians and writers that if you could just get away to a Greek island you could write your masterpiece. Some people did. Many more just became alcoholics. But they sure had a lot of fun along the way.

Hydra 1963For those of us who grew up in Athens, Hydra was the island our parents brought us to while they flirted with the idea of buying a house there. In our teens it was the island we went to escape our parents where we could drink and smoke hash and not be worried about getting run over by anything bigger than a donkey. Our girlfriends came with their portable cassette players, listening to James Taylor and Leonard Cohen, hoping to catch a glimpse of the poet or maybe a Suzanne or Maryanne. They would force feed The Songs of Leonard Cohen to us, trying to turn us into human beings, while we rolled our eyes and played Deep Purple in Rock and Led Zepplin II and argued over whether Ritchie Blackmore was a better guitarist than Jimmy Page. In our twenties we came with our guitars and sat beneath the monument overlooking the sea at Spilia, drinking poppy tea and dreaming of the day we would be famous. As we grew older we came with our lovers, wives, children and grandchildren until we were no longer able or no longer cared enough to come at all. And through the years and decades Hydra stayed pretty much the same.

Hydra, GreeceHydra is one of the Saronic Gulf islands which include Aegina, Angistri, Poros and Spetses. Of these islands, Hydra is the most unspoiled even though it is the most popular. The reason is because growth has been limited and while the other islands expand outward to accommodate tourism, Hydra has remained the same by not allowing new buildings, only the restoration of old ones, many of which are from the 19th century and older.

One of the most charming things about Hydra is that there are no cars. Everything is moved by donkey, including groceries, building supplies, people and their luggage. Chances are the first thing you will notice upon arriving in Hydra are the donkeys and mules lined up in the port, waiting for something or someone to carry.

Hydra, GreeceMost visitors to Hydra just come for the day either because they are on the One-Day Saronic Cruise or because there are simply not enough places for them to stay. If you do want to stay overnight, or over many nights, (which I recommend), then I would book a hotel in advance during the summer because if you wait you won't find one. But because of its proximity to Athens it is the perfect island to visit in the off season when rooms are easy to find. Being across from the Argolis Peninsula where they grow oranges in the winter, Hydra has a mild climate. There are usually people there year round, especially during weekends, including the odd writer or poet wintering on the island of Leonard Cohen, in search of inspiration or an excuse to keep drinking in the tavernas that stay open for the locals through the winter. Hydra is not far enough away to feel like you are cut off from society because in the back of your mind you know that if you get stir-crazy or if the weather gets too nasty you can hightail it back to the nightlife of Athens.

Hydra HarborThe main hobby on Hydra and on most islands is people watching. Though the cafes that line the small harbor can be expensive for those traveling on a budget, you can get a coffee or a soda and sit there all day long. Nobody will ask you to move like they would if you sat in a diner in the states all day with one cup of coffee. There is a foreign press shop on the waterfront where you can get your NY Times, and newspapers, books and magazines from just about any country in the world. Then you can walk to one of the cafes, order a cappuccino or a Greek coffee, and spend the entire day there listening to people around you talking about their previous night's exploits and how many shots they did. Luckily, you can escape to your headphones and musical devices to drown out the sounds you don't want to hear or check the news and your Facebook page with the free wireless that is available in most, if not all of the waterfront cafes. The cafes also serve food so you don't have to leave your table from the time you wake up until the time you go to sleep. For those of you who do want to venture further than your cafe table there are plenty of shops to keep you busy on the waterfront and a few on the main streets leading away from it and walking paths you can follow around the island. But when you get right down to it the best thing to do in Hydra is find the cafe that most suits your style and make it your home. How to choose the best? Find the one with the most comfortable chairs that plays decent music, no music, or bad music so quietly you can't hear it. (My favorite is The Pirate which is multi-purpose, being a cafe, restaurant and a bar that stays open late).

Hydra sailboatsThere are ships and yachts going in and out of Hydra's harbor all day. People on charter sailboats usually arrive just before sunset, tie up and head into town for food and drinks, stay the night and leave early, before the people in the hotels have awakened. The proximity of the other Saronic Gulf Islands and the Peloponessos make Hydra one of the most popular stops for sailors. In the summer they fill the clubs and bars and the boats are often moored in rows three or four deep. (Sailors take note: In the peak summer months the earlier you arrive on Hydra the more people will be climbing over your boat to reach the shore.) Cruise ships also dump their loads of middle class and elderly groups who fan out around the town looking for bargains in gold jewelry and tourist paraphernalia. Like supermarket sweep, they have 2 hours or less to buy everything they can carry back to the ship and disappear, only to be replaced by the next group. Some make their way to the rocks for a quick swim and a cigarette or two. Most are disappointed that Hydra does not have a long sandy beach within walking distance. (Sorry I didn't mention it sooner but there are excursions to beaches and swimming from the platforms and rocks is great.) Generally the day tourists seem to talk too loud and make you remember why you left the States. But they deserve thanks because they are also the reason that Hydra has retained its attractive appearance. The tourists come, they shop, and they leave their money behind when they return to the cruise ship. Since the daily cruise ships dump so much dough on Hydra for the two hours or so they are in port, there is not as much need to develop the island as other islands have with apartment building style hotels. The island has basically looked the way it looks now for the last two hundred years and certainly as it did when Henry Miller visited it on the eve of World War Two. Developers have attempted to buy chunks of the island and create resorts, but for the most part have been stopped.

HydraThere are 3 main streets which go up through the village from the waterfront. The first street you come to from the ferry is Tombazi, on the corner where the donkeys hang out. The next street is Mialouli which is next to the Monastery of the Panagias and the clock tower. The third street is Lignou which goes up the hill and ends up in the village of Kamini. Wandering up these streets is an enjoyable pastime and getting lost is both easy and fun, unless you are here on the Saronic Cruise and you are still lost as your boat leaves the harbor. The interior of the village is very different from the cafe-ringed harbor with its jet-setters, day tourists and urban Greeks. Hydra is as traditional looking as even the most remote village once you break away from the masses. Some people who live in the village may not go down to the harbor for days and many of the resident artists, writers and soul-searchers don't go down there at all once the summer begins.

What Goes on in Hydra

Nikos GhikaHydra has always been popular with artists. From the days when Nikos Ghika, whose cubistic style was modeled on its architecture, the island has attracted well known and aspiring artists. The Ghikas family mansion above the village is now in ruins after a fire destroyed it in 1965. Considering that this is the place that hosted Miller, Durrell, and many other artist and writers it is a shame that there is not more of an interest in it. But life goes on and Hydra now hosts a number of small galleries and shops which display and sell the works of foreign and Greek artists, many with connections to the island. Don't miss the National Historical Museum for more art and history from one of the most historically important of all the Greek islands as well as the Historical Archives Museum.

Hydra Rembetika Gathering Poster Hydra was also the film location of Jules Dassin's Phaedra, (with Anthony Perkins and Melina Mercouri), the classic film The Girl in Black by Greece's most famous director Michael Cacoyianis, and Boy on a Dolphin (starring Sophia Loren) which actually has a statue on the island commemorating the film and the mayor at the time. The Hydrama Theatre & Arts Centre is a professional theater group that promotes the study and practice of ancient Greek theatre by hosting of performances, workshops, seminars and courses, including visits to the nearby Ancient Theater of Epidavros in The Argolis for performances. It also hosts a gathering of Rembetika musicians for a weekend every October towards the end of the month. The Hydra Rembetika Conference features musicians and experts from Greece and around the world who make the annual pilgrimage to the island where they do concerts, workshops, and jam in various cafes and restaurants as well as put on performances in a couple of the restaurants which are often the high point of the weekend. Unfortunately for any true rembetes still around there are no hookers or dope-smoking. But wine and ouzo and stellar musicianship are in abundance and the conference occasionally features an old rembetika or laika musician they were able to dig up. One year they had Costas Ferris whose internationally acclaimed film Rembetiko introduced the world to the music of the Greek underworld. For more info contact ed.emery@thefreeuniversity.net and for those who don't even know what Rembetika is see my Guide to Rembetika Music.

Hydra There are many paths through the hills that lead to small settlements, monasteries and churches and a walk in springtime will introduce you to the islands large array of wildflowers. The walk to the Monastery of Profiti Illias will take you an hour but the view is worth it. There are still monks living there. You may also enjoy walking to Moni Zourvas on the far eastern point of the island. It's a three hour trek that passes the monasteries of Agia Traida and Agios Nikolaos along the way. For those who like monasteries but not walking, the Monastery of the Panagia is right in the port, with it's entrance by the clock tower. The monks cells are now the offices for the town hall but you can go in and admire the church, the marble stones and columns and visit the small museum upstairs.

The best time to be in Hydra is during Easter when the island celebration begins on Holy Thursday and gathers momentum until it explodes in fireworks Saturday at midnight. Much of the activity is focused on the monastery with all the congregations from the islands other churches walking through town to meet there on Friday night. After the Saturday night fireworks everyone makes their way with lighted candles to their homes or the various restaurants to break their fast with the traditional magaritsa soup, lamb, the red Easter eggs, wine and conversation. Sunday is of course the day when the smell of roasting lamb is in the air as friends and family gather together to celebrate the resurrection. If you don't like loud noises you may want to bring ear plugs. There are loud fire-crackers that sometime shake the ground like dynamite that go off frequently from Friday on.

Beaches on Hydra

Avlaki Beach, HydraHydra is not really known for its beaches, or so they say. However, if you have not been to the Cyclades, Crete, or Lesvos, the beaches here are probably as nice or nicer than any you have ever been to. Not to be a snob about it but Greek beaches are in a class of their own and just because you have read that an island is not known for its beaches does not mean it does not have nice beaches. And the further away you get from town the better the beaches are. You don't have to walk. There are boats that go to all the beaches leaving regularly from the port. For those who want to walk and believe that the journey is often the best part, you won't be disappointed. If you walk along the coast heading west, past Spilia and Avlaki, the rock platforms just outside the port where most people swim, after about 10 minutes you will come to Kamini, another village that is like an extension of the main village (if you imagine Hydra town flowing over the top and coming down the other side of the hill to the small harbor below). There are two beaches in Kamini, Megalo Kamini and Micro Kamini and there are a couple traditional fish tavernas in the port if you decide this is far enough. If you continue walking you will come to a small settlement called Vlichos with a small pebble beach as well as a sandy beach run by the very highly rated Four Seasons Luxury Suites Hotel. The hotel restaurant is cheap and the food is good and it is the last food you will find if you plan to continue to the other beaches of Hydra. (Another option for accommodation for those who want to stay outside of town are Kiki's Houses, just a few steps from the beach.)

Bisti Beach, HydraRemember that no matter how tired you get at the end there will be a beautiful beach waiting for you, and you can always take the boat back. So continuing another 2 miles beyond Vlichos is Molos, surrounded by the pine trees that used to cover the island, and an old monastery that rumor has it Richard Branson wanted to turn into a luxury hotel until he finally gave up due to resistance from the locals. There are no restaurants or cafes so bring water, in fact bring water on any of your journeys on foot especially in the summer. Hydra gets hot and you will sweat. There are paths to the rest of these beaches but it is a lot easier to go by boat. Bisti (photo) is a beautiful pebble beach on the western tip of the island. The beach at Agios Nikolaos faces southwest and has sunbeds, umbrellas and kayak rentals. On the south side of Hydra is Limnioniza which you can reach by boat or on the path over the mountain. Most of these beaches, with the exception of Molos, refreshments available in the summer months. If you walk east from the harbor you will come to Mandraki, a small pebble beach owned by the Hotel Miramare where you can rent windsurfers and other watersport utilities. There are sunbeds, restaurants and accommodation here including the Villa Mandraki. You can also get here by boat. (If you have to choose, Adam says go to Agios Nikolaos or Bisti.)

In Conclusion

Hydra Despite the lack of long sandy beaches (over-rated in my book. It gets in your bathing suit, in your hair, on your towel and eventually on the floor of your room and in your bed), Hydra is a great place to visit and one can not over-estimate the value in spending time in a place that has no automobiles. You feel safer and if you have kids your stress-level drops many degrees since the worse that could happen is that they are trampled by a rampaging donkey, which happens so rarely that it is not even worth mentioning. If you have a day or two to spare then come to check it out. But you could easily spend longer here and go home relaxed and at the same time feeling like you have a second home or at least a place to escape to if need be. And believe me. The swimming is great off the rocks!

A young poet once said to me: "Hydra is like a woman whose looks are fading, but she puts on her makeup, dresses up, and is still able to make herself attractive." For those of us who grew up in Greece and spend our summer and weekends on Hydra we can see the wrinkles beneath the makeup, and the tight skirt looks a little too tight. But for those who have never been here before all you will see is one of the most beautiful islands in Greece.

The 2 vintage photos towards the top of the page were taken by my father Nicholas Econopouly, and can be seen with his others at Greece in the Sixties. Thank you to Adam Cohen for most of these photos. Adam is a singer/songwriter/poet from Montreal, Canada and is the son of David Cone, former pitcher of the NY Yankees. Check out his music at adamcohen.com.

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