Sailing into the small saronic island of Hydra in early summer, the unrivaled colour I see is yellow. The port – a perfect horseshoe – backs into a high amphitheater dotted with 18th-century mariners’ mansions painted citrine, picked out now by the morning sun. It is a Rip Van Winkle town, cute-warm and coiled around dazzling-bright labyrinths of steep steps and slender streets.
I arrive to hear that summer so far has been a flow of clear-blue days, and that Leonard Cohen was around last night handing out olives and ouzo. As Cohen has lived here on and off since the 1960s, it’s not impossible… but best ask the island’s keeper of stories, harbor master Pandelis, about such things.
Prodigiously bearded and continually harassed by sailors wanting a mooring in the snug port, he’s being followed about today by the king of Malaysia. Apparently the king of the Netherlands is on the lookout for him too, not that Pandelis demonstrates any favoritism, standing in his small tug yelling instructions to fishermen and kings alike, happy to park any one of them next to a semi-derelict vessel filled with nautical junk.
There is no denying that in some months of the year Hydra has immense glamour. In the high season, weeks pass when its port feels almost like a little St Tropez, full of visitors lolling over the day’s first glass of Champagne. Other times, you’ll find only a few old men playing backgammon, and smooching couples off the early hydrofoil from Athens ordering pastries for breakfast.
On the cobbles, a line of donkeys waits patiently to carry suitcases up to the hotels and apartments. There are no land vehicles here, not even pushbikes. Banned for all time. Hydriots feel about the wheel the way the Amish do about Velcro: they know of its existence and have determined that with it comes the fall. How wise this has proved. No wheels have meant no heavy construction or gigantic hotels; the island can never be overcrowded or spoiled through over-development, and has the atmosphere of a long-cherished and deeply quixotic place, a place far, far away, even though it is separated from the Peloponnese by just a narrow strip of water. There are no street names on Hydra either. You simply set off and see what lies around the next corner.
I’m so hot and lazy. Hardier friends return from Hydra trim from trekking across the island to the handful of pebbled beaches along the coast, although most people take a water taxi for a few euros. For centuries ancient Hydra was nothing but an obscure pirates’ lair and you’ll find no temple ruins to visit.
Hydra has long attracted artists and art money. In cliff-side galleries in June and July, New Yorkers show short films on the subject of dislocation to an excess of global super-collectors, after which everybody troops off to a taverna and gets un-Americanly drunk. The island seems to absorb this fashionable display of chatter and ambition, and enjoy it enormously for a while, but is just as happy when everybody melts away back to Milan or Brooklyn.
But no activity on Hydra compares to a trip out in a boat. The island is only 50 kilometers square and completely riveting when seen from the water, despite not being particularly lush or landscaped with the comely vines and olive trees of other Greek islands. Still, whichever way you turn, the impact is captivating.
A little further along, we pass the chapel of Saint Kyprianos, made from mud and wine and constructed long ago in gratitude by the survivors of a terrible storm, and beyond that a cove where five goats, almost mythically huge – really the size of Shetland ponies – play along the shore. Standing whooping on rocks, a group of kids watch a menacingly handsome adolescent known locally as Wolf Boy free-diving from a crag, arching his body like a rainbow and then sharply straightening seconds before impact. Everybody explodes in applause. (‘What goes through your mind when you hit the water?’ I ask him one night after bumping into him on a dance floor in town. Pulling a mock-dramatic face he leans into my ear and whispers, ‘the full moon’.)
As the afternoon draws to a close, everything beyond the lulling shores is washed in a plumbago haze. The mainland in the near distance shimmers through a silvery curtain of atmosphere. Athens is just 68km away, although it feels infinitely remote. Even the pretty ketch now bobbing into view seems almost a chimera. Plonked on the stern, a pot of basil; above it, a bikini hung up to dry. Nobody seems to be onboard.
Hydra is the birthplace of five Greek prime ministers and the first president of the Second Hellenic Republic. I’ve often wondered why that was so, this relatively barren rock with one town and a handful of hamlets reached by foot or donkey. Some places are just like that: powerfully and romantically unusual. Its current mayor – the son of a grocer – grew up on the island but won a scholarship to read philosophy at Cambridge, returning home to be elected to office at just 36. I see him one day carrying a pile of books, and he shows me a photograph of himself looking scholastic in his room at university. On the walls, nothing but the Hydriot revolutionary flag.
Up at the monastery, sisters Nectaria and Matrona, dressed in black habits and veils, have been awake for hours. They’re the only nuns left here now (across all of Greece there is a crisis in recruiting to the religious life), resident since they were 11 and 14 when, consumed with heavenly duty, they walked up the hill to present themselves. Working contentedly at their sewing machines, the nuns are full of news about a rare trip to a hospital in Athens where Matrona, homesick and bewildered, had to drag a mesmerized Nectaria out of the flower shops off Syntagma Square.
Back down on the shore, in peaceful Kamini, a short walk along the path from the port, I have what I think of now as the perfect Aegean afternoon, starting with a binge at the smallest restaurant I’ve ever seen: four tables and a menu of three dishes written on a chalkboard strung with dried sage. I am served fresh anchovies and giant fava beans, and creamy slabs of cheese, Greece teaching me yet again that feta only ever comes one of two ways: either a salty chore or a thing you can’t stop forking until you faint.
After lunch, a swim, simply stepping off nearby rocks into the sea. Far beneath my feet are sponges of such rare quality Hydriot merchants sold them the world over for centuries and they still come up from abyssal depths the colour of caramel, smelling of kelp forests. Even Sophia Loren couldn’t resist, clutching several to her decollete after a dive scene in the 1957 movie Boy on a Dolphin, which was filmed here. Half the island appeared in it and everybody still talks about it like it happened yesterday. Time on Hydra is relative, ever-deepening and drifting.
Any visitor can experience their trip to Hydra in different ways, but eventually they all gain beautiful memories, while their minds are getting clearer with the island’s serenity and its heavenly nature.
Source: CN Traveller