11 Oct Hydra: The greek island with no cars
Hydra, a Greek island in the Saronic Gulf, is a rare luxury in today’s world – an island with no cars. It has rocky coves, beautiful sunsets, and is only a 100-minute hydrofoil trip from the Athens’ port of Piraeus.
The last time I was on Hydra was 15 years ago, in late spring, when the wildflowers were blooming on the hills, and the only tourists were day trippers from the cruise liners. Once the day trippers departed, as the sun headed to the horizon, the old Hydreans would once again be left in peace to play Tavli, the ancient Greek board game, on the café terraces by the harbour.
At that time, only a small, worldly group of foreigners had houses on Hydra; the type who yearned to retreat now and again to lead a simple, island life. That year, we stayed in a house owned by a gem-trading, restaurant-owning Belgian friend who, for the rest of the year, lived in Bangkok. I’ve since lost contact with him.
Roll back even further, to the 1960s, and Australian writers George Johnston and Charmian Clift – the ‘Ted [Hughes] & Sylvia [Platt]’ of Hydra – planted the seeds for an artists’ community on the island which, as the decade progressed, turned distinctly hippy.
This community included a young Leonard Cohen, who met his muse, Norwegian actor Marianne Ihlen, on Hydra. She was the inspiration for his song, So Long Marianne. (For a fictional saga of these heady times in Hydra, pick up Polly Samson’s book, A Theatre for Dreamers.)
Mass tourism: how to deal with the monster
When I returned to Hydra this September for two nights as a weekend trip from Athens, I found the hills of the 50km-long island a sun-dried brown, the sea still a deep blue, and, once the church bells chimed 10 in the morning, and the old residents of Hydra had sipped the last of their morning coffee on the terraces, the streets packed with tourists.
As the owner of one of one many boutique stores along the harbour in Hydra commented to me: “It’s English people with plummy accents who come to Hydra, rather than the boozers who go to Rhodes.”
In Greek mythology, the Hydra was a nine-headed water serpent monster. And each time one of its heads was cut off, another two grew. You cannot fight mass tourism, It is better to live with the nine heads. And I needed what Hydra had to offer – an island where the taxis come in the form of mules, a swim in a clear, blue sea, and a destination not too far away from Athens.
What’s more, wherever you go in the world, there is always a quiet corner to be found; and that is without having to wait until the season ends, when Hydra’s population dwindles to 2,500, and all the restaurants and hotels are closed.
The Jeff Koons boat docked at Hydra
“Look out for the Jeff Koons’ boat,” a Greek Cypriot friend had messaged me as I made my way to the island from Athens. And there it was, in the harbour at Hydra as I stepped off the hydrofoil, alongside the other gin palaces – all new additions over the past 15 years, to replace the fishing boats and sail boats.
The boat – named Guilty, although I am not sure what about – is owned by Greek Cypriot art collector & industrialist Dakis Joannou. Dakis also has a house on the island, and an art project space, which he operates as the part of his DESTE (meaning ‘to look’) Foundation.
Heading west towards Vlychos Beach
Late that afternoon, I walked down to the harbour, and took the path that wraps around the coastline to the left, towards the Sunset Restaurant, where people do just that, watch the sunset. Carry on for another five minutes or so, and there is a break in the wall to take you down to a small swimming platform, etched out of the rocks, with steps down to the water. There were a few people there, but not many. As I was to find out on my last day, this is the perfect spot for an early morning swim, just after sunrise, when there is no one.
I was to take this path several more times. Once again that evening to eat at Techne restaurant, where my table had a view of the water through the (irrigated) pine trees.
The next day, at the same time, it was to do the 40-minute walk, up the hills and down to the coves, to the Four Seasons Hotel (owned by Bill Gates) on Vylchos Beach. Here, the fish at Tassia’s Tavern is particularly good. Or so I was told. But darkness was falling, the moon was new, and the street lighting was minimal, so I turned back, just before getting to Taverna Marina – another recommended spot that I never had time to try.
Heading east towards the DESTE Foundation
If you go in the other direction at the harbour a different world opens up. So, you turn right – not left to Teche and the Four Seasons – past the hydrofoil stop, and up the hill to the statue of Andreas Miaoulis, who led the Greek navy against the Ottomon rulers in the 1821 War of Independence,
Walk along the exposed cliff top – not a tree in site – and after ten minutes or so, you arrive at the DESTE Foundation Project Space Slaughterhouse, As the name suggests, the building was once the island’s slaughterhouse. Most of the trappings are still in place – suspended hooks, metal grilled stalls, and the drainpipe that used to carry the blood down the cliff and into the sea. It’s visceral, yes, but so is the art.
Dakis has many friends, and one of them is Jeff Koons, who was due to show a ‘special project’ at the space this summer, but the pandemic put a stop to that. Instead, a “group of artists and friends” organised a small group show, called The Greek Gift, named after the chess tactic, the ‘Greek gift sacrifice’, where a player sacrifices a bishop to checkmate.
The name also reflected the mythical gift of the Trojan Horse from the Achaeans to the city of Troy. “As any gift, it is a complex range of generosity and self interest”, said the curator’s blurb. I never met Dakis, but he seemed to have a sense of humour and a passion for life.
A sanctuary among the Hydra crowds
Time had slipped. The DESTE project space was due to close at 1pm, but it was now ten minutes past the hour. I had been carried away talking with the curator, with our only interruption being a call from Dakis himself.
Realising the time, I asked her a question to which I did not expect an answer. A question that is like asking a Greek person for their favourite Greek island. “Where is the best place to go swimming nearby?” I asked, so that no one else could hear.
Rejoining the coastal path, five minutes later, I found a tiny turning that she had described to me. It took me through the oleander bushes, down the cliff, and a further 60 or so steps to a rocky cove. I was welcomed in Greek by a woman perched on a rock like a mermaid, and who gave the air of living by the sea all year round, her dark eyes twinkling and her skin bronzed.
She was with a group of three friends, who turned out to be French. They were dismayed that the DESTE Foundation had shared their secret spot. “Oh, but I did ask,” I said.
A simple tavern on Mandrake beach
As they left, my new friends – who had embraced me as part of their group – told me of their favourite, nearby taverna, at Mandrake beach.It was further along the coastal path from the DESTE Foundation project space: past a shuttered over-refurbished house, with empty swimming pool and Russian flag flapping in the sea breeze. Hydra is an island of contrasts. Like so many places in the world.
Turning the bend for the final stretch down to the beach, the taverna is the simple blue and white building on the right, with a terrace overlooking the beach on the left. The taverna did not seem to have a name, and if it did, it would have been in Greek, like all the best places in Greece.
To cut a longer story short, I ended up by having lunch with my four new friends. The taverna served honest Greek fare, for which we paid a reasonable €11 each, with no wine – and with the tinny sounds of the radio blaring in the background thrown in for free.
The woman who had greeted me, Marie, lived in Guadeloupe and traded in artisanal rum. You still meet interesting people on Hydra, even though time has moved on since Leonard Cohen was there. I made a point of not asking for their contact details. It is not always wise to clutch onto good times, hoping to recreate them another day – it is best to leave the door open to new experiences and encounters.
Later that night I took the same path up from the town and along to the DESTE Foundation project space. A canopy of stars filled the sky. It gave me that expansive feeling of nature being bigger than us mere mortals, which is comforting, especially during times of transformation.
Where to eat in Hydra
Techne – “What a terrible name for a restaurant,” I had thought. Techne actually translates as ‘craftmanship’. The food was good. The clientele was wine-drinking and a far cry from the rustic nature of the lunchtime taverna at Mandraki beach.
My first course was Vine leaves stuffed with rice & herbs, white anchovies, smoked yoghurt & tomato jam, and my main course Grilled calamari, cauliflower risotto, taram & Lefkas island salami.
Yasemi – Opposite the Hotel Greco, inland in Hydra town, so away from the chirpy sound of the crowds. I started with a classic Greek salad of tomato, cucumber, red onion, black olives & feta cheese. I then ordered Grilled sea bream, which is found on many a Greek menu, probably because it is likely to be farmed.
Around half the people eating there that night were locals, which made for a more authentic atmosphere. I just hoped that they did not have to pay the same prices as us tourists. But then I sometimes battle with that English presumption that everything on holiday should be cheaper than back home in London.
Karagiannis Bakery – This is where I bought my snacks; normally a spanakopita, a spinach and cheese pie, and bread sticks. It’s next to the Pirate Bar, overlooking the harbour front.
Where else to eat
People also told me about the restaurants Kryfo Limani and Xeri Elia Douskos. Remember that all restaurants in Hydra – apart from, or so it seemed, Yasemi – cater for tourists.
However, I had the impression from my six nights in Greece that you can’t go too wrong with food. The fare is simple and fresh, even though it might not offer you a culinary experience that you are unlikely to forget.
Where to stay
Hotel Miranda – Room 10, at €100, was my room and the cheapest in the house. This hotel felt like home. White walls. Antique furniture mixed with modern paintings. Breakfast in the garden courtyard. Guests who talk in hushed tones, and wore walking boots rather than the latest set of headphones. I also appreciated the water cooler, as you can’t drink the water from the tap on Hydra, unlike in Athens. The hotel is five minutes’ walk from the harbour, but far enough away to be quiet. Hotel Orloff also looked good, but I could not find a single room there – always more reasonably priced for one.
How to get to Hydra from Athens
Book through Hellenic Seaways. Then, within the 48 hours before your trip, download your e-ticket. The hydrofoil leaves from Piraeus gate E8, a five-minute walk from Piraeus metro station. Bad weather may delay sailings.
See my post on Athens: a city of ‘philotimo’.