A creative Greek island paradise of Hydra

The Greek island of Hydra has only horses, donkeys and boats for transport - no bikes. No cars.

Australian artists like Sidney Nolan and authors Charmian Clift and her husband George Johnston lived cheaply on the Greek Island of Hydra during the 1950s and 1960s, along with singer Leonard Cohen. The prices on the island have gone up since that time, as writer Pony Louder explains after visiting Hydra to research her next book.

By Pony Louder

Whitewashed wonder in Hydra

Hydra – or Ydra, as the locals call it – has long drawn an artistic crowd. In 1960, a 25-year-old Leonard Cohen stepped off the ferry and promptly made it his second home. He would return many times, and, living with his muse and great love, Marianne, write 2 novels: Bird on the Wire and So Long, Marianne. His house still stands; still owned by family.

Before him came Henry Miller, Australians Sidney Nolan, actor Peter Finch and writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston. Before them cubist Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, a key figure in the Greek modernist movement.

More recently, second-richest living artist, Jeff Koons, has forged a relationship with the island. His oversized Apollo Windspinner sun sculpture gleams down at visitors from the left of the harbour.

Writer Pony Louder (right) travelled to Hydra for creative inspiration for her next book.

Hydra's timeless bohemian setting  

It’s not hard to see the island’s appeal. Two hours ferry from Athens, and centuries from the city’s hustle and bustle. Just 48sq km, Hydra is the jewel in the Saronic gulf.

There is one main town, known simply as ‘Hydra port’ (population approx. 2000). A tight curve of ancient houses, chiselled out from the sun-baked mountainside, passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years.

On the waterfront are coffee shops, bars and cafes. In the streets directly behind are bakeries, galleries, more restaurants, mini-marts, shops to buy your mementoes and souvenirs.

There's also the most instagrammable pharmacy you’ll ever see, which has a 'no photos' policy (please, no photos, begs the sign in the window respectfully to allow their staff to get on with their real job).

Beyond those, you start climbing. Up and up. A maze of smooth stone steps leading away from the harbour. Up and up until your lungs are somewhere around your ears. But plenty of beautiful doorways to slump against as you catch your breath, lots of wooden benches to sit on. Endless bougainvillea-laced walls to admire and cats to play with. Every corner looks like a postcard.

Climb high enough, past the harbour’s amphitheatre of sugar-cube white houses and it’s just you and the goats. Their neck bells and bleats competing only with tolling of church bells. On Sunday morning, it’s a chorus of church bells, ringing out across the island. In the evenings, the scent of jasmine steals out over walled gardens and down the laneways.

Apparently Cohen wrote in the morning, then whiled away the afternoon and evening, drinking, talking, smoking and swimming down on the harbour. His favourite hangout, now called Roloi cafe, is still there, centre of the harbour, next to the clock tower. According to island legend, it’s where Cohen’s first concert took place: him at the back with a guitar, a few friends his audience.

Take a coffee there, then wander around to Spilia Beach Club, where the cool kids sunbathe and jump off the rocks into the blue, blue Aegean. The service here might be casual, but the food and smoothies are worth the wait.

Ten minutes further around on the coastal path, you’ll find incredible fresh sardines served with bread, salad and a view of the sea through pomegranate and orange trees at Pefkaki.

Hydra's creative output of books, songs and art has been outstanding ...

Later, Castello Hydra is the perfect spot for sundowners – both watching and drinking them. Next door Téchnē Restaurant plates up delicious international cuisine.  

Everywhere is walkable. It has to be, Hydra is completely free of cars, motorcycles – even bicycles. All transport is via foot – either hooved or human. Although there’s a fleet of water taxis to reach more distant beaches.

This video by novelist Polly Samson showcases modern-day Hydra and explains its bohemian and artistic past.

Hydriots are annoyingly fit: expect to be passed at speed on the steps by grandmothers with legs like grasshoppers, carrying home their groceries. For heavier things there’s horses and donkeys.

Stay anywhere other than harbourside and probably your suitcase will get the donkey-to-door service (20 euros and the donkeys all look well cared for). The soft clip-clop of them walking past your window is the most delightful traffic noise you’ll hear.

The catch

The only caveat to all this poetic beauty is the price. Hydra is not a cheap destination. The island is protected as an archaeological site, and new construction and building are extremely limited. Demand is higher than supply. Also, despite its name, it is a dry island, so everything, including water has to be brought in.

Horses and donkeys are the only way to get around the island.

Pony Louder's books Octopus and The Memory of Blood are out now.

Citro travel tips

Hydra has no airport. Fly to Athens, then transfer to the port of Piraeus, by taxi, bus or metro. We recommend the Welcome Pickups cab service – who will track your flight and be there waiting for you with your name on a sign for the same price as a regular taxi. From Piraeus it’s around 2 hours’ ferry to Hydra.

Hydra’s high season is June to September. Going just either side of that makes sense. It will be slightly cooler, cheaper and less busy. Oh, and watch Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love on Netflix if you do intent to visit - it's a beautiful story.

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