The Argo Saronic Greek Island of Hydra
Hydra is perhaps the most beautiful port village in all of Greece.
or Ydra, has no cars!
A tiny harbor ringed with cafes, restaurants and gold shops is surrounded by a village of stone houses and villas that rise up the hills like an amphitheatre. But one of the best things about Hydra is that there are no cars.
Everything is moved by donkey, including groceries, building supplies, people and their luggage. Hydra is the former home of Leonard Cohen and stomping grounds of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Pink Floyd and many other famous and not so famous people. Hydra is a little expensive, but not as much as Mykonos and there are still bargains to be found on the back streets in the way of food, hotels and entertainment.
Hydra is one of the Argo Saronic Gulf islands which includes Aegina, Angistri, Poros and Spetses. Of these, 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. Most of its visitors just come for the day 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. Because of its proximity to Athens it is the perfect island to visit in the way-off season. There are usually people there, especially during weekends, including the odd writer or poet wintering on the island in search of inspiration. Not far enough away to feel like you are cut off from society, the beat goes on into the winter. And if you get stir-crazy or if the weather gets nasty you can hightail it back to the night-life of Athens.
The main hobby on Hydra and on most islands is people watching. Though the cafes are expensive, 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 are plenty of shops to keep you busy, on the waterfront and a few on the main streets leading away from it. There is a very nice book shop which you can find by going up Miaoulis and taking your first right and going past Zoe's Silver and Gold Jewelry.
There is a foreign press shop on the waterfront where you can get your International Herald Tribune, USA Today, The Athens News and papers from just about any country. Then you can walk to one of the cafes, order a cappacino, and spend the day there.
There are ships and yachts going in and out all day, including several large cruise ships that 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 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. (Sorry I didn't mention it sooner but there are excursions to beaches on the mainland by small boat 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 home.
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 was no need to develop the island as other islands have with hotel after hotel. 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 have been stopped.
There 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.
The interior of the village is very different from the cafe-ringed harbor with its jet-setters 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.
The Monastery of the Panagia is right in the port, with it's entrance by the clock tower. The monks cells are now municipal offices 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.
As for the rest of the island, if you walk along the coast heading west you will come to Kamini, another village that appears to be an extension of the main village. If you continue walking you will come to a small settlement of Vlichos with 2 or 3 restaurants and sort of a beach. The restaurants are cheap and the food is good and if you don't feel like walking back, there are guys in little motor boats who will take you back for a couple hundred drachma and the famous Hydra Water-Taxis that you will undoubtedly notice racing in and out of the harbor and along the coast. Continuing another 2 miles beyond Vlichos is Molos, surrounded by the pine trees that used to cover the island. You can go even further for more seclusion to the bay of Agios Nikolaos if you have the stamina to walk several miles. Bring water on any of your journeys.
If you walk east from the harbor you will come to Mandraki beach owned by the Hotel Miramare where you can rent wind surfers and other watersport utilities.
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.
If you need information look for my old pal Pan. He is hard to miss at about five feet tall, 250 pounds and hair and beard down to his waist. He is one of the most informed, active and interesting people on the island and at one time was a Green Beret in the US Military. More informative then a travel agent or the tourist police and his info is free.Pan has been featured in movies and his now defunct bar called 'Pan's' was a legend among travelers in the seventies. If you are coming by sailboat or yacht look for him. He can supply you with whatever you need. See Pan's Page
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!