Where I visit Hydra, we consider how much it has changed since is infamy in the 1960s, look at how Hydra has been represented in films and books and consider what there is to do there.
With Greek Islands (as with most places in the world) the harder it is to get to then the less touristy/crowded it is likely to be. Thus islands like Amorgos (around a six hour ferry ride from Athens) are quiet and less touristed, compared to (for example) more popular Crete with its own airport
Hydra is a bit of an anomaly: although it takes less than two hours from Piraeus on the Hydrofoil it doesn’t have the sandy beaches that much of Greece is renown for and that keeps it a little less touristy. The beaches, with one notable exception, are pebbly affairs.
It is a popular weekend getaway for Athenians, so is notably busier at weekends. Plus the Saronic island cruise boats stop off once a day, where people descend on the island like a plague of locusts for one hour. They snap endless photos with the donkeys, wander around the gift shops and go get a coffee at one of the local cafes and then the foghorn sounds and they scurry back on the ship ready to go off to the next island.
Apart from that it wasn’t too busy.
Hydra has a reputation as an artistic slightly boho destination.
It featured in the movie Boy on a dolphin starring Sofia Loren. This was 1957. Many of the locals who were alive at that time featured as extras. There is a dolphin statue up above the main town of Hydra to celebrate this.
Hydra in the 1960s
In the early 1960s a lot of artists, writers and musicians started to move here, attracted by a beautiful island where they could live cheaply whilst exploring their art. Most notable amongst them was Leonard Cohen. The house he lived in is in private ownership, however the street has been renamed in his memory.
His time in Hydra is depicted in Nick Broomfield’s documentary Marianne and Leonard: words of Love. If you haven’t seen it I do recommend it. Even if you’re not interested in Leonard Cohen (I was only dimly aware of who he was) the film is very evocative of a particular time in history.
Apart from reminding myself of that film before I left (it’s on Amazon Prime), I also read a couple of books:
Polly Sampson’s A Theatre for Dreamers is a novel set in 1960 about a young woman living on Hydra amongst the expat set. It was a very haunting tale of the whole era and I enjoyed the pure escapism.
Anther book about Hydra that I came across was Don Lowe’s Looking Back, Sideways, Down, Under and Up Above. This man is now in his 80s and still lives on Hydra after first coming here in the 1960s. He lives in a house with no running water and no electric, where he taps away at an old manual typewriter every morning. There’s no doubt he has lived a very interesting life but maybe the book serves as a reminder that no matter how interesting a life you have lead it doesn’t mean you are able to write about it in a way that will make others want to engage with your story.
Hydra today is still recognisable from what it was in the 1950s/60s. There are no motor vehicles on the island, or even bicycles (the pebbled roads are not made for wheels). Instead mules and donkeys trudge up the hills bringing heavy luggage for tourists or food and water for the more distant supermarkets.
The island offers some beaches, mostly shingle beaches and some platforms with a ladder leading down into the sea (similar to what you see in Croatia and Montenegro). The one sandy beach on the island charges 30 euros for a sun bed and has a call button to summon the waiter. I went once, just to check it out.
Really though I’m more into swimming than lying on beaches and the water around Hydra is clear blue; you can watch the fish swimming along even without snorkels. There are a handful of beaches and little swimming spots going in either direction from Hydra port, or a row of little boats will take you down to the more distant beaches on the island for 10-15 euros.
Mostly you need swim shoes. Apart from the pebbles there are a lot of little sea urchins and it’s best to avoid treading on them.
Apart from the beaches the architecture is stunning, particularly if you like cute little blue and white houses. I often wandered out for a ‘spot of exercise’ and returned hours later, exhausted but happy, as I found one street after another that I wanted to veer off and explore.
Art and Culture
There is an interesting art gallery in the old slaughter house a short distance along the coast from the main port.
I also enjoyed visiting Koundouriotis Mansion, where there are some old paintings and great views over the bay.
I stayed on Hydra for ten days. You might think it looks like there isn’t enough to fill ten days but for me it felt just right. In between swimming, walking and watching sunsets I did a bit of sketching and started writing something that may or may not become something I want to share with the world.
Because if you’re looking to rekindle your creativity Hydra has a habit of doing that.