Hydra or Ýdhra as it is also known as, is indeed timeless. One of the most photogenic and atmospheric destinations of Greece, the island shot to fame after a couple of Hollywood movies got filmed there and later many international celebrities started restoring local old villas. Hydra has always been a favourite among the Greek moneyed and the Athenian well heeled still find it fashionable to go for weekend trips to the lovely little island. Located in the deep blue Aegean Sea between the gulfs of Saronic and Argolic, Hydra is separated from the Peloponnese mainland by a narrow strip of water and history has also blessed it with loads of importance.
The island, which had been much populated during the Byzantine era, had once belonged to Venice before the Ottoman Empire had taken over. Because of the hilly inland interiors which had not been favourable for living, Hydra had been relatively unimportant during most of the Ottoman period, until the 17th century had brought a flurry of naval and commercial development. The island had gotten its first school for mariners in 1645 and building of big trading boats had made Hydra morph into an important commercial port. The naval activity which had been the lifeline of Hydra had continued into the 19th century and the island’s seafaring merchants had amassed unbelievable amounts of wealth from maritime trading with countries such as Spain, France, Americas etc. The Greek War of Independence had also depended heavily on Hydriot fleet of ships and the Greek hero, admiral Andreas Miaoulis, had hailed from Hydra. Post independence war, Hydra’s importance had waned and World War II had practically turned it into a ghost town.
Sponge fishing and tourism however had saved Hydra from getting completely abandoned and from 1950’s onward, the island again became popular among the celebrities and the wealthy. The reason of this popularity is easy to see and Hydra’s bustling harbour, narrow cobbled streets and exquisitely preserved stone architecture make it a very alluring place. I had visited Hydra on a Saronic Gulf sailing day trip and till today, it is my favourite place in whole of Greece. This day trip is a very popular activity from Athens and usually includes sailing between Hydra, Aegina and Poros islands on a small luxury cruise ferry boat. Lunch, relaxed sailing and some local music are included in the trip and the cruise guide usually takes the group for tours on these islands. This activity is offered by many companies and all the boats leave from the fashionable Piraeus Port. My tour too had started on a clear blue Athens day and the sun had sparkled on the Aegean Sea like a thousand diamonds. Dolphins had glided alongside our boat and the timeless seascape had been dotted with even more ancient land form. Small isolated islands had risen out of the blue sheet and snow white gulls had swooped between them. It had been a great day to be out in the sun and the trip had made me miss the demonstration which had crippled all activities in Athens.
Poros had been the first island to arrive on that trip and the so called playground of the rich and famous had not impressed me much. The pastel coloured mansions dotting the port had been pretty and lime trees had scented the sunny island air. Apart from that, a quick walk up to an elevated viewpoint had been its only charm and contrary to expectations, Poros had been mildly disappointing. Hydra, however had breathtakingly beautiful and the first sight of its famous port had taken my breath away. Touted as the most beautiful port in all of Greece, Hydra’s boat filled harbour had been horse shoe shaped. A whale back ridge had loomed immediately behind the busy port village and cafes, souvenir shops, restaurants etc had crowded the waterfront. Hydra’s famous carrier donkeys had stood in rows and lovely red tile roofed mansions had precariously clung along the slope. Motor vehicles, with exception to garbage trucks had been banned in Hydra and the traditional mode of transportation had beautifully preserved its timeless aura.
Although lack of stunning beaches, archaeological sites and museums had taken Hydra down a few notches in the usual Greek island tourism list, the quaint charm and unexplored interiors had made it simply irresistible. I had walked around the little port for more than 1 hour, taking in the beauty of marble pavements and stone mansions and a blue sky had smiled overhead. Charming old fashioned shops and markets had bustled with residents and clip clop of donkey hooves had filled the air. Nobody had seemed to be in a hurry at Hydra and the residents had called out to each other from wrought iron balconies. Every road on the island had wound its way to the harbour and the ridge back mountain had loomed down possessively. People watching had seemed to be the best thing to do at Hydra and the port village had been drop dead photogenic. Secluded little squares complete with stone benches, orange trees and restored old mansions of erstwhile seamen had made great walks and time had hung low over the white washed buildings in lazy languor. A relaxing siesta kind of feeling had pervaded the island and tawny cats had prowled through Hydra’s monasteries, most of which had been dedications of erstwhile wealthy sea merchants.
Apart from the monasteries, a few forgettable museums, a very old pharmacy and handmade gold jewelry shops had completed Hydra’s “things to do” list and my hour had stretched longer than I had expected. So, I had done what most Hydriots and visitors do at Hydra i.e sit at a sidewalk cafe, order a cup of poppy tea and watch people as they had gone about their way. The amphitheater shaped island had seemed to be an enchanted place then; a small black hole of time where perfection had emanated from everything – its lovely cubist arrangement of houses with their whitewashed glare, the old cobbled paths and the way large fragrant citrus fruits had hung from the trees like a thousand suns. Many national and international artists and musicians had called Hydra home and it had been perhaps the island’s purity, the unique wild and naked perfection which had drawn these creative minds. Incidentally, Hydra or Hydrea as it had been known in ancient Greece had derived its name from “water” and the island had truly been an eternal spring of timeless, ageless beauty.
TRAVEL TIP – The easiest way to enjoy Hydra is by a day trip from Athens. This includes stopovers at Poros and Aegina islands along with transfers from the hotel, lunch and entertainment. Frequent ferries ply between between Piraeus and Hydra and these tickets can be bought online or from agencies at the harbour. All vessels, hydrofoils and catamarans dock at the center of the north side of the island at Hydra’s famous photogenic port and nearly everything of interest also lies on the waterfront.
Motorized vehicles are forbidden on Hydra and the only modes of transportation are donkeys or boat taxi, both of which congregate at the port. There are many choices of accommodations available at Hydra and from small hotels and guest houses to beautiful old villas, the island is idyllic for long term visitors too. Some Hydra accommodations are accessible only by steep stairs and it is advisable to ask about this, at the time of booking.
Despite the stone steps, the port which is also the main village of Hydra is very easy to walk around on foot and the mountainous little-visited interiors are great for hiking. The smaller villages of Kamini, Mandraki, Episkopi etc can be accessed by steep hikes and walkers will be greeted with sweeping views of hamlets of rural cottages, grain terraces, hilltop monasteries, pine forest and seasonal carpets of wildflowers. Horseback excursions by Harriet’s Hydra Horses into interior Hydra are also a great way of exploring the wild island and the trip length varies from 45 minutes to all day. Hydra’s beaches can be accessed only by walking and Limnióniza is considered to be the most beautiful of them all.
The nearby island Spétses makes an excellent excursion from Hydra and it is also the remotest of the Argo Saronic group of isles. Otherwise, the little port has the Hydra Museum, Cathedral of Hydra, some beautifully restored old Hydriot mansions and lots of artist galleries and gold jewelry designer stores. The best time to visit Hydra is during Easter when the island celebration begins on Holy Thursday and continues until a grand fireworks display on Saturday at midnight.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE