Greece: Hydra Island Offers Quiet with 300 Churches
The Perfection of Hydra: A Delicious Absence of vehicles
By Gary Van Haas
You may fall in love with Hydra for one reason alone: the absence of noisy cars, fumes, and motorcycles!
Yes, peace and quiet at last, for Hydra allows no motorized transport in the harbor with exception of a few sanitation and official municipal vehicles. Like the good old Greece of yesteryear, only donkeys are used as a means of moving supplies around.
As you enter colorful Hydra by ferry, you will notice it is built in the spectacular shape of an amphitheater on a slope overlooking the Argosaronic Gulf, which makes this small island one of the most romantic destinations in Greece.
Lavish Mansions & 300 Churches
On Hydra, you’ll find exquisite stone mansions owned by important families such as Voulgaris, Kountouriotis, Tombazis, Kriezis, Bountouris, all built by Italian artisans, which reveals the wealth the island experienced in the past. Today most of these mansions house the island’s museums.
There are also 300 churches and 6 monasteries spread around the island, as well as ship’s cannons and statues of the heroes of the 1821-1827 War of Independence. Walking along the waterfront in the heart of the town, you’ll find monuments, more churches, museums, and mansions, as well as the old gunpowder store, shops, and cafes, while picturesque winding streets eventually lead you to other areas located in the upper part of the town.
An Island with Panache
Hydra is a yachting paradise and every summer flotillas and small groups of sailing boats moor at the harbor, where they are joined by dozens of motorboats and large yachts. Hydra is the only island in the Saronic Gulf with real style, and the name of it alone, suggests that the island had plenty of water once.
Legend has it, that the island was covered with dense forest for a millennium, that is until it was destroyed by fire. Whatever the case, the island now is almost totally barren, except for the gracious stone, white and pastel mansions, stacked up the rocky hillside that surrounds the quaint, crab-shaped natural harbor.
A 1950’s Film Set Location
The first foreigners to be seduced by Hyrdra were the makers of the 1950’s film, Boy on a Dolphin, which was used as a location, starring the ever-popular Sophia Loren and Alan Ladd.
Writers and artists started coming and moving after that, followed by more celebs like singer Leonard Cohen who bought a villa here back in the 1960s, and nowadays it seems like the whole world has come to nest here.
A Penchant for Shipbuilding
In the annals of Greek history, it seems Hydra wasn’t very popular even during the Turkish occupation on mainland Greece, so many Greeks moved to the island to escape Ottoman suppression and taxes.
At a later date, the population was further bolstered by an influx of wandering Albanian refugees.
Agriculture on the island was near impossible, so the new settlers decided on building boats as a trade, and by the 19th-century, Hydra had become a maritime power. These very clever Hydriots, as they are called, managed to make a fortune by running the British blockade of French ports during the Napoleonic Wars and the wealthy shipping merchants built most of the town’s grand old Arhontika (mansions) from the profits.
During the 1900’s, it became a fashionable resort for many Greek socialites, and lavish balls were held as a regular feature.
Heroes of War of Independence
Hydra made major contributions to the Greek War of Independence because, without the 130 ships supplied by the island, the Greeks wouldn’t have had much of a fleet to blockade the Turks. It also supplied the staunch leadership of Georgios Koundouriotis, who was president of the emerging Greek nation’s national assembly from 1821 to 1827, and it was Admiral Andreas Miaoulis, who commanded the Greek fleet to victory.
Streets and squares all over Greece are named after these much revered war heros, and a mock battle is staged during the Miaoulia Festival held in honour of Admiral Miaoulis in late June.
Island of Leisure
The peaceful streets of Hydra are alway great for a leisurely stroll, and several of the town’s old mansions are certainly worth taking a look, even if you can only see them from the outside.
In summer, there are also caiques (fishing boats) leaving from Hydra town to the better beaches, or you can hire a fast water-taxi (speedboat) to take you anywhere you want to go.
Here’s a little piece of Greece you don’t want to pass up if you’re hanging out in nearby in Athens or Piraeus, so make your reservations and get it on!
HYDRA TRAVEL TIPS
Municipal Tourist Police- Tel. 22650 82900
Going there- Ferries run regularly to Hydra from Pireaus. The trip takes three and a half hours, but if you’re in a hurry, take the more expensive, Hydrofoil, which takes about one hour and fifteen minutes.
Lodging- Hotel Sofia (3-star), tel 22650 52-313 small hotel on port with fee WiFi and amenities and comfy rooms, Hotel Miranda (4-star) , tel 22980 52230, was a sea captain’s mansion built in 1810 and has lovely comfortable rooms.
Hotel Leto (5-star), tel 22650 53385, is 200 meters walk from the port, this stylish is elegant with beautiful décor and offers free buffet breakfast.
Eating- The Terrace has great food at reasonable prices. The Veranda Restaurant is halfway up to the Hydra Hotel and offers a terrific view of the town and harbor.
Nightlife – Nightlife in Hydra centers around a couple of bar/discos all conveniently arranged around the harbor so they are within a very easy walking distance of each other; The Amalour is a more sophisticated scene with cafe-bar that sells a wide range of fresh juices and drinks.
For rock music, head for The Pirate at the western end of the harbor front.
Gary Van Haas worked for many years as a feature writer for The Athens News, International Herald Tribune, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Time and Newsweek Magazines. His books can be found on Amazon.com here.