Hydra – pronounced the Hellenic or the English way – has an inviting touch of magic to it that keeps its promise.
Whether laying about carefree with friends on a delightful pebble beach on the rocks, soaking in a gorgeous sunset “like a bird on a wire” as the famed Leonard Cohen song goes – he wrote it there – or walking though restored homes evoking the lives of the humble or powerful men and women who fanned the flames of the Greek Revolution, Hydra not only touches, it hugs.
Whatever one is looking for – a time machine (no cars, not even bicycles, and donkey drivers don’t take Metro or debit cards) or an escape from our clock-driven lives – the middle member of the Saronic Islands near Athens is a Greek Shangri-La more real than mythic – oh the stories those walls could tell about the 1950s and 1960s when Hydra hosted artists and writers from everywhere!
For Greek-Americans and non-Greeks who wish to get a taste of the Greek Bicentennial while they pass through Athens on their way to the other islands, beaches, and villages on their agenda, they can do no better than a visit to the historic and beautiful island of Hydra – a two-hour or less boat ride from Piraeus.
And while a brief list of places to visit follows – the amphitheatric feast for the eyes and soul that is Hydra Port immediately grabs you and doesn’t let you go – it’s the embrace of the people, rather, the personalities, however, that makes the place more than an Instagram moment. Like Panos Lembesis (charmingly Instagrammable, however) whose Pan’s Bar was a modest but thrilling complement to haunts for the rich and famous like the renowned Bill’s Bar. In its heyday, Pan’s was the gateway to memorable Hydriot nights for streams of Greek-Americans.
Let’s continue with the most basic yet poetic facts: Hydra is one of the Greek islands, which are the children of the sea and the mainland, the latter is the father who guards us but the sea is our mother. You feel that as you marvel at the Peloponnese hovering not too distantly – it is Hydra that first sang into my ear “every Greek island has a soul.”
Known as Hydrea (Ὑδρέα), derived from the Greek word for water and the natural springs on the island, Hydra, the island with one town, its port is – like Venice – married to the sea, the source of the wealth that helped finance the Greek Revolution. One of its heroes, Laskarina Bouboulina, had Hydriot roots, as did one of her husbands. The island’s naval and commercial development began in the 17th century and by 1821 Hydra was very prosperous, trading with France, Spain, and the Americas.
Visit the Ecclesiastic and Byzantine Museum, the mansion of George Kountouriotis, now the Byzantine Art Museum, the Tombazis mansion, which is now part of the Athens School of Fine Arts, and other spots.
The island hosts an annual conference on Rebetiko music, and a must-see is the mansion of Lazaros Kountouriotis, the richest sea captain on Hydra, who gave his entire fortune to support the Greek War of Independence. There, you will see how the revolutionary generation (at least the wealthy) lived their daily lives – quite well, which explains why not all heeded the call of Antonis Oikonomou on April 1821 to rebel against their Ottoman overlords.
Dina Adamopoulos, historian, archaeologist, author, and director of the wonderful Historical Archives Museum of Hydra, explained that in April 1821, when Hydriot Antonis Oikonomou expelled the governor and joined the Greek Revolution, many leaders flourishing under the status quo were opposed to the war. Hydra eventually did go ‘all in’ and Hydra's 150 ships and resources were critical to Greek success.
The museum holds many exceptional and important items from the Revolution. The Greek admiral Andreas Miaoulis, who lived on Hydra, used Hydriot fire ships to devastate the Ottoman fleet. His preserved heart, which beat strong that Hellas might be free – is housed in the museum.
With parents from Rhodes, Symi, and Arcadia, Adamopoulos moved to the island in 1989 after marrying a Hydriot – “but what really happened was that I married Hydra!”
Spilios Spiliotis is a learned man and most knowledgeable about the island’s history, including that cosmopolitan scene which stretches back decades. In 1939, Henry Miller’s visit to Hydra inspired part of his book The Colossus of Maroussi, and the island’s international fame grew after the 1956 film was set there, Το Κοριτσι με τα Μαυρα – A Girl in Black, directed by the great Greek Cypriot filmmaker Michael Cacoyannis.
Among the writers who adored Hydra were Patrick Leigh Fermor and Leonard Cohen, who wrote several of his better-known songs there. The three-storey home with a walled garden overflowing with bougainvillea, which he bought for $1500 in 1960, is still owned and visited by his children.
Born and raised and rarely leaving Hydra, Spiliotis is raising his family in the only place he can imagine or would want, and his brother Kostas, learning from their father, contributes to the homeland as a woodworker helping to conserve its architectural heritage.
While all its visitors are living advertisements for Hydra, devoted son, scholar-author Alexander Billinis is one of Hydra’s most dynamic heralds.
Among other things, he noted how proud Hydriots are of their nautical academy, established in 1749 as Greece’s first and among the oldest in the world. “Thanks to its wealth, Hydra was autonomous, though it was subject to an Ottoman navy sailor levy.” But that was fortunate, because “our sailors knew Turkish tactics very well,” and the revolutionaries also relied on Hydriot blockade runners from the Napoleonic Wars, bringing all that knowledge to the Greek side.
That wisdom, shrewdnesss, and boldness, along with that of the other Hellenes, was concentrated in the upper room of what was then a monastery whose Katholikon is now the Cathedral of the Kimisis-Dormition of the Theotokos. That is where the heroes did much of their planning. Standing there in 2021 feels like being in the boiler room of modern Hellenic history.