NEW YORK – Hydra is an inviting destination for travelers from across the globe who associate it most perhaps with its ban on vehicles. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on July 8 highlighted the “reopened” island and its charms beckoning tourists even amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The description captures the spirit of Hydra, “as disheveled young families, linen-clad art lovers and elegant Athenians step off boats onto polished cobblestones, they join a pantheon of artists who have come before, from Lord Byron to Henry Miller to Kara Walker,” WSJ reported.
Among the famous, “Leonard Cohen has perhaps contributed the most to Hydra’s international renown,” WSJ reported, adding that “it was here that he met Marianne Ihlen and immortalized their relationship in songs like ‘So Long, Marianne’ and ‘Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,’” and “locals view him as an honorary Hydriot, and his son, Adam, still owns the house his father lived in throughout the 1960s.”
The global coronavirus pandemic is also having an impact on the island as “more than 90 percent of Hydra’s economy relies on tourism, according to Hydra’s mayor, George Koukoudakis, and local businesses are waiting hopefully for more foreigners to return,” WSJ reported.
“So far it has been a disaster,” Koukoudakis said in a phone interview with WSJ in late May, adding, “thank God the Athenians have come. We love to see Hydra crowded. We want to see our friends again.”
Donkeys carry luggage for tourists from the main port to “hotels and apartments that are architecturally frozen in time,” WSJ reported, noting that “Hydra is roughly 25 square miles, with a year-round population of about 2,000” and “beyond the main port and its neighboring village, Kamini, which sits a half mile down the coast, the only parts of the island accessible by boat or on foot are a few beaches.”
New construction ended when Hydra became a Greek national monument in the 1950s, WSJ reported, adding that “to ensure adherence through the ’60s and ’70s, the artist Pavlos Pantelakis dedicated the last years of his life to the cause of preservation, keeping binoculars trained at any extensions or renovations happening on the island.” American artists Brice and Helen Marden first visited in 1971, “fell in love with the island and bought a house a few years later,” WSJ reported, noting that “Helen has played her own part in the island’s preservation.”
“When Richard Branson tried to build a luxury resort in the fishing village of Kamini, she joined the local effort to block construction,” WSJ reported.
“I don’t think Branson fought very hard. As soon as he saw the opposition, that was it,” Marden told WSJ, adding that “as we’re talking, I’m picturing myself walking down to the port from the house, back by the old pharmacy. I hope, hope, hope we can go this summer,” referring to the travel restrictions currently imposed on Americans due to the pandemic.
“Before the bohemians of the ’60s descended, Hydriot painter Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas was the first to invite foreign artists to the island in the 1930s,” WSJ reported, pointing out that “a young Cohen was famously turned away from the 40-room mansion by Ghikas’ housekeeper when he arrived in search of artistic refuge,” and “Cohen purportedly put a curse on the house, which burned down six months later. The ruin still stands in the hills high above Kamini harbor.”
Among those who did visit Ghikas at his mansion was American writer Henry Miller who “got to know the leading lights of Greece’s Generation of the ’30s, critic George Katsimbalis and Nobel-winning poet Giorgos, or George Seferis,” WSJ reported, adding that “war hero and travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor; his photographer wife, Joan Leigh Fermor; painter John Craxton; and Lawrence Durrell and his family” also regularly visited Ghikas.
The history of Hydra and its “naval museum on the east side of the port,” were also mentioned in the WSJ article, which noted that in the past, “the great drama of the port consisted of the comings and goings of ships, in the days when Hydra’s commercial clout and formidable fleet won it the nickname Little England,” and “the island’s merchants amassed extraordinary wealth during the Napoleonic Wars by violating the British blockade and carrying food to France and Spain.”
In his book, The Colossus of Maroussi, Henry Miller wrote of the “wild and naked perfection” of Hydra that “came from the spirit of the buccaneering islanders,” WSJ reported, quoting from Miller, “To recount the exploits of the men of Hydra would be to write a book about a race of madmen. It would mean writing the word DARING across the firmament in letters of fire.”
Also mentioned in the WSJ article, Douskos Taverna, or Xeri Elia, “where owner Stavros Douskos greets you with a shy smile,” and “his family has run the place for nearly 200 years.” An unpublished poem by Cohen is printed on the back of the menus at the taverna, and reads, “They are still singing down at Dusko’s [sic] / sitting under the ancient pine tree / in the deep night of fixed and falling stars.”
In the present day, Mayor Koukoudakis, told the WSJ that “the first yacht of the season has just docked … the boat is Guilty and belongs to Greek-Cypriot tycoon and art collector Dakis Joannou,” a Hydra visitor since the 1980s.