It sits under the sun, a bit less than 70 kilometers south of Athens, like a rock thrown in the middle of the Argosaronic gulf; popular among Athenians for the perfect romantic getaway, or a calm, relaxing weekend in a soothing place of such beauty. Hydra is a place bursting with architectural character, history and – most interestingly – devoid of cars. Yes, it sounds strange but motorized vehicles are not allowed on the island. Two small garbage trucks and some fire-fighting units are the only motorized vehicles allowed on the island. A host of ever-posing Greek donkeys – their modeling careers challenged only by the island’s hundreds of well-fed cats – is responsible for most transport services. Water taxis can take you around the island to – otherwise inaccessible – beaches or to the coast of the Peloponnese.
The inhabited area of the island is so small and compact and, at the same time, a perfect place to stroll and explore; either on the busy, picturesque, marble-paved promenade or in the colorful narrow streets, decorated by dazzling bougainvillea and fragrant lemon trees leading upwards to the amphitheatrically-built town facing the sea.
How to get to Hydra
To get there, you need to get to Athens’s port, Piraeus, and find the “Flying Dolphins” pier. These are interesting hydrofoil vessels – some older ones were built in the Soviet-era Russia, for commuting on lakes – that glide fast and smoothly over the waves reaching 30 to 40 knots. So, you ride these “Dolphins” and in less than 2 hours you are in a whole other …planet: a place with the pace and the look of a time long-gone. Tiny cobblestone streets lead to traditional houses, from the previous centuries, and sumptuous mansions, all restored and cherished as the law forbids new buildings, in order to preserve the identity of this listed, architectural reserve. No cars, no fuss, no rush. Welcome to Hydra!
People enjoy meals, drinks and coffee in numerous laid-back places just over the water’s edge, the harbor’s waterfront, or in small, secluded squares in the town’s backstreets. They stroll around, marveling at the stone mansions – some of them actually function as mini-museums – or even venturing inside, to discover echoes of the places’ history.
Where does the name Hydra comes from
The name of Hydra comes from the ancient Greek word for ‘water’ and the place was called so to indicate that on its small surface of 49 square kilometers you could find water-wells. The island got inhabited and deserted many times. Its latest glory was after the 17th century when its people turned completely to the sea for survival. They started building ships, increasing their fleet every year, and sailed from Russia to Gibraltar, transporting and trading goods. At times, they had to be equipped with guns and cannons – the ones you see today lying around the harbor – to fight pirates or break naval blockades, in order to prosper and keep their families back in Hydra alive and fed. That way the island reached a fleet of more than 300 ships – most of them battle-worthy – and rich enough to have its most prominent families bring over Italian architects who built the very mansions you admire today.
The History of Hydra
These families and their 150 fully-armed ships – manned by Hydra’s weathered seamen – formed the backbone of the notorious war fleet of the Greek Revolution and some of these families have remained in power on a nationwide level. That’s how we got the rather impressive fact that such a tiny island is the birthplace of five Greek Prime Ministers: Georgios Kountouriotis, Antonios Kriezis, Demetrios Voulgaris, Athanasios Miaoulis and Pavlos Kountouriotis.
Alas, the island’s seafaring greatness never adapted to the steam-engine naval era. So most of the remaining seamen that didn’t leave the island turned to sponge-diving, to make it till World War II, after which the island got semi-deserted and many of its houses were abandoned.
But less than two decades later the island shot back to fame thanks to its beauty, as in 1956 internationally-known Greek director Michalis Kakoyannis filmed “A Girl in Black” here. The next year Sophia Loren was singing the Greek song “S’ Agapo” (meaning “I Love You”) or “Ti einai afto pou to lene Agapi” (“What’s this thing called love?” as it was originally named) to Alan Ladd, in a Hydra tavern, in the Hollywood romantic drama “Boy on a Dolphin” that was filmed on the island in 1957.
Βy 1960 famous people from around the world dropped by for some ouzo, a walk, and a dive in the wonderful blue waters. The Rolling Stones were having beers at the “Pirate” bar on the harbor’s right corner and Leonard Coen bought an old house, restored it and stayed for years, finding sanctuary and inspiration. In a Hydra grocery store he met the Norwegian writer Marianne Ilene and their Hydra home was the birthplace of such songs as “So long Marianne” and “Bird on a Wire”.
Nowadays, each summer the place turns into a yachting paradise, as groups of sailing boats moor at the harbor, where they are joined by dozens of sensational motorboats and yachts.