“Would you like to reserve a donkey?” This is the message I received a few days before our arrival in Hydra, an island located in the Aegean Sea, an hour and a half by hydrofoil from Athens, from the port of Piraeus.
A donkey ? “It’s to carry your luggage,” replies the lady in charge of our Airbnb housing reception. “I recommend it, because the apartment is located in the heights of Hydra!” So the donkey was waiting for us when we got off the boat.
These animals are part of the charm of Hydra. On this island, it feels like time has stood still. There are no cars, no bikes, no motorized vehicles, and that’s what makes this island magical. Only the donkeys transport suitcases and goods in the heights of the village. We move on foot or by water taxi to go from one place to another.
Arriving, we discover this picturesque village, the port, the cafes, the taverns, the shops and the pretty white houses perched on the hill. The alleys are narrow and flowered with bright pink bougainvilleas, the cats, numerous, roam through the steep little streets. We walk, we stroll in the cafes of the port to observe the arrivals of yachts and cruise passengers who, for a day, visit Hydra, then leave at sunset. The island then becomes calm again. We take the opportunity to have an aperitif at the Hydronetta bar, a must nestled in a cliff where you can swim. The view is breathtaking, and the light of the sunset, simply divine.
We understand why Leonard Cohen fell in love with this island in 1960; he bought a house there, and it was there that he met Marianne Ihlen, his lover and muse, for whom he wrote the famous song So Long Marianne. The small street where his house is located, in the heights of Hydra, now bears his name, and elsewhere in the village, a bench has been named in his honor. And for those who wish to live a bit like the singer-songwriter, he used to frequent Xeri Elia Douskos Restaurant, a family-run tavern that has been around for 200 years and has remained authentic. Located a little away from the port, on a small square under a flowery arbor, it offers the classics of Greek cuisine, fresh fish, grilled meats, Greek salad, moussaka and tzatziki.
Long before Leonard Cohen, in the 1930s Hydra attracted poets and artists such as the Greek cubist painter Níkos Khatzikyriákos-Ghíkas, who made Hydra his refuge. American writer Henry Miller described the island as “aesthetically perfect”. Pablo Picasso, Maria Callas or even Sofia Loren participated in the fame of Hydra; the latter shot the film Shadows Under the Sea (Boy on a Dolphin) there in 1957.
Last summer, it was the famous American artist Jeff Koons who came to inaugurate his Apollo exhibition at the DESTE Art Foundation, installed in the former Hydra slaughterhouses, by the sea. A foundation which belongs to Dakis Joannou , a Greek businessman and one of the greatest contemporary art collectors in the world.
Today, although Hydra attracts many tourists, but also millionaires who come by yacht, the place has remained intact. The atmosphere is unique and laid-back in this jewel of the Saronic Islands, where just over 2000 people call it home year-round.
We do not go to Hydra for the beauty of its beaches. Even if the water is crystal clear, you should know that there are no long sandy beaches. We bathe in small creeks, or from rocks where ladders have been installed to help us go up. Some beaches with pebbles are charming, such as Plakes (our favorite), where the Four Seasons hotel is located (nothing to do with the luxury chain). You can get there from the port by boat (or on foot, 35-40 minutes walk), you can rent sun loungers and parasols, and its tavern Tassia, on the beach, is definitely worth a visit! There are also the beaches of Vlychos and Mandraki which can be reached by walking from the center of Hydra (20 minutes).
Visited one after the other or individually, the islands of Aegina, Poros and Spetses offer lively and busy ports, each with their own particular charm. Follow the leader.
The closest island to Athens – 50 minutes by speedboat – is banking on harvesting and selling pistachios to attract tourists. Along the main artery of the port, there are many buying kiosks for this fruit. Raw or cooked pistachios, with lemon, paprika… We stock up before setting off to explore this 87 km2 island. We prefer renting a car to renting a scooter or a bicycle, since we are in mountainous terrain. In a few hours, we visit the temple of Aphea – built in 448 BC. J.-C. –, the monastery of Agios Nektarios – second church of the country by its size – and we finish at the edge of the sea on one of the beaches of Agia Marina. It is not the most exotic island, certainly, but Aegina allows you to quickly escape the Athenian tumult and the tourism of large cruises, and this is a great merit.
Two islands connected by a bridge – the city Sfairía and the country Kalavria – form Poros, an archipelago popular with Athenians and also with Peloponnesians, since the port of Galata is only 10 minutes away by ferry. So, yes, there are crowds. But the port of Poros being built in floors, one can quickly flee the tourist pack. To do this, just climb and get lost in the maze of high streets, towards the clock tower, which dominates the port. At the foot of said tower, a view of the gulf, the island of Kalavria, the port and the Peloponnese. People come here especially at the end of the day, when the sun hits the white houses with ocher roofs and makes the turquoise water of the bay sparkle. We do not visit Poros for its historical attractions, but for its sandy and wild beaches which stretch along the edge of the island of Kalavria. Just choose well and enjoy the warm rays of the sun.
We let ourselves be led by the nose to Spetses: there are indeed thousands of jasmines and colorful bougainvilleas and, at the end of the day, while the inhabitants water their gardens, their perfume fills the air. The local population – around 4,000 people – resides mainly around the harbor. Normal: there is no drinking water on the island and it therefore arrives by boat at the first rays of the day. Of course, this has its drawbacks, but also a definite advantage: besides the port, the rest of the island is deserted – and deserted – and remains largely wild. Lovers of hiking and solitary swimming – in lifeless creeks and caves… besides the presence of many fish! – will be delighted. Yes, you can rent scooters, mopeds or (electric) bicycles to visit this small island of 22 km2, but we prefer walking through the pine forests. Thus, we visit many small churches hidden between the pines and we stroll at our own pace in the old port, located on the other side of the bay.