The island of Hydra in the Saronic gulf is unique in its architecture, significant in its role in modern Greek history, a home for artists, a Paradise for lovers, a playground of people who have learned to say ’ yes’ to donkeys, to climbing endless steps, and blending with an island village that has remained intact despite its international social attraction.
It is the island of Phaedra, Boy on a Dolphin, of Sophia Loren, dancing and daring in the port. An island of windmills, historic houses, cubist white buildings, linked by whitewashed steps and alleys that blend together despite their geometrical uniqueness. Smartly dressed cadets attend a stone built naval school in the port just besides a beautiful museum. There are no cars, no large hotels, little touristic infrastructure and a charm and beauty unlike any other.
There had been an effort to set up a hotel complex outside of the port, built by Patronicolas, who was married to Onassis’s sister, called Mira Mare, but it lacked any charm, was too far a walk from the hotel and remained isolated and alone in its cove.
My grandmother, Maria, came from Hydra. So I naturally felt drawn to go there. On my first visit in 1962, I met a barefoot American in the port called John O’Cain, who had been expelled from Yale, for stealing books from the library and then convinced the President to reinstate him, telling him that Yale needed him more than he needed Yale. He spoke fluent Arabic and Greek, and was familiar with the history of the Hydra’s significant role in the War of Independence between 1821 and 1830.
We used to sit in the port with other friends watching the endless array of Kaikia, fishing boats and other vessels coming and going in the canon protected port. One evening, with another friend, New Yorker, Marta Chelhesky, we dragged O’Cain to the town water pump and washed his feet. Later that day I met a Danish lady called Bodil who invited us to her house; a long walk up the narrow white washed stone path to the top of the village. The view was stunning, the sunset magical.
I used to take the same path years later visiting to my friend George Lialios, from Patras, who had bought a huge stone 18c mansion, replete with ballroom, a grand fireplace and ghosts. George lived there from the early 60’s until the late 90’s when he moved to Kifissia so his young daughters could attend St. Catherine’s school. He was the most gentle and soft-spoken person I had ever encountered. He had studied music in Vienna and his father was a famous composer, whose main house was a huge neo- classical mansion on Syntagma square. Now owned by Public, book and computer retail company.
George introduced me to his neighbor a Canadian singer Leonard Cohen whose voice captivated the world and focused interest on Hydra. He stayed for many years, and still owns the house although now spends little time on the island. Many interesting characters had bought houses in the early ’ 60’s when properties where still cheap.
Ghikas, a renowned Greek painter who had a beautiful house on top of the village became friends with author Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell and others in the late 1930’s and invited them to the island with poet/ diplomat George Seferis. Miller loved the island. In his book ’ The Colossus of Marousi ’ he wrote:
‘Hydra is a very special rock, entered as a pause in the musical score of creation by an expert calligrapher. It is one of those divine pauses which permit the musician, when he resumes the melody, to go forth in a totally new direction. At this point one may as well throw the compass away. To move towards creation does one need a compass? Having touched this rock I lost all sense of earthly direction.“
Unfortunately Ghikas’s beautiful house burned down and he never returned.
One of George’s friends, Alexis Bolens, a Swiss national originally from Alexandria had come to the Hydra with Brigit Bardot and her then boyfriend Gunter Sachs. Their plan was to buy large areas of the islands beachfront and have Bardot announce that Hydra was the place to be, thereby stimulating demand and eventual profit for their investment. But Bardot quarreled with Sachs and left the island and the properties to Alexis who spent the next 30 years trying to sell them. He was witty and charming and held great dinners at his lovely house above the port, regaling us with stories of his life as a mercenary in Katanga and as a lemon farmer in South Africa. We used to play poker together with the charming Pandias Scaramangas, a Greek banker/ business man, whose name was used by Ian Fleming in one of his James Bond novels, Philip Dopoulos, an American from Boston, who was the Associated Press rep in Greece and others like Alexis Mardas, the urbane first manager of the Beatles, and business man Alecos Kyrtsis. Alexi Bolens, whose father owned the Bon Rivage hotel in Alexandra before being nationalized, lived in Geneva and attracted his Swiss friends to the island. One friend, Henri Bordier walked around in his Mickey Mouse T shirt attending his house and garden. He felt that Hydra was the perfect antidote to his work, as president of Swissair, and the owner of Bank Bordier, in his family since 1832. I once asked him what interest he paid on deposits and he replied, ‘ we just take people’s money, we do not give them money’. Another Geneva resident Maury Cohen and his wife, painter Henriette Martens were part of the Swiss contingent. They had a cluster of houses on a hilltop close to the port with panoramic view of the Peloponnese. Maury was a successful businessman and Henriette a perceptive painter of Hydra scenes.
The port was the meeting place with Katsikas cafe being the focal point.
Sitting there still today one can watch the ebb and flow of friends and visitors walking along the horseshoe shaped port. At one end was where the boats arrived with its clusters of donkeys and the other little shops. Leading to one to the favorite beaches at the side of the port with a natural cave.
The daily boat from Piraeus, the Neraida, with captain Latsis, who later became one of the richest Greek ship-owners, used to deftly slink into the small port. There were no Hydrofoils or Catamarans back then only a daily cruise ship doing a three island visit in the summer months which stayed for an hour while the mostly Japanese tourists photographed the donkeys waiting patiently in the port.
An Englishman, Bill Cunliff, opened a bar, called Bill’s bar that become the best meeting place on the island. His beautiful Greek wife, Lena, ran a school for English. I remember going to their wedding in a chapel on a tiny island off Vlihos beach. The Bar was open for twenty -five years and Bill was the played the grand host with style and charm.
A short walk from the port, passing the beautiful stone building of the Athens School of Fine Arts, and a cluster of windmills one comes to a smaller port called Kaminia with a lovely taverna on the sea front. If one wanted one could go further to another small village called Vlichos, also with tavernas and a popular beach. My friend Corrine Seeds, has a villa there with an attached theatre and in the summer she puts on ancient Greek plays with American actors. She walks around in local Hydroit costume and is regarded as ‘eccentric’ by the locals. In 1978 I had also put on a play in the Miranda hotel of
Stratis Carras’s ’ The Strong Men ’ directed by an American director Arthur Beer.
Richard Branson had bought a house in Kaminia for his daughter many years ago that he wanted to make into a small boutique hotel but was not given a permit by the local council who feared to would attract ‘ undesirable’ tourists, whatever that meant.
There were many artists and writers who kept and keep houses on Hydra, like Brice Marden from New York, the poets Roger Green, from England who described himself as ‘a nomad who wears the world like a loose garment and goes where the weather suits his clothes. An American poetess Ann Rivers who published a poetry magazine called S.H.Y.,
George Slater, an American called ’ one-eyed George ‘, with his eye patch, who was a fixture in the port, and many others
Many scenes from novels set on Hydra, were written by John Le Carre, Jeannette Winterson as well as Margarita Karpanou’s book ’ The Sleep Walker’.
I used to return to Hydra giving talks to incoming Fulbright scholars doing their Greek ’ orientation ‘. It always had that special feeling that one gets in certain places, like Epidaurus, or driving through the Argolid.
Now the hydrofoils arrive every hour, numerous restaurants like the chic Bratsera, a former sponge factory, have opened catering to clients from the many yachts and motor vessels that squeeze into the tiny port.
Water taxis hum in and out of the port, but physically nothing has changed, other than the volume of tourist arrivals and visitors.
The cats have been there forever; the bougainvillea’s overwhelming the brilliant white houses, the donkeys still playing their part in this magical play on an island that has so enhanced our Greek experience.
Editor’s note: Yannis Zervos is my father.