Reopened, A Greek Isle Beckons For Hardcore Travelers

As Hydra faces a challenging tourist season, the island’s storied past and glittering present—rife with legendary writers and artists, from Lord Byron and Leonard Cohen to Jeff Koons and Kara Walker—continue to lure tycoons and fellow travelers. Reopened, A Greek Isle Beckons For Hardcore Travelers

Mornings on Hydra are heralded by the island’s overzealous cockerels. The baying of donkeys starts shortly after, accompanied by a low chorus, synonymous with heat and pine, of cicadas. These sounds eventually give way to the clock tower’s chime and the click-tick of komboloi–Greek worry beads—that elders flip languidly with their fingers. Parked beneath awnings of port-front cafes, these longtime Hydriots survey the tourists, who in turn survey the yachts jostling with fishing boats at the harbor’s edge.

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. Leonard Cohen has perhaps contributed the most to Hydra’s international renown. 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.” Locals view him as an honorary Hydriot, and his son, Adam, still owns the house his father lived in throughout the 1960s.

Prior to May 25, most Greek islands were off-limits to visitors due to Covid-19-related travel restrictions imposed in late March. After the 25th, all Greek citizens were allowed to visit, and on June 15 the country started to open to foreign tourists. Even so, the disruption in global air travel means Greece will welcome significantly fewer visitors this year. 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. “So far it has been a disaster,” said Koukoudakis over the phone in late May. “Thank God the Athenians have come. We love to see Hydra crowded. We want to see our friends again.”

Part of Hydra’s appeal is that it’s free of vehicles. Even bicycles are prohibited. At the main harbor, a row of long-suffering donkeys stand ready to carry your luggage and maybe the odd child up cobbled steps to hotels and apartments that are architecturally frozen in time. Hydra is roughly 25 square miles, with a year-round population of about 2,000. 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. In the 1950s, Hydra became a Greek national monument and all new construction was halted. 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 came in 1971. They were on their way to visit a friend on the nearby island of Spetses when Helen noticed that all the good-looking people got off the boat at Hydra. The couple fell in love with the island and bought a house a few years later. Brice worked in the garden beneath the vines. “Some of his early drawings have grape stains on them,” Helen says.

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. “I don’t think Branson fought very hard,” she says. “As soon as he saw the opposition, that was it.

“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,” she says with a sigh.

The port is best wandered early in the morning before the cafes open, while the island is sleeping off last night’s excesses at Amalour, a bar off the port whose patrons squeeze into every nook and step of the narrow street in hope of snagging a table. Nothing clears the head like a dive from the rocks at Spilia, where fishing boats whiz by on their way to unload the day’s catch. Young Greeks and sun-stunned tourists alike gather here at sunset, bringing cold Alfa beers from the K supermarket to watch local boys dive from the cliffs into the foaming, ultramarine depths.

The best nights on Hydra begin under the vines at Douskos Taverna, or Xeri Elia, where owner Stavros Douskos greets you with a shy smile. His family has run the place for nearly 200 years. Douskos’s father surveys dinner proceedings from a seat by the fish display, interrupting the rebetiko players now and then to refill glasses. Exuberant groups eat and drink until the small hours, at tables laden with platters of grilled lamb cutlets, bowls of tangled horta, fried potatoes and gleaming whole sea bream, graciously filleted.

This is where Hydra’s 1960s generation would gather at night to sing while Leonard Cohen played his guitar. Among them were Australian literary couple George Johnston and Charmian Clift, Ihlen and, on occasion, Allen Ginsberg. An unpublished Cohen poem printed on the back of the menus 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.”

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. A young Cohen was famously turned away from the 40-room mansion by Ghikas’s housekeeper when he arrived in search of artistic refuge. 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.

It was at Ghikas’s mansion that Henry Miller got to know the leading lights of Greece’s “Generation of the ’30s”—critic George Katsimbalis and Nobel-winning poet Giorgos, or George Seferis. On the whitewashed terrace, war hero and travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor; his photographer wife, Joan Leigh Fermor; painter John Craxton; and Lawrence Durrell and his family looked out at the white flashes of sailboats dashing across the azure horizon.

“It’s hard not to be inspired by the idea Leonard Cohen wrote ‘Bird on a Wire’ about his experiences on Hydra, or by Ghikas, Paddy Leigh Fermor or the Durrells,” says gallerist Sadie Coles, who owns a house on the island. “It has a certain pull for a creative person.”

In 1997, patron and collector Pauline Karpidas invited 15 Young British Artists to exhibit at her space, the Hydra Workshop, a former shipbuilders’ workshop on the west side of the port. Among them were Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Gary Hume, Sarah Lucas and Gillian Wearing. Coles curated the show and Karpidas hosted the artists, plus a few writers and curators, to celebrate the opening.

Karpidas’s idea was to create a weekend-long salon for artists, said Coles, “to share in what Hydra has to offer but also to share ideas and thoughts about art, and to celebrate art.” The exhibition became an annual fixture for 19 more years, with contemporary artists like Richard Prince, Nate Lowman and Rachel Feinstein all showing work there.

Long before the YBAs settled into the white-cushioned seats at Pirate bar, 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. The island’s merchants amassed extraordinary wealth during the Napoleonic Wars by violating the British blockade and carrying food to France and Spain.

My own family has been coming to Hydra for 15 years. Each summer without fail, my father walks to the island’s naval museum on the east side of the port. My sister dutifully accompanies him while the rest of us slink to the beach. They join us later at the restaurant at Plakes and recount the tales of heroism of the Hydriot sea captains over a second carafe of rosé and plates of the lightest fried zucchini you’ve ever tasted.

These days, the maritime comings and goings are of a very different nature. During our phone interview, Mayor Koukoudakis tells me with excitement 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. Joannou commissioned his longtime friend Jeff Koons to transform it into a moving artwork. Against the cool white uniformity of the harbor, Guilty’s garish geometry is unmissable.

Joannou has been a Hydra habitué since the 1980s. In 2008, he convinced the municipality to allow him to convert the old slaughterhouse into an art space. World-renowned artists like Kara Walker, Kiki Smith and Doug Aitken have exhibited there, and every June the art cognoscenti sail in for the opening after Art Basel to kick back after a hectic season of shows. Koons had been scheduled to exhibit this year, but the show has been postponed until 2021 due to the coronavirus.

In the early years, Joannou would set a long table that could seat 300 by the sea front. “Everybody was there. Local people, artists, people from Athens,” he recounts. But such is the popularity of the opening party, there’s hardly enough room in Hydra’s apartments and hotels, let alone at the table. “This year with Jeff—it would have been almost impossible to handle,” he says with a laugh.

One of Joannou’s fondest memories of an opening was in 2011, when Aitken retrofitted a decommissioned passenger ferry so it could accommodate a floodlit stage and audience of 800 for a mobile, multimedia theater piece. He sailed the ferry around the island to another harbor where the audience disembarked and walked back to The Slaughterhouse along candlelit lanes.

“The idea was that you’re really thrust into the work,” says Aitken. “I wanted to find a way to bring the landscape, the mystery, the nuances of the place to life.”

In The Colossus of Maroussi, Henry Miller said the “wild and naked perfection” of the island came from the spirit of the buccaneering islanders. “To recount the exploits of the men of Hydra would be to write a book about a race of madmen,” he wrote. “It would mean writing the word DARING across the firmament in letters of fire.”

Although at the time of writing the summer houses are shut up and most yachts are out of action, the locals remain seated at the few port-front cafes open year-round. They nurse Greek coffees, flick their komboloi and scan the horizon for boats. As Cohen’s Douskos poem says, “They have sent for you, / the call has come, / they will not wait forever. / They are not even waiting now.”

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