In introducing today’s FOMM about Hydra by She Whose Pen-Name used to be Mrs W, I need to explain how often, when travelling in Southern Europe, I was mis-identified as a local. Perhaps it was the Celtic complexion, infused with Spanish blood. Or the faux fisherman’s cap. Either way, I’d get something like this:
Greek cafe owner: “Welcome! Where are you from?”
BW: “Australia” (café guy looks at colleague and chortles)
“No, no, where are you really from?”
Confused, I say “Melbourne.”
“Ah, Mel-born – I have a cousin there – Stavros – perhaps you know him?”
HYDROFOIL TO HYDRA
By Laurel Wilson
April 2004: Shirley Valentine and I have one thing in common－ we both had always wanted to travel to Greece; but I was travelling with my husband, rather than trying to get away from him. My fellow traveller claimed that he could ‘speak some Greek’, having sailed to Europe in the ‘70’s aboard a Greek liner. He certainly looked the part, with his jaunty Greek fisherman’s cap, but it soon fell to me to translate the signs and attempt to get us on the right bus.
After three fascinating days in Athens, we were armed with essential traveller’s knowledge- we knew to say ‘kalamere’ instead of ‘calamari’ if we wanted to say ‘good morning’, we had worked out the main differences between our alphabet and the Greek one, and we could recognise the toilet signs.
We were on a pretty tight budget, but also craved a bit of adventure, so we chose not to travel on organised tours. One of our do-it-yourself adventures found us taking a local train to the port of Piraeus, near Athens, en route to the island of Hydra (pronounce Eedra, as we soon discovered) one of the Saronic islands off the southern coast of the Peloponnese Peninsula. The only thing I knew about ‘Hydra’ was some vague legend about a woman with snakes for hair, perhaps not an auspicious beginning.
(BW: Leonard Cohen lived there in the early 1960s with other writers and poets).
Getting to Piraeus was quite simple, but finding the ferry terminal was another thing altogether. We eventually succeeded, just in time to see our intended ferry connection sail away. Having some time to wait for the next one, we looked for somewhere to enjoy afternoon tea. We found a likely-looking café, but were told that they didn’t serve cakes or sweets. “We’re a restaurant,” the proprietor said, as if that explained everything. So being wise tourists, we had what was on offer. However, what we thought was a snack turned out to be a gargantuan meal of capsicums and tomatoes stuffed with rice, a Greek salad, mountains of bread and a cup of the thick mud-like ‘Greek’ coffee (it used to be called Turkish coffee, but national pride got in the way).
The trip to Hydra was on a very large and speedy catamaran. According to the company website, it is one of six in the Hellas ‘Flying Dolphin’ fleet. (There is a local connection too – Flying Cat No.2, was reportedly built on Queensland’s Gold Coast in 1998). It was a fast, smooth and comfortable ride of about 1½ hours, compared to twice that for the conventional ferry.
The first sighting of Hydra was memorable － seemingly impenetrable sheer cliffs, then suddenly a lovely snug little harbour lined with small fishing boats, backed by a charming small town which featured impressive stone mansions along with tiny cottages, steep narrow streets and a jumble of small shops and cafes. Although there was quite a deal of construction in evidence, the overall appearance was harmonious, thanks to the heritage laws which require newer constructions to conform to the traditional character and colours of the island’s established buildings.
Several teams of donkeys, mules and ponies accompanied by their minders waited patiently for passengers or goods to carry. Motorised transport is forbidden on Hydra, a welcome change from the noisy and chaotic traffic of Athens. Tourists often try the donkey-rides, using a type of side-saddle, but I didn’t want the poor things to suffer, so chose to walk instead. (BW: As I recall, they carried our bags).
The island is quite dry and rocky, resulting in limited scope for gardens and some suggest this is the reason for the brightly coloured shutters, doorways and window sills to be found on the island’s buildings. As we walked past one of the many closed bars, we could see and smell the fresh coat of bright green paint being applied to the shutters.
We felt no need to test our fitness by climbing to the highest point of the island, but did stroll along the wide track which curved around the headlands on either side of the village. On our first walk, we passed the prominent statue of local hero Admiral Andreas Miaoulis, who acquitted himself very well in the 19th century Greek War of Independence. Later that evening, we strolled around the Western headland to view the sunset, quite indistinct owing to the still visible smog from Athens.
If we had been a bit more energetic, we could have walked to some of the monasteries and convents dotted around the 52sq km island, or visited the ancient village of Episkopi, with its evidence of Mycenaean civilisation. Diving, sailing and yacht cruising are also available for the more active tourist, as well as swimming, though the beaches are rather pebbly, with not much sand in evidence. The local historical museum, housed in a traditional Hydriot mansion on the eastern side of the harbour, was closed while we were there, though the Byzantine Museum, situated in a building with a distinctive marble bell tower, was open to visitors.
We arrived in March, earlier than the bulk of tourists, which meant that many businesses were closed and undergoing maintenance, but we didn’t feel deprived, as there were plenty of restaurants and cafes open. Most of the businesses that were not yet open seemed to be large bars with open-air dining. During the tourist season, these promise (or threaten, depending on your point of view) loud music, with dance parties lasting all night.
It seems the cruising season had already begun, as a couple of ships arrived while we were there, disgorging very prosperous looking tourists. Souvenir shoppers were catered for with lace, jewellery and craft shops which opened during the hours that a cruise ship was in port and then closed again, figuring rightly that it wasn’t worthwhile to remain open for the few longer-stay tourists such as ourselves.
At that time of year, accommodation was readily available and very reasonably priced. Our self-contained one bedroom unit, situated just behind the village centre, cost only €35 (approx AUD$ 60) per night. It was quite a modern unit, one of several in a converted split-level home behind a walled and gated courtyard.
(BW: This is 2004, remember!)
We weren’t looking for the kind of party lifestyle that some seek on the Greek Islands, but instead were treated to a quiet and peaceful three days in a beautiful setting. Peaceful except for the feud that broke out one morning while we were having brunch. An old fellow wandered into the café and approached another chap sitting at a table near us. After much shouting and gesticulating, he retreated, to the jeers and smirks of several of those in the café. Half an hour later, he came back for a re-match. Discretion overcame my first impulse to ask the locals what it was all about, but everyone seemed to find it as entertaining as we did, even those involved, I suspect.
Later we took a moonlit walk along the harbour, relishing the peace and quiet. Only one bar was still open with faint sounds of laughter and music following us like mist.
“Fancy a nightcap, Mr W?”
“Nai parakalo, yassou – whatever!”