ÝDHRA TOWN, with tiers of grey-stone mansions and humbler white-walled, red-tiled houses rising from a perfect horseshoe harbour, makes a beautiful spectacle. Around the harbour, trippers flock to cafés and chic boutiques, but it’s also worth spending time wandering the backstreets and narrow alleys – one thing you may notice while doing so is that even more than most Greek island towns, Ýdhra is overrun with wild cats, probably because there are so many “cat ladies” who feed them.
The waterfront mansions were mostly built during the eighteenth century on the accumulated wealth of a remarkable merchant fleet, which traded as far afield as America and – during the Napoleonic Wars – broke the British blockade to sell grain to France. In the 1820s the town’s population was nearly 20,000 – an incredible figure when you reflect that today it is under 3000 – and Ýdhra’s merchants provided many of the ships for the Greek forces during the War of Independence, and consequently many of the commanders. At each side of the harbour, cannons facing out to sea and statues of the heroes of independence remind you of this place in history.
The mansions of the wealthy eighteenth-century merchant families are still the great monuments of the town; some labelled at the entrance with “Oikía” (“Residence of …”) followed by the family name. Among the finest are the two Koundouriótis mansions, built by two brothers: Yíoryios, whose former home is periodically open for art exhibitions, was a leading politician of the fledgling Greek nation and grandfather of Pávlos, president of Republican Greece in the 1920s; older brother Lázaros was prominent in the independence wars.
Lázaros Koundouriótis Museum
The Lázaros Koundouriótis Museum is the large ochre building high on the western side of town. The hot climb up the stepped alleyways is rewarded with great views down over the town and port, and a lovingly restored interior that looks ready to move into. The red-tiled floors, panelled wooden ceilings and period furnishings outshine the contents of the museum – paintings, folk costume and independence paraphernalia.
Historical Archives Museum
On the eastern waterfront, the Historical Archives Museum occupies one of Ýdhra’s great houses. It’s a small, crowded and enjoyable display of clothing, period engravings, and ships’ prows and sidearms from the independence struggle. The Melina Mercouri Centre, next door, often has interesting temporary art exhibitions.
Kímisis tís Theotókou
The most obvious and important of Ýdhra’s many churches is Kímisis tís Theotókou by the port, with its distinctive clocktower. The cloistered courtyard houses the small but rich collection of the ecclesiastical museum – silver-bound books, icons, vestments, bejewelled crosses and the like.