The island of ÝDHRA (Hydra) is one of the most atmospheric destinations in Greece. Its harbour and main town preserved as a national monument, it feels like a Greek island should, entirely traffic-free (even bicycles are banned) with a bustling harbour and narrow stone streets climbing steeply above it. Away from the main settlement the rest of the island is roadless, rugged and barely inhabited. The charm hasn’t gone unnoticed – Ýdhra became fashionable as early as the 1950s, and in the Sixties characters ranging from Greek painter Nikos Hatzikyriakos-Ghikas to Canadian songster Leonard Cohen bought and restored grand old houses here. There’s still a sizeable expat community, which contributes to a relatively sophisticated atmosphere, and also noticeably high prices. But even the seasonal and weekend crowds, and a very limited number of beaches, can’t seriously detract from the appeal. When the town is overrun, it’s easy enough to leave it all behind on foot or by excursion boat. The interior is mountainous and little-visited, so with a little walking you can find a dramatically different kind of island – one of rural cottages, terraces of grain to feed the donkeys, hilltop monasteries and pine forest.
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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.
Over the weekend closest to June 21, Ýdhra Town celebrates the Miaoulia, in honour of Admiral Andreas Miaoulis whose fire boats, packed with explosives, were set adrift downwind of the Turkish fleet during the War of Independence. The highlight of the celebrations is the burning of a boat at sea as a tribute to the sailors who risked their lives in this dangerous enterprise.
Orthodox Easter is also a colourful and moving experience, especially on the evening of Good Friday when the fishermen’s parish of Áyios Ioánnnis at Kamíni carries its Epitáfios, or symbolic bier of Christ, into the shallows to bless the boats and ensure calm seas.
Ýdhra’s inland walks
To explore the island’s interior and south coast, head out of Ýdhra Town on the street that leads past the Miranda hotel or around the eastern edge past the Piteoussa: as you start to climb, a left turn leads to Áyios Nikólaos, keeping right heads to Profítis Ilías.
Profítis Ilías and Mount Éros
The monastery of Profítis Ilías and nearby convent of Ayía Efpraxía are about an hour’s climb above Ýdhra Town. What must be the longest stairway in Greece (or alternatively a zigzag path) constitutes the final approach to Profítis Ilías (closed noon–4pm, but water and loukoúm are hospitably left at the gate). If you want to go further, a rather tougher, harder-to-follow trail continues left behind the monastery to a saddle overlooking the south coast. From here a pathless scramble brings you within twenty minutes to the 590m summit of Mount Éros, the Argo-Saronic islands’ highest point, but the path itself branches: right to the chapel of Áyios Mámas, on whose feast day of September 2 there’s a pilgrimage of people and animals to be blessed; left eventually circles down to the sea at the tiny hamlet of Klimáki, a couple of hours’ walk in all.
The path from Ýdhra Town towards deserted Áyios Nikólaos monastery offers spectacular views back down over the harbour before reaching, at the top, a broad, easy dirt track heading straight across a high plateau towards the monastery. Just beyond Áyios Nikólaos is a small settlement, from where you can in theory head down to Limnióniza, a scenic cove on the south coast an hour and a quarter from Ýdhra Town. However, it’s a steep scramble on a path which is hard to find and there are no boats back unless you arrange to be picked up by water-taxi. A far easier alternative is to follow the broad track down from Áyios Nikólaos to Mandhráki, where you can have a swim before taking the boat back to town.
This is Ýdhra’s eastern tip and is about three hours’ walk from town, on a path that heads east from Áyios Nikólaos. There are several small chapels along the way, along with the substantial Moní Zoúrvas. Perhaps the best way to do this trip is to take an early morning water-taxi to the cape, and walk back to town along the island’s spine.