Hydra is the most beautiful of the 10 Greek islands I have visited since 1982.
The Australian novelists George Johnston and Charmian Clift bought a house on Hydra soon after they arrived in 1955. The focus of my time on the island from April 25-28 of 2022 was to learn more about the couple and experience the places they knew. That’s me by the front door, opposite the well which was their water source.
Life on Hydra is depicted in Clift’s excellent memoir Peel Me a Lotus. Their third child, Jason, was born on the island in 1956. They returned to Australia in 1964, Johnston first and the family some weeks later.
Johnston won the Miles Franklin award in 1965 for his novel My Brother Jack, written on Hydra.
The second novel of his trilogy/fictionalised memoir of Australia and Greece, Clean Straw for Nothing, won the same award in 1969. The final book in the Trilogy, A Cartload of Clay, was published in 1971, the year after Johnston died.
I first read these books as a trainee journalist in 1975. All of them, especially the first novel about 1930s Melbourne, have stayed with me.
The couple paid 120 Greek gold pounds for the house. At the time this was about USD 1,300 or 620 Australian pounds (Australia did not adopt decimal currency until 1966). The house is probably worth more than €1 million now, based on the spiralling cost of real estate on this tiny island (it measures perhaps 14 km lengthwise and about 6 km in width).
Hydra is now very much on the international tourist trail, with hydrofoils making the journey from Piraeus in about 90 minutes (35 Euro one way in April, rising to 40 Euro in high season). In the 1950s it took at least four hours by steamer to get to Piraeus.
Motorbikes, cars, trucks and even bicycles are forbidden on the island.
The exceptions apply to an ambulance, two fire trucks and a handful of vehicles that collect rubbish.
Most people travel by foot, donkey or water taxi. The air is wonderfully clear and fragrant. It is such a joy not to hear the noisy farting of scooters, so common on most Greek islands.
Hydra is a sensory delight. In April the aromas of orange and lemon blossom fill the air along with Hydra’s unique kind of garrique mingled with zingy salt notes carried by the breeze once you get close to the ocean or port. Even the tang of donkey urine is pleasant from a distance.
April sunshine is pleasant without being stifling, and restaurants are preparing for the season. Most activity on the island focuses around the port.
We stayed at a lovely guesthouse named Manolia.
It is about 150 metres inland from the port and has generous-sized rooms. The walk there is mostly flat. We encountered soft towels, elegant toiletries, a huge bathroom, and a coffee machine plus snacks in lieu of breakfast. They provided two small bottles of Peloponnesian wine as a welcome present. Their small garden is a great place for breakfast, under the lemon trees.
Hydra is barren and rocky. It produces almost no food apart from citrus, figs, olives, and sheep and goats. This combined with its popularity means that restaurant prices can be very high. A meal at the lower end of the scale for two people with wine typically cost about €55 in April, and I imagine prices get much higher in the peak months of July and August.
Because of high costs relative to other islands I cannot and will not recommend any restaurants, though I found the newly-opened Annita good value. It is a two-minute walk from the port near the 17th century Kimisis Tis Theotokou Cathedral opposite a small park filled with citrus trees on Votsi Street.
Here is a photo of their fixed-price menu. Expect to pay between €8 and €12 for a half litre of basic wine on the island, and anywhere between €10 and €35 for a main course. By comparison, bulk wine on other islands is about €4 a half litre.
Anything written about Hydra must mention the multitude of cats. They appear healthier than on other islands, and generally seem much larger. But that is because they are fluffier. I suspect some are the progeny of Maine Coon cats, because of their exceptionally fluffy tails.
I should point out that Maine Coon are my favourite breed of cats. They have been employed on ships for generations because they are excellent mice and rat catchers, and not afraid of water.
Expect visits from any number of cats when you dine outside. And you must dine outside because of the delightful weather and the clear starry skies.
I found myself almost compelled to take photographs, such is the beauty of Hydra. In three days I took more than 200 photos and videos.
To me the image at left captures the essence of Hydra: religion, cats, mobile phones, donkeys and the port.
The first movie filmed on Hydra was A Girl in Black, made in 1956.
The second movie was Boy on a Dolphin a year later. In her memoir mentioned at the start of this article Charmian Clift writes about how the film crew took over the port of Hydra in 1957. Her comments are arch and funny.
The couple and their children had bit parts in the movie, but on a recent viewing I could not see them.
The most famous person associated with Hydra is the poet and singer Leonard Cohen. Charmian Clift and George Johnston befriended Cohen when he arrived in 1960, aged 25, from Canada, with an arts council grant. This article from HydraDirect offers more details.
When Cohen gave his first concert in Sydney, in 1990, he dedicated the show to Charmian and George, even though they were long dead. He acknowledged they taught him to write in the seven years he lived on Hydra from 1960.
Like Johnston and Clift, Leonard Cohen bought a house when he arrived. His family still owns the house, and the street has been re-named Leonard Cohen Street.
It is about a 12-minute walk from the port to the house, but be warned the ascent is steep and the steps slippery. The best way to find it is to use GPS.
Most locals will provide directions once you get near the house, usually by pointing if they have no English.
The story of Charmian Clift and George Johnston needs to be told in more detail, and in a better tone than the seedy media reports connected with the fact that Charmian and two of their three children committed suicide in Australia.
They were pioneers. Their lives are very much a story of two people who defied convention and made a living as writers when the outside world told them it was not possible. And Charmian was a feminist before the term entered our lexicon.
They suffered for their art, as Charmian’s two books of memoir clearly show. But they also created great art. Read their books to find out.
Aaah – the strong man from Piraeus! These sunny reports are giving warmth to a frosty, autumnal Victorian!