At seven in the morning in early September, the light over Hydra is more of an impression than reality, a fluid veil of burnt orange sneaking over the hills. The port is hidden from the rising sun, like a pearl inside its shell, by the barren, burnished cliffs that run across the island, like the arched back of a sleeping dragon. The day’s first boat departs from the port at seven, in the half dream of dawn I hear steps scuttling down the slippery stones, the familiar groan of a wheeled suitcase, a muffled conversation in quickfire Greek. Outside our window there is a small football field, each morning a lone runner makes poised rounds around it and then stretches in front of the goal. At seven the bells of the island’s countless churches respond to each other with frantic urgency, then fall silent as the tops of the houses in the port are finally turned crimson and ochre by the sunrise. Lying in bed I study the slow but steady progress of the nascent day and make plans.
Part one of the plan is the morning meal, and that will be had at Isalos by the port, their two person Greek breakfast being sized more for a conquering army. As I soldier through the hearty omelet, I sense pressure on my thigh, first delicate as a snowflake landing on your eyelashes, then slowly growing in intensity and culminating in the sharp pain of a half extended claw. The owner of the claw is a formidable ginger cat I nicknamed Kokkinos after googling the word for red in Greek. Kokkinos is not really hungry anymore, none of the gargantuan cats of the port really are, especially after the arrival of the day’s first fishing boats, but he is serious about his job, which consists in being equally angelic and unbearable at any given moment. Suddenly, however, he abandons me with an athletic leap. A bundle of newspapers has startled him, landing on the shore with a loud thud. It is followed by packs of cigarettes, carts filled with fruits and vegetables, IKEA boxes and a group of people disembarking with that mindbening array of luggage you can only ever find in South-East Europe. My eye rests on the sign of a nearby government office, I painstakingly decipher the alphabet, so alien and familiar at the same time: Elliniki Dimokratia, the Hellenic Republic, but for naming that they use the word democracy. The bundle of papers had been brought by a boat called Freedom. Freedom of the press, I smile as I sip my coffee.
In all honesty, the coffee on Hydra is not great. Either that, or we are great coffee snobs, or a little bit of both, but as I delight my palate with the bitter liquid and doodle in my notebook, I start to entertain the illusion of a coffee house I’d run on the island. Greet the many Romanians arriving on catamarans with a joyful bună dimineața along the kalimera, fill the walls with pictures of home and Budapest but never really, honestly, look back.
There is one road leading out from Hydra port along the sea, and it is a thing of wild and relentless beauty. The first beach in the eastward direction is the one named Spilia, a collection of flat rocks surrounded by limpid water shimmering in deep shades of turquoise and azure. The slabs are occupied by bewildered locals, athletic swimmers and insta-sirens, above them there is a bar with terraces, splendid cold beer and fabulous views of the bustling port, firmly awakened by the time we hit noon. Hugged by the salty breeze and the bittersweet scent of the hops from my Ammousa English IPA, I watch a tiny dot on the horizon grow into a fully fledged Flying Cat, rumbling through the golden heat of the midday sun.
About five minutes away, Avlaki beach is Spilia without the fuss and the bar, a narrow trail veering down through a thicket of pines to a sheltered pebbly beach. In truth, with one exception, all of Hydra’s beaches are stony, excessively beautiful but unkind to your feet. Insert uncharacteristic practical advice: do follow the example of the blog’s industrious co-photographer and buy surf shoes. The road snakes on and brings unexpected encounters. An old, twisted tree cradles the pirate overlord of the island: a giant, mean mannered white cat with paws wounded in battle and pink ears delicate like film burned mercilessly by the sun. His demeanour shows no regret and no repentance, he has chosen a life of rebellion over the pampered destiny of a port cat fed into submission with fish and greasy leftovers. His eyes open just so, narrow slits of a condescending stare. He is hurt, but proud and, in his way, he is free.
In the small port of Kamini men fiddling with their komboloi dwell in permanent rest and conversation, migrating from one row of benches to another according to the movements of the sun and shade. Everywhere you look you see churches, perched on rocks, on small islands between Hydra and the mainland, along the sunburnt road. There are around two thousand people on the island and according to certain estimates, up to six hundred altars, churches and monasteries with immaculately whitewashed walls, woodwork painted in deep blue, the flag atop them an embrace of the white and the blue, the ornate Byzantine crosses catching the rays of the sun and the moon. There is another flag too, that of Hydra itself: an anchor, a cross, another flag within the flag (flagception, pardon the pun) and the Spartan motto of ‘I tan i epi tas’, roughly translated as ‘Come back with your shield, or on it’, the kind words mothers would utter to their children before battle, preferring them dead than defeated. Definitely not faint hearted, them Spartans. If you wonder why the island would use a Spartan motto, we could launch into a very convoluted historical backstory or simply mention it’s pretty close and ancient Hydra was therefore closely connected to it.
Kamini beach itself is somewhat vampirized by the Castelo bar, which offers the kind of expensive sunbeds that look nice but are hideously uncomfortable so it’s best to keep going, even if the length of the next stretch and the absence of shade can seem forbidding during the day. Come evening, though, it’s time for a very Greek metamorphosis. The sun dipping behind the mainland paints the sky purple and peach, the sea a blanket of trembling blue, skinny boats slipping by like ghosts. The small trees and thorny bushes by the road catch the last rays of the day, looking, from a distance, biblically aflame, dark crimson and cochineal. Cochineal, incidentally, is a colour I met in a Jo Nesbø novel, and unsurprisingly has its root in the Greek kokkinos.
Walking across a narrow stone bridge you reach Vlychos beach, which grew on us like a familiar tune you dismiss at first but can’t stop humming later. Perhaps it was the friendly waiter, who immediately identified me as Romanian- coronavirus induced absence from my homeland has made me soppily sensitive to any sign of belonging. Perhaps it was the fact that both restaurants nearby- Enalion and Marina- proved to be excellent. Fresh salad, tzatziki, ruby red wine and a bit of tsipouro to help them along. Perhaps it was the lonely swimmer who left her belongings on the beach at sundown and just slithered out into the open sea as if in a dream. Or perhaps it was the Russians and the Brit. I strongly disliked them at first. Two women in their fifties (the Russians), lean muscles under skin tortured into parchment by the sun and botox. A much older man, white like fresh milk, their gauche sugar daddy who wondered why his feet were so sensitive. They were sensitive because he was ancient, the Russians were unhappy because they were supposed to go to the fancy Four Seasons beach, but they took the wrong boat and ended up on Vlychos. One of them was chugging tsipouro from a paper coffee cup, tried chatting to us, then dove into the waves like a low -cost mermaid. When she failed to return on time, her friend got frantic, searched the sea with desperate eyes. Lady Tsipouro’s eventual return elicited merriment and many signs of the cross. The old Brit had in the meantime gotten dressed and looked much like a recently discovered Egyptian mummy. As the last boat returned to Hydra port, they sailed into the sunset, and I almost missed them. Theirs was, in so many ways, a true Greek tragedy of how life is merciless to us all and never gives us what we really want.
We did visit the Four Seasons (Plakes) beach as well. It was enjoyable in an anodyne way, people floating around in the kind of beachwear which imitates the garb of locals but costs thousands of euros and gets featured in Vogue as part of a spread about your dream getaway to Greece. They nibbled on canapés, lathered themselves in expensive sun lotion and had Booker Prize shortlisted novels on their sunbeds, never making it beyond page five.
You can walk all the way to Plakes comfortably on foot, provided you are not a very old and tired British gentleman with sensitive skin, and if you turn westward from the port, you can also make it to Mandraki beach the same way. Mandraki beach comes in two installments: a lovely white and blue shack with a restaurant, a giant family of inquisitive cats, elderly locals chatting away and two waiters with a man on man interaction that could be anything from laddish to passionate. The other installment is advertised as Hydra’s only sandy beach and comes complete with overpriced sunbeds, thumping EDM music and annoying people on jet skis. Beyond it lies the wilderness, and what we discovered was Hydra’s garbage dump.
How did we get to garbage dump, you will ask, and I will answer Google Maps. Perhaps having read the previous piece about Hydra, you will assume I have learned my lesson. Yet, as proven so many times, I never learn. One fine morning, my plan was to wake the blog’s industrious co-photographer ridiculously early, which I did. Go to Drougas bakery and get a lot of delicious pastry and some abominable coffee. We did that too. And then walk across the spine of the dragon to a wild and pristine beach. We did that too, but there was a catch. Things started pleasantly enough, the morning was fresh, radiant, we walked past fragrant thyme bushes, trees laden with ripe pomegranates and a panicky nun on a donkey. We reached an inevitable monastery and I fired up Google, our destination apparently minutes away. The slight problem was the precipice, filled with boulders and thorny bushes. Surely, this cannot be it. I very literally stared into the abyss, the abyss stared back, and then an amiable Greek woman came out of her back garden and spoke to us like an oracle: Limnioniza?! Bánio?! That way! She did not say that way, she pointed that way, and that way was down. Now, I am afraid of many things, to different degrees, and going down slopes might just be top of this list. I feel a deep, existential terror of slipping, breaking my neck and possibly shattering into a million pieces of nothingness and stardust. I therefore consider our trip to Limnioniza beach an intoxicating cocktail of my via crucis and descent into Hades. The terror I felt trying to keep my balance in flimsy Paez espadrilles on the slippery, rocky slopes is one of the purest I have ever felt. It was so immense and all encompassing that, without any irony, on our way back to Mandraki beach, surrounded by the metal skeletons of the garbage dump, I felt reborn. Would I go to Limnioniza again? Yes, I reply, any time, without hesitation. I won’t like it, but maybe just maybe I need it.
My fear of slipping on steep inclines is closely followed by my dislike of being in secluded places. We therefore dished out fifteen euros and went to Agios Nikolaos beach, the engine of our boat briefly catching fire in the process. At Agios Nikolaos we found a small bar with local beer, some sunbeds, scenic rocks behind us, a scenic gulf ahead and no network on our mobile phones. It felt a bit like a scene from Lost remixed with a corner of heaven. I was reading Patrick Leigh Fermor, who’d been to the island and apparently visited the home of painter Nikos Ghikas, which later burned down because Leonard Cohen placed a curse on it. To my right, and Italian man was reading a Camilleri I haven’t, and I thought, well, if we get stuck here, I’ll just ask him to swap books. We didn’t get stuck, our boat, engine in ruddy health, took us back to Hydra port. As the boat rode the waves I turned and looked behind me, at the trail of foam and glittering droplets we left as we passed, sunbaked faces smiling in the fading light. This was a dream I once had. And now it was real.