Hydra and Athens - Picturesque Greece perfect for lifting spirits
�I was nursing a bad case of the travelling blues after a day of trains, planes and hydrofoils – but my malady was cured in an instant as we arrived at Hydra’s picturesque port.
This was perhaps unsurprising – after all, I was at the place that cheered up even that legendary misery-peddler Leonard Cohen.
The famously morose singer bought a dilapidated house here in the 1960s, in his mid-20s, and reportedly described it as the best decision he ever made.
Hydra’s harbour is certainly something to lift the spirits – a charming stone-paved crescent of laid-back cafes and bars, with small sailing boats (and the occasional super-yacht) occupying crystal-clear waters.
Rising up the hill behind is the island’s greatest asset – the delightful town of white-washed houses with their red-tiled roofs and bright blue painted shutters, little changed in 100 years or more.
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Hydra is where Cohen met his muse Marianne, inspiration for the song So Long, Marianne, and where he penned another of his signature tunes, Bird on the Wire.
Around two hours from Athens and off the Peloponnesian coast, it is a gem among Greece’s many islands.
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Narrow, cobbled alleyways ooze charm as they weave their way up through a town that offers a glimpse into the past, its buildings mostly dating back to the 19th century.
Strict planning laws mean new houses must be in keeping with its character, leaving the island uniquely well-preserved.
Added to this, there are no vehicles on Hydra – cars, mopeds and even bicycles are outlawed. Donkeys and mules are the only modes of transport, hauling everything from food and water to luggage and building materials.
We stayed at Hotel Nefeli, a wonderful bed and breakfast perched a little way up the hill and boasting stunning views over the town. It has two lovely terraces, filled with lemon trees and comfortable seating – perfect for basking in the evening warmth, or enjoying a leisurely sun-soaked breakfast of Greek yoghurt, mini spanakopitas (spinach and feta pastries) and freshly squeezed orange juice.
As befits an island with no cars, Hydra is a place to slow down and get stuck into some serious relaxation. It has several pebbly beaches to choose from, where one can happily while away days sipping cocktails on sun loungers – which is exactly what we did.
Our favourite spot was a small beach by the Four Seasons hotel, about a 20-minute walk from town along the coast, or reachable by water taxi. We also spent time at the livelier Mandraki – on the way passing a lavish estate with a private beach rumoured to belong to Nicole Kidman.
Strolling through town, amid the quaint houses and shops, was always a joy, while a walk up to the Profit Elias monastery took about an hour and was well worth it. Sitting atop the second highest hill on the island, around 40 monks used to live here, but now there are just two left to enjoy some of the island’s best views.
In the 1960s, Hydra was home to a bohemian community of artists. Several upmarket jewellers carry the creative baton these days – although some of their prices are enough to make anyone but a Greek shipping magnate shudder.
Fortunately, it’s easy to find great food without breaking the bank. As long as you steer clear of the harbour, there are cheap, wonderful family-run Tavernas galore.
We managed to eat ourselves silly every night, gorging on Greek salad, to-die-for tzatziki, heavenly calamari and plate after plate of Greek-style chips, while getting through gallons of wine – always paying under 15 Euros each.
Taverna Leonides was one of the best. Run by an elderly couple at their home, it is the very definition of a hidden gem, with no signs to identify it, and not even a menu.
While not exactly a party island, Hydra is not without nightlife, and after dinner we would head to the handful of bars clustered around the relatively-bustling port, which do a good line in cocktails.
We got into a happy routine of beaches, great food, and walks, and could not help but fall in love with Hydra.
After a week enjoying island life we headed to Athens for two nights, to see a different side of Greece.
From the port of Piraeus, we whizzed straight to Acropolis station on the shiny modern metro – and emerged to the stunning site of the Parthenon, the marble temple built in honour of the goddess Athena, sitting majestically at the top of the Acropolis rock and towering over the city.
It is impossible not to be humbled by the sheer volume and scale of the ancient temples, statues, and marbles in this city.
There is a lot to take in, too much for our short stay. A single ticket will give you access to not only all the delights of the Acropolis, but also the Agora, the ancient marketplace that was the heart of the city for 1,200 years – and the place where Socrates philosophised and St Paul preached.
It is now a grassy expanse dotted with the ruined marble remains of its glorious past – alongside the best-preserved Classical temple in Greece, the Temple of Hephaestus.
It is a great place to wander, while trying to imagine the hustle and bustle it would have once contained.
Our hotel was in the heart of the old town of Plaka, a short walk from the Acropolis on one side, and the Arch of Hardian and the Temple of Olympian Zeus on the other. This is typical of Athens: everywhere you turn, there is another ancient treasure.
The AVA Hotel offered very spacious suites, many with great views of the Acropolis, and all fitted out with flatscreen TVs and kitchenettes – handy amenities if, like us, you needed time to rest between the relentless sightseeing.
Plaka is full of winding medieval alleyways, almost traffic-less like Hydra. While it does bear the hallmarks of mass tourism, with cheap gift shops vying for space alongside tourist-trap restaurants, it manages to retain a great deal of charm
Side by side with ancient grandeur, Athens is of course a modern city – a short walk from Plaka through the central Syntagma Square are trendy bars and upmarket clothes shops.
Taking a ride up the cable car to the top of Mount Lycabettus, the highest point in Athens, we had the perfect view of this city of contrasts.
We reflected on what a wonderful place it is.