After waking up at 5 in the morning, driving under moonlight through the mountains in third gear, switching into sixth gear and watching the sun rise once we hit Kalamata, returning the rental car at the airport, catching a taxi to the port of Piraeus, and hopping on a shitty ferry, we reached the island of Hydra, or Idra.
This would be home for the next five days.
But first, we had to reach our Airbnb. We met Villa Jason’s caretaker at her shop in the harbour. Her husband, Argyris, would take us to the place and show us around. We would do this on foot, of course, because there are no cars on Idra. There are donkeys to help with luggage but I’d read that the hike up to the place was just 15 minutes. Who needs a donkey for a 15-minute walk? And besides, we pack very light.
About two minutes in my lungs were filled with fire and my legs were shaking furiously and I thought I was going to die. Argyris lifted up my suitcase and hoisted it onto his shoulder like it was a feather pillow. “No! Please! No, I insist!” I said to him, but then he was already about 10 metres ahead of us, taking two steps at a time. It was the longest 15 minutes of my life. I don’t know how the Beast, who was stuck dragging his case, did it. But I’m sure as shit that he regretted packing The Complete Poems of Shelley.
Argyris didn’t speak much English, but he showed us which key went where, how to turn on the hot water, and just like that, he was gone.
We sat on our terrace, looking down at the town below, speechless for a good 20 minutes. I knew what the Beast was thinking: How in the hell, and why, did you choose this place? Because there’s not much to do here–it might be one of the only places in Greece without any organized archaeological sites to speak of–besides relax, hike, and swim. And I had big plans to read and write.
Judging by the charming photos I’d seen online of the 100-year-old villa, this looked like the perfect place to do it. But when we stepped into the sub-terrainian bedroom I imagined we’d sleep in, it was dark, smelled terribly musty, and felt damp. Many of the door handles fell off when you turned them. Then we found “the rule book”. When we’ve rented Airbnbs in Crete, there was never a rule book, only helpful guides about where to eat, where to swim, and what to do. And there was always a bottle of white wine in the fridge and homemade pastries to welcome us.
We weren’t in Crete though: The fridge at Villa Jason was empty. The rule book told us we had to empty our garbage every couple of days, to leave the place in the shape that we found it (duh), to water the garden, and that we couldn’t flush any toilet paper. This, along with the idea that we’d have to make that excruciating walk every time we left the place, nearly pushed the Beast over the edge. “I might as well shit straight into the garbage can,” he said while I looked up how much rooms at the Four Seasons were going for.
Then we laughed. What princesses we’ve become! Yes, the welcome was less warm than we were used to, the towels were a bit scratchy, and the shower had no curtain, but goddess, I think we’d survive.
Slowing down, however, prove to be difficult. At first I started trying to figure out how to do all these very long hikes. The idea is that you walk one way for four or five hours, visit a monastery, have a swim, and then take a water taxi back. But at the end of October, water taxis aren’t making these normally scheduled routes. If you arrange a private ride, it isn’t cheap. And on our first day, after a lovely hour-long hike to Palamidas beach, we stopped for dinner at Kodylenia’s in Kamini beach and it was the most disappointing meal we’ve had in Greece. It was also one of the most expensive. But the view was ok.
Plus there was a great deal of envy while we watched all the yachts–and let me tell you, some must’ve been multiple millions of dollars–pulling into the harbour. All I wanted was to be on a boat. We’d sit at Roloi, one of the many restaurants along the harbour, drinking our Alpha beers and scheming on how to charm the owners of the yachts with our good humour and engaging personalities. “You know what?” we imagined them saying, “You two are so interesting! So refreshing! Why don’t you come along to all the places we are sailing to?” I made the Beast unbutton his shirt a bit and I wore white linen so we could cover all sexual persuasions. We joked about him bringing down his manuscript next time as a conversation starter. Oh, you’re a writer? Come on board!
But then we accepted our fate: we aren’t millionaires, we aren’t brazen enough to get invited onto a yacht, we had one bad dinner, we came here specifically to settle down, to slow down, so let’s be happy with what we have: slumming it in a two-bedroom villa in a place that looks like a post card wherever you turn.
We visited a couple of museums, we grocery shopped, and made omelettes one night for dinner at our place. We had lovely meals at Annita and Ostria. (Word to the wise: don’t bother ordering white bottled wine here. It never equaled the far cheaper house wine at every restaurant.) We explored the town and swam every day in sapphire blue waters. We wrote and read on our terrace and moved indoors when it got too chilly.
“This is a place you come to for one day, or one month,” the Beast said one night on the terrace after we’d consumed a great deal of wine and raki. He’s right. Most tourists take a day trip here and to the other Saronic Islands from Athens. They visit the shops, have a lunch, and they’re on their way. In one month, you could really get synced with island time, and even complete a creative project. But five days? It’s both too long and not enough.
But it was enough time to become enchanted by the lore of the island. At the turn of the 19th century, Idra had a bigger population than Athens. It was an important maritime trading centre with a booming sail ship-building industry. The advent of steamships was a big economic blow and many residents left. In the ’30s and ’40s, however, it became a bohemian’s paradise. Writers and painters and musicians came to create here. One of Greece’s most famous modern painters, Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas, hosted writers Henry Miller, Laurence Durrell, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Edmund Keeley at his mansion. They stayed long enough to finish some of their most famous books.
We passed the 40-room mansion, which burned down in 1965 and has been abandoned ever since, many times on our walks and thought about those writers, whose books we’d read days earlier in the Mani and during our trip last year to Greece.
And it was hard not to be enchanted by the thought of celebrities, like Sofia Loren, Jackie Onassis, Richard Burton, Henry Fonda, and Mick Jagger, visiting Idra in the ’60s and ’70s. I bet they came on yachts.
Most famously, perhaps, is that Hydra became the home of Leonard Cohen when he bought a house here for $1,500 nearly 60 years ago. This is where he met and fell in love with Marianne, where he wrote many poems and songs, like Bird on a Wire. And we were determined to find it. After many wrong turns, we did. Turns out it was about a two-miunte walk from our place and a few corners from the grocery store we’d been frequenting.
It was also lovely to hear stories about him from restaurant owners who, without being invited to, would talk about him when they found out we were Canadian. His kids still come every year, they’d tell us, and their restaurant was always their favourite. One night, we found ourselves at the very restaurant, Douskos (or Xeri Elia) Taverna, which has been in business for nearly 200 years, where Cohen was photographed with friends for Life magazine.
We got a table right beside the tree under which he played his guitar.
The day we had to leave, we got up early for what we thought would be our last swim. We came back, showered, packed, and were ready to bring our luggage down to the harbour. Then we got notice that our ferry was delayed. We had five more hours. Although we’d started off on the wrong foot with Idra, and were excited to get to busy Athens with modern restaurants and esoteric Greek wines, we found ourselves content having to stay just a little longer.
So we put our suits back on, and had one last swim.
(If you find yourself in Idra and want to visit Cohen’s house, here’s how: take the first street to the right of the clock tower in the harbour, past Ostria restaurant, past a supermarket. When you see the pharmacy, head to your right and make your way up. You’ll hit one of the few marked streets called Kriezi. Follow until you see a yellow grocery store, called the Four Corners or the Four Coins. Turn right. Then left. Turn right, and you’ll see Cohen’s three-story house. There’s a knocker on the door of a hand with the star of David underneath.)