Sunday, 2 p.m. Aboard Hellenic Seaways’ Flying Cat 6 —
My brief 47 hours in Hydra has reached a conclusion. And I am saddened to leave.
Truth be told, I’m ready to get to work. But after the rush of August, two days in somewhat-solitude and demi-paradise was a welcome respite.
Hydra is a tangle of wonders, and a big bag of ‘I don’t understand how it works.’ The island does not loom large in Greek history until the early 1800s and the battle for independence from the Ottoman Empire. Subsequent history was written in that century and the early 1900s, this time by shipping magnates.
Hydra Town itself grew up on the side of the mountain, with twisting pathways wide enough for a mule and person, but not for cars. At some point in the middle of the previous century, the town made the decision to keep motors out of town. And a resort was born, at least of sorts.
Movie-makers discovered Hydra at about the same time. So did celebrities. Today, Leonard Cohen’s son owns a house there, as do a couple of soccer players whose names did not register with me.
But Hydra Island has no true beaches (just some pebble plots), no modern resorts (but plenty of hotels, from 1- to 4-star, that are open a few months of the year), no year-round source of income. Harriet the Horse Whisperer tells me that local commerce lives on the ‘season’ when restaurants and businesses must make enough money to survive for the seven months off-season. The waterfront businesses literally close up shop; all of those tables and sofas and padded chairs disappear; a couple of taverna stay open for the locals.
“How do locals make a living, then?”, I asked. Well, goods must arrive by boat from the mainland in order to supply the year-round Greek population. Horses, mules, and donkeys move those goods around, their owners making money. (Some kind of animal is needed to pack a new washing machine or sofa up that mountainside!) The local children need teachers for their schooling that is compulsory through age 18. Someone has to look after the mansions. Grocers sell food to the locals. The light bulb shop just up from the bakery will still provide illumination. The apothecary provides goods year-round. And so on.
Somehow this all works, but the economic foundation must indeed be precarious.
One of the blurbs I read about Hydra spoke of its own self-ordained problems. By deciding not to tear down the town and rebuild in a vehicle-friendly way, the town committed itself to an old-fashioned way of life: pack mules and porters; hordes of visitors disgorged from mainland tourist ships during the season, bringing cash and energy but also requiring a tourist-based economy; no redevelopment since the entire island is a federally-protected environment.
I couldn’t help but think today as I sat for one last time at my taverna, eating a ham sandwich and drinking some lemonade, watching a mule being loaded up with boxes from a water taxi, tearing up a bit as the locals stood (lounging in full force on a Sunday afternoon once the huge day-trip ferry departed at 1 p.m.) and applauded a newlywed couple just arriving back from their honeymoon, just how glorious and strange and stuck-in-time this town is. This is truly a town where everyone knows your name — if you are a local.
And I’m so glad that my travel specialist back home recommended a weekend on Hydra!