Travel: Greece - An island fit for heroes

A search for Patrick Leigh Fermor led Jane Garwood to the peaceful, scrub-covered hills of Hydra
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It was the half-serious, half-fanciful notion of meeting my favourite author which took me to Hydra, a Greek island in the Saronic Gulf. It was not otherwise a particularly appealing place; as someone practised in carefully avoiding tourist hot spots, it looked suspiciously accessible from Athens and the Peloponnese. Guide-books dismissed Hydra as expensive and touristy, and there were hints of the island once enjoying some fame as a film set for some B-movie featuring a scantily clad Sophia Loren. But a casual reference in a book I admire, plus a period of unexpected freedom from work, was enough to have me risking the hordes to search for my hero - the legendary adventurer, polymath and writer Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Ever since reading A Time of Gifts, Leigh Fermor's account of the first stage of a walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, I have loved the idea of this man, and envied his pre-war travels in a Europe untouched by tourism. Best of all his books is Mani, encompassing his love of Greek people, culture and history while recounting a journey round a remote peninsula. It was written on Hydra in 1958. I knew Leigh Fermor still lived somewhere in Greece; perhaps Hydra was where I'd find him, sprightly and sipping a cafe metric, telling travellers' tales to a circle of admirers.

I took the hydrofoil from the port of Hermione on the Peloponnese. The water was so calm that the scrub-covered hills of the mainland were mirrored perfectly in the sea. Hydra was a 30-minute high-speed ride away - an hour and 20 minutes from Athens - in a Flying Dolphin, the Russian-built craft which buzz everywhere around the Saronic Gulf like giant insects.

The first sight of my destination was a familiar one for any Greek island- hopper: a dense cluster of houses in a cleft between water and hills. Then, a mosaic of light and colour as sunlight bounced off the sea, windows, chrome bits of boat. The houses were large with splashes of red geranium, ochre walls and terracotta roof tiles giving the town an Italian air. This was not typical of a Greek island, and nor was the quiet ... no background hum of scooters, no enthusiastic tooting of car horns, just the shouts and gestures from fishermen and boatmen in the busy harbour. A line of donkeys waited patiently by the quayside, the only way of getting about on the island if you have no boat and don't like walking.

Walking was a pleasure here though. Each street was a precipitous stone staircase, slippery from centuries of use, and I went up until the harbour looked like the stage of an amphitheatre. Colourful caiques jostled yachts and cruisers, and Pan the anchorman, with a seaman's beard and belly, directed scenes of near misses and tangled anchors from his little red boat.

Finding a place to stay wasn't easy, but the little pension Elena, well up the hillside, was clean and cheap and I later found it was cool to be epano - up above - not just for the views but also because of the day- tripper phenomenon. The island did get swamped with tourists because of its proximity to Athens, but they were usually too daunted by the steep steps to venture far from the harbour. The upper world was peaceful, all thick cypress doors and bright painted flowerpots, the only sound that of donkey hooves on stone echoing off high walls. While you lounged on a secluded terrace during siesta time, a blast on the cruiseship's horn would signal the day-trippers' departure, and Hydra would be returned to its residents. The object of my visit was a good opening gambit in conversations with strangers, and more than once I was invited to close my copy of Mani and join their taverna table. It soon got round that I was looking for the writer; just as soon it became quite obvious that he had left long ago. But by then, I had fallen into a pleasurable routine of taking coffee on the quayside, reading, walking, swimming off the rocks and eating with my new friends. When someone asked a week later, "have you found him?" I had to remind myself who I was supposed to be looking for.

Conscious that I still should pay homage in some respect, I sought out the house where Mani was written. It turned out to be the ancestral home of Nikos Hadji-Kyriakou Ghika, perhaps Greece's best-known artist, and was situated on an expanse of hillside outside the town by the hamlet of Khaminia. Since Ghika, many artists have tried to paint Hydra's luminous skies, skull-like hills and distinctive architecture; he captured the cubist jumble of the town with a sunburnt palette of ochres, greys and browns. The house where he entertained Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, the poet Seferis and philhellene Henry Miller - as well as Leigh Fermor - was destroyed in a mysterious fire 20 years ago, leaving a spectacular and evocative ruin where the locals now corral their donkeys.

Ghika's ancestors were among the merchant families who inhabited Hydra in its heyday; the impressive stone mansions looming out of the curve of buildings around the harbour are a reminder of that time. These archondika were the work of Venetian and Genoese craftsmen, commissioned in the 18th century by fleet commanders eager to build monuments to their success. Hydriot sailors were legendary and their ships went anywhere - including through the English blockade of Europe during the Napoleonic wars to take grain to the French. Now, the house of Tsamadhos dominating the left side of the harbour is the merchant marine school, and the house of Tombazis on the right is an offshoot of the Athens School of Fine Art.

Hydra, then, is an appealing place; a mix of simplicity and sophistication where you can buy a fur coat by the harbour or watch fishermen mend their nets. Characterful houses have become weekend hideaways for rich Athenians craving the simple life. On Friday nights they fling open shutters, light up high beamed ceilings and fill the quiet backstreets with music and voices.

After three weeks of a blissfully fruitless search, it was at least easy for me to imagine why Patrick Leigh Fermor had chosen Hydra as the place to write his travel masterpiece. A beautiful house with a view, the shadows of an exciting past behind a picturesque present. Perhaps he, too, had found convivial company if he wanted it, peaceful solitude if he didn't. One day, when I actually find him, I'll thank him for showing me Hydra. It'll be a good excuse for another trip.

Fact File

YOU CAN fly to Athens from Heathrow or Gatwick on British Airways (0345 222111) and Virgin Atlantic (01293 747747); from Heathrow on Cronus Air (0171-580 3500) and Olympic Airways (0171-409 3400); and from Luton on easyJet (0870 6 000 000). The lowest return fare is on easyJet, costing pounds 121.90.

From airports outside London, the best prospect for a non-stop flight is to use a charter. Full summer services begin on 1 May.

Hellenic Tourism Organisation: 0171-734 5997.