Hydra: Simple pleasures on an 'aesthetically perfect' island
On a pilgrimage to Hydra, Charlotte McDonald-Gibson comes to realise why Henry Miller fell in love with Greece during the crisis of the Thirties
The hydrofoil slowed its rhythmic pounding on the cobalt waves of the Saronic Gulf and started its approach into Poros. Our expectations were mounting: a battered book clutched in my lap promised that entering the narrow stretch of water separating the Greek island from the Peloponnese mainland was an otherworldly experience, a "deep dream" from which you never fully awaken.
"To sail slowly through the streets of Poros is to recapture the joy of passing through the neck of the womb," Henry Miller wrote in his 1939 book about Greece, The Colossus of Maroussi. "Let the world have its bath of blood – I will cling to Poros .... That was a moment which endures, which survives world wars, which outlasts the life of the planet Earth itself."
My boyfriend and I peered through salt-streaked windows, awaiting our rebirth. The white-cube houses and small cafés looked pretty enough, but hardly earth-shattering. Perhaps, we decided, the utter jaw-dropping experience of sliding by a few feet from the harbour side was somewhat diminished by our grimy view.
So we ventured on to the tiny deck just as the vessel pulled out again. The hydrofoil belched exhaust, mingling with the scent of a dozen hastily puffed cigarettes. On the quay, an irate tourist who mistakenly thought he'd missed his boat shouted abuse as we pulled away. "Well, it was kind of cool to be so close to the harbour," my other half said, clearly feeling the need to console me after I had been promised wonders that surpassed attaining Nirvana.
It is hard not to be caught up in Miller's enthusiasm. Like today, when Greece finds itself on the brink of bankruptcy and its people enduring the harshest austerity measures in Europe, he travelled to Greece at a time of great turmoil. The country was in the grip of a military dictatorship and the Second World War loomed. Nevertheless, the American writer – best known for semi-autobiographical books detailing his erotic adventures in Paris and New York – found a warmth and great strength in the Greeks in crisis, and during almost a year there, he produced what he considered to be his best work.
Indeed, it is a book filled with pure joy for a country. Reading it, you want to tear up your carefully laid holiday plans and find Miller's Greece, an exuberant place of gods walking the earth, epiphanies on the tombs of warriors, and characters not just larger than life, but like the colossus of the title.
We didn't have to wait long to find the Greece that stirred Miller to heights of literary ecstasy. Half an hour out of Poros, the ferry neared our destination: Hydra Island, in the same Argo-Saronic archipelago. We sailed into its beautiful crescent harbour, from which whitewashed buildings with shutters painted every hue of blue spill up the hillside under a spray of bougainvillea. Strict building codes preserving the architectural purity of the harbour mean it is little changed from the time Miller sailed in and declared: "Aesthetically it is perfect."
The real beauty of Hydra is the absence of motorised transport. Cars and motorcycles are banned from the cobbled streets and the dirt paths that connect Hydra town to outlying hamlets and beaches. So we arrived clasping an email from our travel agent which included the intriguing instructions: "There will be a man with a donkey to meet you when you arrive. His name is Takis."
There were many men with many donkeys, the beasts of burden being the main form of transport on the rocky island, ferrying everything from the weekly shop to the island's elder inhabitants. We eventually found Takis, who loaded up our suitcases and led us up the hill to our apartment, the view of the sea and harbour increasing in grandeur with each step.
Hydra came pretty close to my perfect holiday island. Days were spent heading to the different coves, sometimes by foot over pine-forested cliffs, other days hopping on a small boat. There are three lovely shingle beaches within walking distance west of Hydra town – Kamini, Vliho and Plakes – each offering excellent swimming in clear, clean water. Sunbeds and umbrellas are available for rent, and beachside tavernas offer Greek staples, house wine for as little as €6 (£5) a litre, and an array of seafood plucked from the waters that morning. Our daily treat was Hydra squid, its sweet flesh served charred from the grill with nothing but a hunk of lemon on the side.
Unlike many of the islands of the Cyclades and Aegean clusters, Hydra is unencumbered by large resorts or sprawling holiday bungalows. Our accommodation was a lovely one-bedroom apartment up the hill in Hydra town with a huge terrace overlooking the interior. There are also plenty of B&Bs in the tiny lanes closer to the harbour, while a handful of grander hotels are hidden away in restored 18th-century mansions.
But if Hydra is meant to be a tranquil idyll with only birdsong and church bells to splinter the silence gently each morning, nobody told us about the island's four-legged inhabitants. On our first morning, we were awoken by the unbelievably loud braying of a donkey far up the hill, a grating, squawking noise that travels swiftly down the rocky slopes and into homes across the town. Then there was the dog barking at his own echo for a good half an hour, as we sat on the balcony nursing cold glasses of Greek rosé and listening to the canine cacophony. Compared with the donkeys and the dogs, the island's thousands of stray cats are relatively unassuming. Their only foible is to hang around your restaurant table in gangs, eyeing up your seafood dinner.
It was while lazing on the terrace listening to a braying donkey echo across the valley that I read Miller's description of Mycenae, the ancient citadel not far away on the Peloponnese mainland. It is said to have been the home of Agamemnon, one of warriors who led the assault on Troy before incest and infighting destroyed his ancestral pile. "At Mycenae the gods once walked the earth, of that there can be no question," Miller wrote. "It is one of the navels of human spirit, the place of attachment to the past and of complete severance too. It wears an impenetrable air; it is grim, lovely, seductive and repellent."
If that intrigued me, his breathless description of entering the tomb of Agamemnon – where Miller declared he shattered "into a billion splintered smithereens" and was "done with civilization and its spawn of cultured souls" – convinced me to extend my stay and follow in his footsteps straight to the lair of the gods.
So after reluctantly bidding farewell to Hydra (and to my boyfriend, who had to return home) and taking a circuitous route by bus via Athens, I found myself in the reception of La Belle Helene hotel with Agamemnon Dassis. He is the grandson of another Agamemnon (Homeric names are in abundance here), who back in 1939 served Miller drinks and dinner on the terrace of the very same hotel.
Today's Agamemnon is feeling the pinch. The economic crisis has kept many holidaymakers away, and with tourist arrivals to Greece down more than 12 per cent in the first five months of this year, Agamemnon has had to let his staff go. But La Belle Helene has been open for business since 1885. It was here that the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann stayed when he made the landmark excavations that seemed to prove that Homer's writings were based in fact. Behind frames in the dining room are the guest book entries of everyone ranging from Jean-Paul Sartre and Virginia Woolf to Himmler and Goebbels, who ominously visited a few years before the 1941-1944 Nazi occupation. As Agamemnon says, Greece has been through bad times before: "I think it is going to come back again, business – it is getting sick, but it never dies."
Later that day, I headed to the ruins of Mycenae. Like Miller, I stood alone at Agamemnon's tomb (as it is widely known, despite no solid archaeological evidence that he was buried there) and finally grasped the author's awe in the face of such rich history. This is the country that has given the world so much – at the moment the Olympics spring to mind – but which has suffered so greatly. Miller's Greece is the one we should be celebrating, a place, he wrote, where great things happen: "Marvellous good things which can happen to one nowhere else on earth … Men may go about their puny, ineffectual bedevilment, even in Greece, but God's magic is still at work and no matter what the race of man may do or try to do, Greece is still a sacred precinct – and my belief is it will remain so until the end of time."
Athens is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Aegean Airlines (00 30 210 6261000; en.aegeanair.com) from Heathrow, and by easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) from Gatwick and Manchester.
Bus X96 runs every 20 minutes from the airport to Piraeus, the port for Athens. Hydra is served by regular ferries from (0030 210 41 99 000; hellenicseaways.gr).
Buses run from Athens to Mycenae every hour or two, taking a couple of hours. See ktel-argolidas. gr for schedules and fares.
La Belle Helene Hotel, Mycenae (00 30 27 510 76225). Doubles start at €40 (£31.50), including breakfast.
Greek National Tourist Office: 020-7495 9300; visitgreece.gr
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