Long Lunches and Leonard Cohen: Hydra, Greece

For SUITCASE Volume 21: The Islands Issue, Dolly Alderton embarked on a musically inspired pilgrimage to Hydra, where she discovered an island suspended in time.

This article appears in SUITCASE
Volume 21: The Islands Issue

Cohen was living on the
Greek island
of Hydra in the 1960s with his girlfriend Marianne
Ihlen (of So Long, Marianne fame) when he stared out the window of
his white house in the hills and saw a newly installed telephone
wire. “Civilisation had caught up with me,” he said of this moment
of realisation. “I wasn’t going to be able to escape after all. I
wasn’t going to be able to live this 11th-century life that I
thought I had found for myself.” It was, on the upside, also the
moment that would inspire his seminal masterpiece Bird On The

As I step off the boat from Athens and on to the cobbled harbour
of Hydra, I understand why Leonard (can I call him Leonard? Forgive
me – after making a pilgrimage to his beloved isle I feel as though
we’re on first-name terms) was anxious that this exquisite Saronic
island should not be dragged by its feet into abrasive modernity.
It is a unique time capsule of a less complicated world. There are
no cars – only mules and donkeys for transport. There are posters
and notes about local concerts and films at the small open-air
cinema pinned to town noticeboards. Sharp, moneyed, modern
architecture has somehow managed not to encroach on the
predominantly white and terracotta vista. Even with its phone
wires, you can’t shake the soothing feeling that you have the same
view over the Aegean Sea that Leonard and Marianne had in the
Sixties, if not the exact 11th-century one that he longed for.

I am greeted at the chic Hotel Orlo , a short walk from the
harbour, with a cool glass of lemonade. The hotel is elegant and
rustic, with clean blue-and-white interiors adorned with antiques
that nod to the island’s heritage. It was built in 1796 by Count
Orlo of Russia on the remains of a convent. I stay in a beautiful
double room in a monasterial arcade, but I’m assured by the woman
who shows me to it that they’ve caught up with 21st-century life
enough to provide strong wifi. (I’ve noticed on my travels, rather
depressingly, that the first thing a hotel receptionist often does
is assure me that there is wifi, whether I’ve asked or not. I
really must look like a frazzled Londoner.)

Right next to the hotel is the Rafalias Pharmacy, established in
1890 by the grandfather of the current owner and pharmacist. The
charming shop, shrouded in apothecary cabinets and ancestral
photos, has retained all its original features, as well as its
original alchemies. The current owner preserved his late mother’s
notebook, which contained recipes for creams, perfumes and oil
blends based on Greek pharmacology of the Twenties, and the shop
still manufactures these beautifully packaged products. I pick up a
pale-pink pot of olive-oil face cream, promising anti-ageing and
skin-firming. I also buy a bottle of the oral Kyriaki perfume,
which is the Greek word for Sunday. “Named after my maaatha,” the
current owner tells me, like a good Greek boy.

There are plenty of other treasure troves of tradition to be
found in Hydra. Just off the harbour front there is a tablecloth
shop selling crisp white linen, embroidered napkins, table runners,
lace and placemats. On an adjacent street, right next to the
Hellenic Seaways office, is a bakery with a bottle-green front,
selling particularly delicious savoury pastries. (The potato filo
pie, eaten hot from a paper bag while sitting on the bench
overlooking the port, becomes a personal favourite.) However,
without a doubt the standout feature of Hydra’s main town is the
not-so-secret swimming spot on the seafront, just past the cannons
and underneath the Sunset bar. The water is deep, clear and the
particular Pantone shade of blue that you only ever see on Greek
islands, shimmering in the sun like a Shirley Bassey sequinned
dress under a stage spotlight. I swim there every evening at sunset
and there’s always a handful of people joyfully jumping off the
smooth rocks with the same idea.

My first dinner is at Piato, a traditional Greek restaurant
overlooking the water with blue-check tablecloths and walls covered
in plates decorated by customers. The menu offers Greek cuisine’s
greatest hits – stuffed vine leaves and shards of sharp, crumbly
feta as well as thick, cool, garlic-spiked tzatziki and a creamy
smoked aubergine dip so delicious that I go back for more at lunch.
And then a third helping for another lunch, at which point the
owner – who has the uncanny twinkly eyed smile of Frank Sinatra –
gives me a plate and some Sharpie pens to decorate it with. It now
hangs on the wall, alongside the contributions of Kate Moss, Pamela
Anderson and Vivienne Westwood. (Incidentally, the food that keeps
everyone coming back is thanks to the chef who is, of course, the
owner’s 80-something-year-old mother.)

Perched above Hydra Town is the Lazaros Kountouriotis historical
mansion – a grand marigold-yellow building that’s a must-see for
architecture and design enthusiasts. The building retains much of
the quality of a functioning home from when it was built in 1780,
and the ornate furniture, art and textiles are a visual treat that
capture the Hydriot opulence of the past. In the basement there is
a permanent exhibition of paintings by Constantinos Byzantios, and
on the top floor you can peruse examples of traditional Greek

I wandered inland, around backstreets full of bright-white
buildings covered in outrageous fuchsia bougainvillea blooms, to
reach Vlichos beach. You can also arrive by boat, but the half-an-
hour meander through the hills and past Kamini port is a lovely
walk. The small, pebbly beach is equipped with sunloungers and the
water there is as clear as glass. There are restaurants, and a
beachside bar, where the barman is extremely generous with
caipirinha measures and kittens curl around your feet. (Cats are
quite a prominent feature of the island – they’re mostly very
docile and often slightly wonky, wandering around like adorable,
unloved teddies with one eye or a strangely bent tail.) Just when I
think it can’t get any more picturesque, a butterfly descends on my
forearm, causing me to flap around as though I’ve just been mugged,
only solidifying the frazzled Londoner stereotype.

A sense of small-island life permeates through the bones of the place

I walk back along the coast at sunset and the view across the
sea and to the west of the island is breathtaking. As I wind round
the path, I see a group of artists sitting cross-legged near the
cliff edge, sketching the horizon. The walk is peaceful, mainly
because there’s no fear of a motorbike or a car careering round any
corner. Generally, it feels like a very safe place for a woman to
travel on her own.

Dinner is a bowl of fresh mussels and orzo pasta on the rooftop
of Taverna Gitoniko, where the waiters are vaguely chaotic and a
verdant mass of vine leaves covers the bricks. I smile and nod from
table to table and notice that I’ve been wandering around Hydra
walking past or bumping into all the same people – the 60-something
Australian couple made up of a hippie Billy Connolly and a
conservative Janis Joplin pair of lookalikes, the young English
honeymooners, the middle-aged German woman who is a fellow solo
traveller. A sense of small-island life permeates through the bones
of the place – one morning I eat breakfast on the harbour front and
watch boats unload stock from the mainland for eager shopkeepers.
Another afternoon the sea rages furiously, the piercing wind
whistles and the restaurant owners wind in their awnings – one
tells me that if the wind comes from the west of the island, a
storm is on its way. “But it says no rain today,” I say, showing
him my iPhone weather app. He shakes his head and tells me that
Hydra’s weather can only ever be accurately predicted by its
weatherman – a man who lives up in the hills who updates his
website every day, sometimes forecasting rain at the precise moment
that the first drops fall.

Despite the tight community feel of Hydra, I find locating the
home of its most famous late resident exceptionally challenging.
After three days of saying “LEONARD COHEN?” to locals, in that sort
of appalling foreign English accent that embarrassing dads on
holiday do, while playing a pretend acoustic guitar, I venture into
The Four Corners supermarket on Krieze Street. I have read on
online forums that this was Leonard’s local shop and before I’ve
even finished the sentence: “Excuse me, do you know where Le-“, the
wonderfully obliging owner takes me by the arm and points at the
tops of some trees down a small lane. “That is his garden,” she
tells me. “Those grey shutters are his window.”

I get to it at dusk, and I am the only visitor there. A candle
flickers by his door and the soft late-summer rain (predicted by
Hydra’s weatherman – I checked) begins to fall. I sit on his
doorstep and think of the poetry, songs and stories that he created
within those walls; the fleeting and lingering thoughts he had that
would become the mantras and mottos of millions. An elderly man
shuffles past with his bag of grocery shopping and tells me that he
was his neighbour. “Would you like me to take a photo?” he asks,
and I feel as though it isn’t the first time that he’s been so

On my final morning I walk out of the town and hike up the hills
just after dawn to visit the Prophet Elias Monastery. The walk
takes about an hour and 15 minutes and is challenging, but worth it
for the dramatic views across the island to mainland Greece. The
brave can mark the peace and serenity of the monastery as a halfway
break before climbing up Mount Eros, but I am tempted back to sea
level to have a last lunch at the legendary Christina’s – a local
favourite that looks over Kamini port. It is inconspicuous and far
from ashy, but its buttery saganaki, Greek salad and sea view are
all delectable in equal measure.

As I board the boat back to Athens and take one last look at
Hydra, I make a promise that I’ll be back very soon. We have a
selfish tendency to want a place to stay just the same when we
leave it – like the childhood home that we’ll never live in again
or the old local pub that we never visit. However, there’s
something about this island that makes you feel something beyond
that longing when you say goodbye – it is so perfect, so set in its
ways, that you can’t help but hope that the bougainvillea will
always grow in the exact same direction, that the lone weatherman
in the hills will keep foretelling raindrops. I can see why Leonard
Cohen didn’t want it to ever change. I don’t either.

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