Simple life by the sea
• Photo gallery: Hydra
By Chris Oliver
Advertiser Staff Writer
HYDRA, Greece — Early morning at the cobbled harbor on Hydra island, the daily unloading of provisions is under way: cantaloupes , flowers, tubs of rosemary, wines, flatbreads and crates of honey come quickly and efficiently ashore.
Donkey caravans, waiting patiently on shore with their handlers, are loaded up, ready to haul the goods wherever they need to go. With no cars or motorcycles allowed on the island, the gentle clip-clop of hooves along the narrow lanes is one of the soothing rhythms of life here.
Farther down the quay, fishing skiffs edge into their slips where handcarts filled with ice from local restaurants transport the day's fresh catch. Piles of fishing nets for repair are heaped nearby.
Welcome to a typical day in Hydra town — the only town, in fact — on this rocky, sun-drenched corner in the Argo-Saronic Islands, two hours by hydrofoil and a world away from the furious pace of Athens. Stepping off the boat feels like finding an escape hatch from the modern world.
Anchored gently around the curve of the Peloponnese peninsula, Hydra's beauty is set off by its crescent-shaped harbor, and relaxed ambience rubs off on its (mostly European) visitors. Faces are calm, voices are friendly. Frenzied lifestyles have been put on hold.
There is the odd celebrity sighting, of course, from the spritz of film directors, photographers and artists who find their way here, but mostly its visitors are low-key. Favored by old Athenian families, Hydra is the place to be, not to be seen.
Foreigners discovered the island after World War II and soon set about restoring the town's old neo-classical mansions, transforming Hydra into one of the most beautiful resorts in Greece. Yet its Hellenic charm remains, thanks to a historic preservation order that keeps its architecture looking much the same as in the 1820s. Hotels are small, merging with the tumble of residences in the town. Any development is a touchy subject, and a recent proposal by entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson to create a small, allegedly eco-friendly resort was met with much opposition.
Beyond the harbor, a tumble of pastel-colored stone houses spreads up into hills laced with foot trails and monasteries. On headlands overlooking the harbor, parapets still hold the cannons that protected Hydra during 19th century wars of liberation from the Turkish empire.
To be on Hydra — as the name hints — is to be at one with the water in a community long reliant on the sea for a living. Today's fishing boats might bring in swordfish and sardines, but for centuries, going back to ancient Greece, sea sponges were the ocean gold of the island's economy.
In times of war, sponges were used as padding inside armor, later in cosmetics and for industrial needs.
Before the invention of modern diving equipment, sponge divers risked their lives daily, diving as deep as 90 feet. Weighted with rocks to keep them near the seabed, many drowned or died from the bends.
After a sponge blight struck the eastern Mediterranean in the 1980s, the industry declined. You can still find sponges on Hydra; they're in every harbor shop and in most hotel rooms. Or, you can scuba dive for them yourself on one of the many boat trips from the harbor.
Return visitors will tell you that the calming thing about Hydra is the lack of choice. You'll either be swimming in the Aegean, watching the ships come in at the harbor, out on a boat or floating in the pool. Hydra is all about the water.