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Return to Hydra on the trail of Leonard Cohen

November 21, 2014

Never go back, a friend once said.

Leonard Cohen and MarianneI am too much of a romantic to follow what could be sensible advice, so I returned to Hydra, Greece, because my experience there around 30 years ago was so delightful, and well, memorable.

I was on a yacht with a handful of friends, and we sailed into the tiny harbour just like Honfleur in Normandy. We had to squeeze in sternfirst, Mediterranean-style, and it was no less crowded on the dock. But when the last ferry left with the day-trippers in the early evening, everything changed.

In fact it was heaven. There are no cars, motorbikes or scooters on Hydra, and as we stepped ashore at sunset the loudest sounds, other than church bells, were the clip-clop of donkeys.

Restaurants were inspected in the usual Greek way, by visiting the kitchens and lifting lids of pots, and at the chosen place we sat at simple tables with checked tablecloths, and ordered jugs of wine which tasted as if it been strained through donkey blankets. But the food – olives, fish and lamb – had real flavour and the service came with many smiles.

Soon the waterfront was quietly humming with the sound of conviviality from several waterfront restaurants, and when a minstrel came by with a bouzouki, the men, almost as one, got to their feet, linked hands and shoulders, and did the sirtaki. There was no plate-throwing (that usually happens in the Plaka area of Athens) but we drank too much Metaxa, the Greek brandy, and before long we were all Zorbas.

On that visit we saw little of the island, other than a stroll up the narrow streets of cobbled marble, where bougainvillea spilled over white-painted houses.

Long before, Hydra had become a haven for painters, writers and musicians, among them the Canadian Leonard Cohen who had a house where he lived with the lovely Marianne. His song, “So Long, Marianne,” was on his first album released in 1967, and now, at 80 years old, Cohen is still performing to full houses.

Today many tourists go looking for Cohen’s house, but I settled for another with a charm of its own — the Miranda Hotel, which coincidentally has the same brass-hand door knocker. Here I had a handsome room with a spacious veranda from which I could see the Saronic Gulf. Breakfast was served in the shady courtyard below, the star turn being tangy coffee which fires you up for the day.

This house, formerly the home of a prominent mayor, started as an art gallery and is still a centre of culture and entertaining, with guests that include Jacques Lang, the former French culture minister, and Melina Mercouri, the actress and politician. She famously came to Hydra in 1962 with Anthony Perkins to film the movie Phaedra, which featured the haunting music of Mikis Theodorakis.

The port in the morning is busy with fishermen landing their catches, with teams of donkeys being readied to take tourists on excursions. Water taxis stand by to take wealthy tourists to beach restaurants nearby, but there is much to be said for a gentle stroll round the harbourside to Sunset Beach. Here there is more of that bracing coffee, great views of the port entrance so you can see everything coming and going, and good swimming too – so long as you don’t mind diving off the rocks.

There is a restaurant at a slightly higher level, with a a cocktail bar below, both offering fabulous views. An ouzo here was all of four Euros.

Sadly, I could not linger on Hydra, but going back brought no regrets.

And so to Athens, not with Hellenic Seaways, for a sudden storm whipped up the sea and the only way I could get away was hitching a lift with a group of cadets from the Merchant Navy academy on the island. They were starting a six-day break and nothing was going to stop them from going home. I squeezed into a water taxi with 10 others and the little boat carved its way through heavy seas for 25 minutes to reach a tiny port on the mainland where a bus for Piraeus waited.

Piraeus, the main port for cruise ships and the Greek islands, is not a place to linger, but sometimes it is necessary to overnight, and chance introduced me to the Triton Hotel, a great value at 45 Euros a night and well located next to the market.

Then Athens, 12 Euros by taxi or 1.40 Euros by the Metro green line. Do not even think of hiring a car as the roads are congested and there is nowhere to park.

Big hitters will want to stay at the Grande Bretagne hotel in Syntagma Square. Built in 1862 and with the grandeur of the Hotel de Crillon in Paris, it was the Nazis’ headquarters during World War II. When they were chucked out, Winston Churchill moved in.

I have stayed there, and while the roof garden has fetching views of the Acropolis, on this occasion I found better value at the Herodian, a very acceptable hotel with a roof terrace offering the same enchanting spectacle.

So, what to do? It should be said right away that Athens, once smoggy, saddled with drab brick on stone architecture and awful traffic, has improved hugely since the 2004 summer Olympics. The traffic is still bad, but the Metro works well, the air is breathable, and tourists abound. In fact Greece has had a busy year, a pleasing counter to the poor state of the economy in general. Things got so bad that at one stage, businessmen were saying all the country had left was the weather.

The city is not to be rushed. If you have not done so already, spend the first morning with a guidebook, reading up on its long and fascinating history. The 5th Century BC, the “Golden age of Pericles,” constituted the cradle of western civilization, with a host of Greek words and ideas, such as art, architecture, euphoria, harmony, democracy, mathematics, music and gastronomy. The Acropolis, topped by the majestic Parthenon, is the most important ancient site in the western world.
The marble of the Parthenon gleams in the midday sun and takes on a honey hue as the sun sinks, then at night it is illuminated so that this splendid, evocative sight rarely leaves you.

And there are so many other monuments: the Theatre of Dionysos, Ancient Agora, Roman Agora, Hadrian’s Library, and the temple of Olympian Zeus. One ticket allows you to see everything.

Then there is the magnificent Acropolis Museum that opened in 2009 in a new location, ten times larger than the old one and with space for the Elgin Marbles. Pressure is ramping up for the British Museum to give them back, but it did resist the charms of Melina Mercouri, who became Greek culture minister after her acting career, and is now having to deal with the new Mrs Clooney.

You can’t miss, literally, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, a huge, striking marvel in the city centre with 104 towering Corinthian columns whose bases are 1.7 metres wide. It was begun in the 6th Century BC and completed by the Roman emperor Hadrian in AD 131. Hadrian also installed a statue of Zeus, and with a Napoleonic flourish, one of himself.

Athens at night is great fun, maybe more so than any other city in the world, simply because the Greeks are a welcoming, easygoing people with a great sense of humour. They love to sing and dance, and the food is tasty and comes in small bites like tapas. The wine, unbelievably, has gotten better as well.

It all happens in Monastiraki Square and the Plaka district, with pedestrian streets, markets, tavernas, and ouzeries – which serve light snacks with your ouzo. Drummer bands, usually a swathe of young women in white shirts, can appear from nowhere and bring smiles all around. More traditional musicians strike up music anywhere it takes their fancy, and in no time men, and women (times have changed!) are dancing the sirtaki.

Folklore shows abound, such as the tango joints in Buenos Aires, which always seem to be full of Asian tourists.

There are some Greek dishes I love, such as spanokopita (spinach pie) and a drop of honey always goes down well. It was supposedly one of the foods of the Olympian gods and according to myth, Zeus was honey-fed by the nymph Melissa. That he should be so lucky. Try it with yogurt and nuts. Look for different varieties, such as thyme honey with its mountain character, flower honey with the fragrance of spring, orange honey from the groves of Peloponnese, and pine honey from the forested slopes of Arcadia.

You might find yogurt with honey and nuts on your way home, at the Central Market in Athinas Street.

Just take care on Singrou Avenue. The girls, I am told, are actually boys.

Everything you want to know is at www.vistgreece.gr.

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