Hydra, Greek island travel guide: A muse for generations of artists

The late great Canadian poet and singer, Leonard Cohen's Bird on a Wire perfectly captured the freedom-seeking zeitgeist of the 1960s. It wasn't written in Haight Ashbury or Kathmandu or even Goa, but on Hydra.

Like its nine-headed namesake of Greek mythology, this tiny Aegean isle first inhabited 3000 years BC is multi-faceted, enjoying an outsized reputation.

Historically, its brilliant seafarers helped Greece defeat the Ottomans and pioneer Hellenic independence, but Hydra has also been a powerful muse to many artists and writers since the early 1900s, not least a handful of eminent Australians.

Floating serenely between the Saronic and Argolic gulfs, only an hour from Piraeus, Hydra's magnetic beauty has drawn talent aplenty to its steep and rocky shores. We have sailed into its glittering bay aboard Ponant's small ship Le Lyrial on the last leg of our voyage from Venice to Athens. Rising before us is a serene, intensely lit landscape of an Aegean island that Jacqueline Kennedy called "the stuff of fairy tales … I want to have a home here someday, to return and bring my children."

Hydra lacks the frenzied chaos of some of the other Greek islands. It can't just be the fact that vehicles are forbidden in the main town and only donkeys or people on foot are allowed to climb the steep stone stairways.

The donkeys still line up on the harbourfront as they did on my last visit in the 1970s. The cats still meander unhindered. Bougainvillea and geraniums still tumble from balconies. Vertiginous, shaded steps still rise to the heavens and the peace is still palpable. Is this particular quality of light and stillness what Leonard Cohen sought when he bought a house high on the hill at just 26? "If you own a house on Hydra, the cities seem less scary," he said.

In fact, Cohen arrived after the Australian literary couple George Johnston and Charmian Clift who were 1960s trailblazers. This fascination with Hydra arose perhaps from the great Greek painter Nikos Gikas's beautiful paintings of his ancestral island.

Similarly, in the 1930s, the Aegean light, the stone and geometry of the architecture inspired modernist painters Marc Chagall and Picasso. Nobel Prize-winning Greek writer George Seferis lived on and wrote about Hydra, while international writers like Lawrence Durrell flocked there, dizzy with creativity. Henry Miller wrote of "simple pleasures on an aesthetically perfect island", in his 1939 travelogue about Greece, The Colossus of Maroussi.

Inspired perhaps by those who came before and by iconic Hydra films like Sophia Loren's The Boy on a Dolphin and critically acclaimed The Girl in Black, a new wave of "searchers" arrived. The likes of writer Alan Ginsberg, actor Peter Finch, artist Sidney Nolan, painter Anthony Kingsmill all gravitated to this place of inspiration, peace and kerosene lamps, for there was little electricity, plumbing or running water then.

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Cohen's Bird on a Wire celebrated the day electrical wires appeared. He lived a simple life with his lover, Marianne Ihlen, for whom he penned the mournful song, So Long, Marianne. We begin our historic walk accompanied by the ghosts of all these creative people. We explore their haunts – the central Byzantine-style cathedral with its magnificent 18th-century frescoes and golden chandelier, then make our way up to the Lazaros Koundouriotis Historical Mansion.

Lazaros is revered serving Greece faithfully and donating his fortune during the 1821 war of independence. Finally, the wonderful Historical Archives Museum allows us to travel through Hydra's history, experiencing how the island contributed to Greek history. Maritime heirlooms are extensive, with carvings, paintings, costumes, manuscripts, even a lovely Stradivarius violin and poignantly, the embalmed heart of one of Hydra's great admirals, returned home at last. As we depart, another yacht sails in to harbour, its occupants preparing to make their own memories of Hydra, just like those who have gone before.

Trip Notes

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traveller.com.au/greece

au.ponant.com/

FLY

Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Venice via Dubai and returns from Athens via Dubai. See emirates.com/au/

CRUISE

Le Lyrial's "Discovery of Dalmatian Shores" 8-day Athens to Venice departs August 7, 2018. From $4620 per person double occupancy – book now to save up to 10 per cent. Includes private balcony, all meals, open bar. See au.ponant.com or ring 1300 737 178.

Alison Stewart was a guest of Ponant and Emirates

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