“Bilio, hey, Bilio!”
Bilio had the most photographed house on Hydra, just beyond Kala Pigadia. In her small yard you could find every shade of oil paint that the stores on the island stocked so the fishermen could paint their boats.
It was a folksy panache of green, red, yellow, blue and pink-covered stones together with flowerpots and old feta tins from which sprung hydrangeas and geraniums, bougainvilleas and night-blooming jasmine. At that time, our neighborhood was still without running water, but we were blessed with wells.
Each morning, the muleteers watered their pack animals there, and I remember waking up to the characteristic sound of zinc buckets banging against the stone walls as water was drawn. Housewives would come to fill their demijohns, and just remembering them brings sweet thoughts to mind and a smile to my lips.
It’s exactly the same feeling I get whenever I enter Hydra’s port. As much as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the majesty of this amphitheatrical town – the construction of which began in the mid-15th century and started from the highest point at Kiafa, from where it spilled down to the sea as the area became safer – is undeniable.
Hydra is one of the few locations in Greece where harmony reigns, and the gaze travels effortlessly. However, if you want to experience the island properly, you have to dedicate some time to walking it – not just because you can’t do otherwise, as the island is car-free, but also for the sheer joy of constantly discovering beauty.
Yes, you can, of course, sit at one of the many cafés in the port and see the grand mansions of the great and the good of the island. The homes of Tsamados, Kriezis, Kountouriotis, Voulgaris, Tombazis and Miaoulis recount the history of the island, speak of the untold wealth brought by international trade; they’re a reminder of the privileges bestowed on the island by the Ottoman Sublime Porte and of the island’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.
But around the mansions run alleyways, polished smooth by the hooves of the mules, that reward exploration. Down them, you’ll find small whitewashed stone cottages with flowers in the yard, squares with bushy jasmine, private chapels and stone benches where a weary pedestrian can rest.
Each time I visit Hydra, my pilgrimage takes me to Kala Pigadia and to the little house where I spent my childhood summers. My books are still there, along with some clothes I just couldn’t throw away, and the hibiscus which stubbornly blossoms, awaiting our return.
I mount the steps, stand in front of Bilio’s house, which now stands empty, walk the narrow alleys of Kiafa with closed eyes, passing the red house of my friend Pavlina, and under the beautiful, blue-painted archways. From up above the steady hubbub of the port sounds like a whisper.
Slowly, I head into the hamlet of Kamini. I walk round the back of the old peoples’ home, kept cool by the giant eucalyptus trees that shade it, and enter a different Hydra, rural, empty of buildings, which extends as far as Vlychos.
A dip in the sea, perhaps a little ouzo at the marina with a view of the islet of Dokos, then back by the coast road, running parallel to the sea and the rocks, and the agave plants. On the other side, I can see the Peloponnese, up on the hills are windmills, and there’s an exquisite smell as the scent of dry grass meets the sea breeze.
I’ve never understood those who complain that Hydra seems small. In its heyday, it was home to 11,000 souls, and, if you listen carefully, it has a thousand stories to tell you that you haven’t heard yet.