Cock Crow on Hydra

By Rick Steves
Rick Drinking Ouzo, Hydra, Greece
A glass of ouzo caps a Hydra sunset (photo: Rick Steves' Europe)

The Greek island of Hydra (two hours south of Athens by hydrofoil) has one town, no real roads, no cars, and not even any bikes. Zippy taxi boats whisk you from the brisk little port to isolated beaches and tavernas. Beasts of burden climb stepped lanes surefootedly — laden with everything from sandbags and bathtubs to bottled water. Behind each mule-train toils a human pooper-scooper. I imagine picking up after your beast is required.

Locals like to tell of movie stars who make regular visits. Understandably, each evening ritzy yachts tie up to concrete piers, off-loading their smartly dressed fun-seekers. The island is so quiet that, by midnight, they seem to be back on board watching movies. Sitting on a ferry cleat the size of a stool, I scan the harbor — big flat screens flicker from every other yacht.

The island once had plenty of spring water. Then, about 200 years ago, an earthquake hit and the wells went dry...a bad day for Hydra. Today Hydra's very hard water is shipped in from wetter islands. No wonder showering (lathering and rinsing) is such an odd frustration.

The island is a land of tiny cats, tired burros, and roosters with big egos. While it's generally quiet, dawn teaches visitors the exact meaning of "cock crow." Cock crow marks the end of night with much more than a distant cock-a-doodle-doo. It's a dissonant chorus of cat fights, burro honks, and what sounds like roll call at an asylum for crazed roosters. After the animal population gets that out of its system, the island slumbers a little longer.

While tourists wash ashore with the many private and public boats that come and go, few venture beyond the harborfront. Leaving our hotel, I was heading downhill. My travel partner diverted me uphill and our small detour became a delightful little odyssey. While I had no intention of anything more than a lazy stroll, one inviting lane after another drew us up, up, and up to the top of the town. Here, poor shabby homes enjoyed grand views, tethering tired burros seemed unnecessary, and island life trudged on oblivious to tourism.

Over the crest, we followed a paved riverbed (primed for the flashfloods that fill village cisterns each winter) down to the remote harbor hamlet of Kamini — where 20 tough little fishing boats jostled within a breakwater. Children jumped fearlessly from rock to rock to the end of the jetty, ignoring an old man rhythmically casting his line.

Two rickety woven-straw chairs and a tipsy little table were positioned just right overlooking the harbor. The heavy reddening sun commanded "sit." We did, sipping an ouzo and observing a sea busy with taxi boats, "flying dolphin" hydrofoils connecting this oasis with Athens, freighters — like castles of rust — lumbering slowly along the horizon, and a cruise ship anchored like it hasn't moved in weeks.

Ouzo, my anise-flavored drink of choice on this trip, and my plastic baggie of pistachios purchased back in town were a perfect complement to the setting sun. Blue and white fishing boats jived with the chop. I'd swear the cats — small, numerous as the human residents of this island, and oh so feminine — were watching the setting sun with us. I wiped the lipstick off my second ouzo — which seemed to connect me with the scene even more.

There was a fun little tension between being "in the moment" and playing with my camera as the constantly changing scene called for shot after shot. An old man flipped his worry beads, backlit by golden glitter on the harbor. Three men walk by, each reminding me of Spiro Agnew.

As darkness settled, our waiter — who returned here to his family's homeland after spending 20 years in New Jersey where he "never took a nap" — brought us a candle. The soft Greek lounge music tumbling out of the kitchen mixed everything like an audio swizzle stick. I glanced over my shoulder to the coastal lane home...thankfully, it's lamp lit.

Walking home, under a ridge lined with derelict windmills, we tried to envision Hydra before electricity, when spring water flowed and the community was powered by both wind and burros. At the edge of town we passed the Sunset Bar, filled with noisy cruise-ship tourists, and were thankful we took the uphill lane way back when.

The next night, a brisk 15-minute walk rewarded us with the same Komini harbor magic from the same woven-straw seats — worry beads, romantic cats, Greeks good at naps, and the busy sea...golden at sunset.