Travel Focus: Exploring the Rich History of the Greek Island of Hydra

Lying in the Aegean Sea between the Argolic Gulf and the Saronic Gulf, Hydra forms part of the Saronic Islands. With just a narrow strip of ocean separating it from the Peloponnese, the name “Hydra” stems from the Greek word for water, earning its name from the many natural springs found on the island. 

Consisting of the islands of Hydra and Dokos, along with several uninhabited islets, the municipality of Hydra covers an area of just over 64 square kilometers in total. Hydra is a province in the Piraeus Prefecture. Its main town, Hydra Port, consists of a crescent-shaped harbor surrounded by shops, restaurants, galleries and markets catering to locals and tourists alike. Here, steep stone streets lead away from the harbor, with most local residences and tourist accommodation found on this area. Other villages on the island of Hydra include Kamini, Palamidas, Mandraki, Molos, Vlychos, and Episkopi. Hydra’s economy is largely dependent on tourism, with domestic travelers accounting for a sizable proportion of visitors. Catamarans and hydrofoils from the port city of Piraeus on the Greek mainland serve the island, stopping first at Poros, then Hydra, then Spetses. 

By law, motorcycles and cars are banned from the island of Hydra. The only motor vehicles allowed are rubbish trucks. Popular modes of public transport include horses, donkeys, mules, and water taxis. However, the inhabited part of Hydra is so compact that most people walk everywhere. 

Idyllic destination 
Built in the shape of an amphitheater overlooking the ocean, Hydra is one of the most idyllic destinations in all of Greece. Its narrow cobblestoned streets are flanked by traditional stone mansions and secluded squares, lending Hydra a very distinctive atmosphere. 

Thanks to its great naval and commercial past, the island has seen exceptional economic growth. Hydriots made a significant contribution to the 1821 War of Independence, the island putting the weight of its powerful fleet behind several critical sea battles. Another impressive fact about Hydra is that the tiny island has produced five Greek prime ministers. 

Lavish stone mansions commissioned by prominent families were built on Hydra by Italian artisans. Today, most of these mansions serve as museums. The island is also home to six monasteries and 300 churches. 

Walking along the waterfront in the heart of Hydra Port, visitors encounter monuments, mansions, museums, churches, canons, and statues of local heroes. There is also the old gunpowder store, as well as numerous shops and cafes. The upper part of the town’s picturesque winding streets lead visitors to the several residential areas, including the old neighborhood of Kiafas. 

Renowned in the yachting world 
In the yachting world, Hydra is renowned, attracting groups of sailing boats in the summer that moor in the harbor, alongside dozens of powerful speedboats. 

Hydra was made famous by the 1957 movie, Boy on a Dolphin starring Sophia Loren. The island has several excellent beaches, including Limnioniza, which many locals cite as the finest beach on the island. Visitors have to work hard to get there, however, since it is reached via a two-hour hike. 

Relatively little is known about Hydra’s history until the beginning of the Ottoman rule. Historians believe that the island’s first settlers were Mycenaeans, with excavations suggesting they settled the island in ancient times. 

First major historical event  
The first major historical event recorded on Hydra took place in the 15th century. Following the fall of Constantinople, island inhabitants started moving inland, hiding in the mountains to escape from invading Turks and pirate raids. Around 1460, Hydra welcomed refugees from Epirus, Evia, Crete, Kythnos, Albania and Asia Minor. 

During the 17th century, Hydra started to build a powerful merchant fleet. However, the plague of 1792 decimated the island’s population, with many of those who did survive moving away. This improved during the 18th century, when the island became powerful and prosperous again due to its fleet, trading with other regions of Greece, as well as Spain, France, and America. Many Peloponnese fleeing the Russo-Turkish War settled here in the 18th century. 

The Hydriot fleet’s superiority reached its peak during the Napoleonic wars, during which Hydra effectively monopolized sea transport throughout the Mediterranean following creation of its Merchant Marine Academy. The islanders fortified the harbor of Hydra Port with bastions of cannons to protect the fleet during the Greek Revolution, with many wealthy sea captains providing economic support for the Revolution and using their vessels as warships. In fact, the heroism of Hydra’s inhabitants combined with the superiority of its fleet is credited as a driving force behind the Revolution’s success. 

Today, Hydra attracts international jet setters, having served as a vacation retreat for many famous names over the years, including Aristotle Onassis, Leonard Cohen, and Maria Callas. Boasting world-class museums and stunning architecture, Hydra also has a traditional side, with the picturesque enclaves of Vlichos and Kaminia providing visitors with an authentic taste of village life. 

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