Greece has many famous islands. But my favorite is off the beaten path — the terrain of donkeys, roosters, and cats: the traffic-free isle of Hydra.
Europe is effectively off-limits to American travelers for the time being. But travel dreams are immune to any virus. And, while many of us are stuck at home, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. Here’s another one of my favorite travel memories — a reminder of what’s waiting for you in Europe at the other end of this crisis.
Hydra — just an hour by fast ferry from Athens — has one town, a quaint little harbor, isolated beaches, and some tavernas. There are no real roads, no cars, and not even any bikes. Other than zippy water taxis, donkeys are the only form of transportation. Slow and steady, these surefooted beasts of burden — laden with everything from sandbags and bathtubs to bottled water — climb the island’s stepped lanes. On Hydra, a traffic jam is three donkeys and a fisherman.
In addition to the tired burros, this is a land of tiny cats and roosters with big egos. While it’s generally quiet, dawn has taught me the exact meaning of “cockcrow.” The end of night is marked by 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, as if hitting “snooze.”
This afternoon, I’ve decided to head uphill, with no intention of anything more than a lazy stroll. One inviting lane after another draws me up, up, up… At the top of the town, shabby homes enjoy grand views, burros amble along untethered, and island life trudges on, oblivious to tourism.
Over the crest, I follow a paved riverbed (primed for the flash floods that fill village cisterns each winter) down to the remote harbor hamlet of Kaminia — where 20 tough little fishing boats jostle, corralled within a breakwater. Children jump fearlessly from rock to rock to the end of the jetty, ignoring an old man rhythmically casting his line.
A rickety woven-straw chair and a tipsy little table at Kodylenia’s Taverna are positioned just right, overlooking the harbor. The sun, as if promising a worthwhile finale to another fine day, commands, “Sit.” I do, sipping ouzo and observing a sea busy with taxi boats, the “flying dolphin” hydrofoils that connect people here with Athens, freighters — like castles of rust — lumbering slowly along the horizon, and a cruise ship anchored as if threatening to attack.
This cloudy glass of ouzo, my anise-flavored drink of choice, and the plastic baggie of pistachios I purchased back in town are a perfect complement to the setting sun. An old man flips his worry beads, backlit by the golden glitter on the harbor. Blue and white fishing boats jive with the chop. I swear the cats — small, numerous, and oh so slinky — are watching the setting sun with me. My second glass of ouzo comes with a smudge of someone’s big fat Greek lipstick. I decide not to worry about it before taking a sip that seems to connect me with the scene even more.
As twilight falls, my waiter brings a candle for my table. He lingers to tell me he returned here to his family’s homeland after spending 20 years in New Jersey, where he “never took a nap.” The soft Greek lounge music tumbling out of the kitchen mixes everything like an audio swizzle stick. Downing the last of my ouzo, I glance over my shoulder to the coastal lane that leads back to my hotel…thankfully, it’s lamplit.
Walking back under a ridge lined with derelict windmills, I try to envision Hydra before electricity, when it was powered only by wind and burros. At the edge of town, I pass the Sunset Bar, filled with noisy cruise-ship tourists, which makes me thankful I took the uphill lane when I left my hotel. Resting on a ferry cleat the size of a stool, I scan the harbor. Big flat-screen TVs flicker on the bobbing yachts moored for the night.
Back in Hydra town, I observe the pleasant evening routine of strolling and socializing. Dice clatter on dozens of backgammon boards at tavernas, entrepreneurial dogs seek out scraps, ball-kicking children make a playground out of a back lane, and a tethered goat chews on something inedible. From the other end of town comes the happy music of a christening party. Dancing women fill the building, while their children mimic them in the street. Farther down, two elderly, black-clad women sit like tired dogs on the curb.
Succumbing to the lure of a pastry shop, I sit down for what has become my day-ending ritual: honey-soaked baklava. I tell the cook I’m American.
“Oh,” he says, shaking his head with sadness and pity. “You work too hard.”
I answer, “Right. But not today.”
(These daily stories are excerpted from my upcoming book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel, coming out in July. It’s available for pre-order. And you can also watch a video clip related to this story: Just visit Rick Steves Classroom Europe and search for Hydra.)