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Hydra > Walking in Leonard Cohen’s footsteps October 8, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Islands, Music Life.

The Greek island of Hydra has many claims to fame. Although covering just 56 square kilometres it has supplied Greece with five prime ministers.

It has one of the most gorgeously picturesque harbours in the Aegean. And, astonishingly for a place only 64 kilometres from Athens, its primary mode of transportation remains the donkey.

But for those of us of a certain age, whose teenage years were spent listening to mournful music in bedrooms darkened by dint of a red popsock over the lightbulb, Hydra, pronounced Ee-dra, can mean only one thing. It’s where Leonard Cohen, the Canadian poet-turned-singer, has a house.

A living legend in gravel-voiced lugubriousness, Cohen was a near-permanent resident on the island in the 1960s and still visits occasionally. Ironically, the British climate can claim much of the credit for his decision to move to Greece.

On a dismal rainy afternoon in April 1960, after spending three months in a boarding house on Hampstead High Street completing a manuscript, the 25-year-old “grocer of despair” found himself wandering bleakly around London’s East End, his spirits further depleted by raging toothache.

Then he spotted a Bank of Greece sign on Bank Street, entered the bank and saw a cheery clerk sporting a deep suntan and a defiant pair of shades. Cohen asked what the weather was like in Greece and was assured it was already springtime. On the spot, he decided to pack his bags.

Arriving in Athens on 13 April 1960, Cohen took a steamer to Hydra, a five-hour journey in those days. The destination wasn’t random, he’d heard from friends that there was a flourishing group of expat artists and writers on the island. In that respect it was an obvious destination for an itinerant poet. But, for a city-dweller, living conditions could hardly have been more different.

There was little electricity, plumbing or running water. Houses were lit by kerosene or oil lamps; water was collected in cisterns, or drawn at the Kala Pigadia meaning “good wells” site above the port; records were played on a battery-operated player. Cohen loved the simplicity of the island. The quality of the light delighted him: “The sun’s all over my table as I write this… I can taste the molecules dancing in the mountains”.

He felt re-energised. Island life was also engaging. Cohen embraced traditions, even keeping cats despite an allergy because he believed it was his duty to adhere to local custom. Perhaps because of this feline bridge-building, he was readily accepted by the locals, and he soon began getting visits from the dustman and his donkey (the motorised dustcart was still a distant prospect), the badge of belonging on Hydra.

Cohen found himself drawn to the island’s colony of English-speaking artists. As is the way with such communities, they adopted a local establishment as a hub. This was not a cafe but a grocery shop on the harbourside.

The bohemians crowded round six wooden tables, carousing, declaiming and arguing into the night, amid lengthening columns of empty wine bottles. It was here that Cohen performed his first formal concert. And it was here that he met Marianne Ihlen, the beautiful Norwegian who was to become his partner for most of the decade. Their parting was commemorated in the classic anthem So Long Marianne.

In September 1960, when he bought his own house on the island, she moved in with him. A photo on the back cover of the album Songs from a Room shows her typing at a table on Cohen’s battered Olivetti, smiling in half-embarrassment at the camera.

At the time of the album’s release, British travellers were beginning to break free of domestic austerity. The Jumbo was still a year away, but by taking the new hovercraft service across the Channel and hitching through Europe it was possible to reach the promised land of Greece.

A journey to discover Cohen’s Hydra is rather easier, now that cheap flights to Athens are plentiful. Like Cohen, I took a boat from Piraeus, the port of Athens. The two-hour hydrofoil crossing gave me a head start on the Canadian.

But our point of arrival was the same; 45 years on, Hydra still has one main settlement, Hydra Town, with a population of about 3 000. And 45 years on, the town remains a delight.

From the moment the vessel turned to enter the port, I was entranced. I’d done a little homework before the trip by watching a video of Sophia Loren in Boy on a Dolphin, shot on the island in 1957. But nothing had prepared me for the loveliness of the harbour, a shimmering apron of blue water, surrounded by a horseshoe of layered houses climbing steeply up the craggy rock-face beyond.

Both the eastern and western approaches to the harbour are guarded by cannon stations and battlements, originally part of the fortifications that protected the port in the War of Independence, but now picturesque walkways. At the centre of the harbour horseshoe, the two marble belfries of the Monastiri church rise like candles through the heat haze, their twin domes blazing.

Approached by sea, Hydra Town resembles a giant amphitheatre, seemingly empty at first, but then filling up with movement and colour as the details of the waterfront come into view. Boats large and small jostle by the quayside, a fleet of water taxis is still the only form of motorised transport. Bars, shops and restaurants circle the harbour.

And behind them, tiers of simple red-roofed houses are interspersed with mansions built by sea captains of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Miranda Hotel, where I stayed, is a fine example. Built in 1810 as the home of a wealthy sea-faring family, it was refurbished as a hotel in 1990 and houses a fabulous collection of 18th and 19th century furnishings and frescoed ceilings, as well as a contemporary art gallery.

Art remains a significant influence on Hydra, although the community that Cohen was a part of has long since dispersed. Relationships fractured, and the emotional intensities of island living became too exhausting. The poet Kenneth Koch observed: “Hydra, you can’t live anywhere else in the world, including Hydra”. Now, the most flourishing group of artists are the jewellery-makers who showcase their work in the warrens of streets that twist behind the harbour. Ignore the over-priced boutiques on the waterfront, most of which are aimed at tourists. Look instead for small workshops and studios, often signposted by hand-painted sets of arrows daubed on rough board.

When Cohen arrived, the waterfront of Hydra had only four coffeehouses and a single bar. For good or ill, things have moved on.

Bars and restaurants crowd the quayside and side streets, a number of them highly sophisticated, a reminder that Hydra is now a popular weekend destination for wealthy Athenians. Cohen’s old grocery shop, at the foot of the steps leading up from the harbour to Lignou Street, is now a bakery, though the interior is similar to how it was in the 1960s. Queuing up for your spanakopita or almond cakes, it’s not difficult to conjure up the ghosts of impromptu poetry readings being held among the flour sacks.

Less easy to imagine are the glory days of Bill’s Bar, another former haunt of Cohen’s, run by the Englishman Bill Cunliff. It’s now the restaurant of the Bratsera Hotel. Reassuringly, some old watering holes still remain.

The lovely backstreet courtyard restaurant Xeri Elia (also known as Douskos) is still in business, complete with candles in bottles, chequered tablecloths and vine trellises. Stefanos Douskos, elderly father of the current owner, is in residence on a nightly basis and always more than happy to reminisce.

Other more recent establishments are also keen to claim the patronage of Cohen. Nicest of these by far is the Veranda restaurant, a bit of climb up from the bakery towards Cohen’s house, but with a glorious terrace. Cohen bought his house with money left him by his grandmother. He has said that it was the best investment of his life.

It’s a three-storey, whitewashed building, reached via several flights of steep stone steps, and, sign of a true fan, I trekked loyally uphill in the blazing heat to take a photo.

Dodging my way through a procession of donkeys carrying packs of soap powder to the Four Corners Supermarket, I remembered a letter from Cohen to his sister.

In it, he described how he used to witness gangs of carousing locals stumbling drunkenly up those same steps, “their arms about each other’s shoulders, singing magnificent close harmony”.

The phenomenon inspired the line “like a drunk in a midnight choir” in Bird on the Wire. The song was begun on Hydra and finished in a motel on Sunset Boulevard in 1969, and its origin is disarmingly literal.

When Cohen first arrived on Hydra there were no wires on the island. In the mid-1960s, the arrival of telephone poles and electricity meant that wires appeared for the first time on the landscape, slung loosely across alleyways, including outside his house.

At first Cohen was despondent. But then he noticed birds came to the wires. And the song was born.

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