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Hydra -- a paradise Greek island
The Saronic Islands off the Greek mainland:
Hear the phrase 'Greek Islands' and it brings up visions of paradise. Warm days, laying on the beaches and rocky shores of the islands, dipping in the water to cool off, splashing in clear azure water, finding sponge fish, and watching the yachts and cruise ships as they arrive and depart from the island.
Sitting at waterside cafe's sipping ice cold coffees, lemonades, iced teas, or ouzo. Eating souvlaka, mousaka and baklava. Dancing Greek dances in the restaurants and throwing plates. Riding donkeys up and down the streets of Hydra port and sleeping on the roofs of the hotels under the beautiful Greek stars. Walking all over the island and finding the nude beaches in the out of the way places on the island. Shopping in the the stores and markets.
This is the idyllic life on the Greek island of Hydra. Hydra is located in the Aegean sea between the Saronic and Argolic Gulf and is considered one of the Saronic Islands. This group of islands is an archipelago in Greece and named for the Saronic Gulf. Hydra is separated from the mainland of Greece by a narrow strip of water. Today, many of the native Athenians and other Greeks have vacation homes in the Saronic Islands.
Hydra gets its name from the Greek language and it means water. It was named this for the ancient springs of natural water on the island. Today, however, the ancient springs are nearly all dry and the island imports water by boat from the Greek mainland.
Hydra port is the one main town on the island and has a u-shaped harbor surrounded by restaurants, cafes, shops markets and art galleries. The streets are steep stoned stairways that lead up and outwards from the harbor area. Located on these streets are the residences, hotels and intimate bed and breakfastes.
There are several other small villages and towns on the island where the natives live, but Hydra port is where the action is on the island.
Tourism is the main economy on the island as tourists flock here from all over the world, but it is also host to a large amount of Athenians as visitors also. Visitors are transported from the mainland at Piraeus, Greece on high speed hydrofoils and catamarans the thirty-seven nautical miles from Piraeus. The island itself offers ferries to other Greek locales and islands.
Absolutely no cars or motorcycles, or mopeds are allowed on Hydra. The only form of transportation are by donkeys, bicycles or foot. Donkeys have been used for transportation on the island for its entire history because they can best navigate the stoney, hilly terrain of the island. Most natives and tourists walk everywhere one the island because it is so small. But, it is fun to ride a donkey once in a while and hope one doesn't get a stubborn one.
Hydra is a popular yachting destination for Athenians and tourists from all over the world. The island has a strong maritime culture and there are several former captain's mansions and residences on the island to tour.
Many Greeks have vacation homes on Hydra that dot the hills of the island. The average tourist can rub elbows with the millionaires and billionaires on Hydra and not know the difference. Everyone is there for the sun, sea, sailing and relaxation. There are boat tours of the nearby islands offered.
When I arrived on Hydra, I spend the week on the island taking in the sights of the island, the people and the culture. I planted myself on a rock and dipped in the sea for refreshment and ate at the cafes and restaurants that dot the harbor. I walked all over Hydra and once took a donkey tour of the island. While the donkey is fun, it is hot and smelly and I prefered to walk the island.
I thoroughly recommend visiting the Greek Isles and there may be more beautiful ones, i.e. Santorini, but Hydra is smaller and easier to get around. There are tourists, but not as many as you find in Santorini, and I was able to experience more of the native Greeks and their culture in Hydra.
The island of Hydra has a varied history as it changed hands of conquerors over time. It belonged to many different cultures that all made an imprint on the island and the inhabitants over the years have come and gone several times. It has stayed on the margins of history for centuries because the island was sold many times and passed through so many hands.
- During the Helladic period it is believed Hydra served as a maritime base for the kingdoms of the Greek peninsula.
- The Dorian invasion of Greece in the 12th century BCE led to a depopulation of the island.
- Hydra was repopulated by farmers and herders and had an agricultural economy in the 8th century BCE
- Hydra was also populated during the Byzantine Era as the archaeological remains of vases and coins were discovered on the island.
- During the reign of the Latin Empire of Constantinople the island again lost its population because of the pirates that attacked the island.
- Hydra belonged to Venice from 1204-1566 and this was a long time of stability for the island.
- From 1566-1821, Hydra beloned to the Ottoman Empire and during this time Hydra was relatively unimportant.
- During the 17th century a small naval and commercial development began. In 1645, the island opened the first school for mariners, and the first island vessel was launced in 1657.
- Hydra began to take on greater importantce after 1718 and the Treaty of Passarowitz and actually became a strong trader to and from other European ports.
- By 1781, Hydra was permitted larger boats and ships (250 tons +) and became an important commerical port. At this time the island owned 100 vessels of it own.
- However, the Ottoman Empire levied high tariffs and taxes on the island and its vessels and this limited free trade with Hydra and this constrained the islands economic success. The Ottomans only allowed Ottoman vessels to navigate the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus and therefore, access to the Black Sea.
- Finally, Hydra began sailing under the Russian flag when Russia gained the right from the Ottoman Empire to protect the Empire's orthodox Christians. They signed a special treatly with the Ottomans to gain free passage between the Aegean and Black Sea.
- Thus, Hydra had a boost to is commercial era and carried goods from southern Russia to western Italian ports. From 1755 on, Hydra was engaged in commerce not just transport.
- In 1792, a plague hit the island and killed a large part of the population and as a result, many people moved off the island.
- By the end of the 18th century, trade had again picked up in Hydra and its vessels traded as far as France, Spain and the Americas.
- By the 19th century, the island had a population of 10,000 sailors and 125 vessels.
- The mansions that ring the harbor reflects the prosperity that shipping brought to the island.
- During the Greek War of Independence (The Greek Revolution), Hydra and a few of the other islands took control of the Aegean Sea away from the Ottoman Empire and contributed 150 ships and many supplies to free themselves from the Turks.
- At the end of the revolution and the creation of the official Greek staate, Hydra gradually lost its maritime position in the eastern Mediterranean. Hydra's fleet of vessels lost its prior privileges it had in the Aegean Sea.
- The island's economy became fishing for sponge fish and tourism.