Hydra: How this quiet Greek island became a haven for celebrities such as Leonard Cohen

Many novels, paintings and songs have been inspired by the island, which has been welcoming creatives seeking isolation for decades

HYDRA - The ultimate self Isolation for Artists and writers. Anastasia Miari
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The small Greek island of Hydra is two hours by ferry from the Athenian port of Piraeus. And while it is not a tourist hot spot, it had become popular with a certain crowd before much of Europe locked down.

What it lacks in sandy beaches, it makes up for in swimming holes located amid rocky outposts and pebble-strewn bays. Yet the island has continued to evade the package holiday crowd. Instead, Hydra has attracted artists, poets and novelists seeking isolation.

It was the Sophia Loren movie that brought the Hollywood crowd and introduced the island to the big wide world, so to speak

Among them are British author Polly Samson and husband, Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, who own a house here. Like many writers before her, Samson goes to Hydra to work. In fact, her latest novel, A Theatre for Dreamers (published this month) is inspired by an entire set of artists and writers who escaped to the island in the 1960s, to live in relative isolation in order to paint, write poems and books of their own.

But this is not a new phenomenon. The exodus to the island began long ago.

"Hydra is almost a bare rock of an island and its population, made up almost exclusively of seamen, is rapidly dwindling," wrote American poet Henry Miller in his travelogue, The Colossus of Maroussi, describing the island as "aesthetically perfect" in its peaceful, blue and white-washed glory. In his company were the British author Lawrence Durrell and the Greek poet Giorgos Katsimbalis.

HYDRA - The ultimate self Isolation for Artists and writers. Anastasia Miari
Hydra was a destination for those who wanted isolation well before the pandemic. Anastasia Miari

They were hosted on the island in the mansion of the famous Greek painter Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas. The artist’s paintings of Hydra’s amphitheatrical architecture, done in a Cubist style to mirror the cube-like houses on the island, are iconic to this day. Ghikas painted these while on the island in the 1930s and may well be known as one of the greatest of all modern Greek artists for the style that was borne of Hydra’s humble homes.

Ravaged after the Second World War and with a sponge-fishing industry in decline thanks to the arrival of mass produced sponges, the island was bolstered by Hollywood in the 1950s. The 1957 film, Boy on a Dolphin, starring Sophia Loren, was filmed on the island. Soon after, in 1963, came Island of Love, directed by Morton DaCosta and starring Robert Preston.

HYDRA - The ultimate self Isolation for Artists and writers. Anastasia Miari
The exodus to Hydra began long ago, in the 1930s and ‘40s. Courtesy Anastasia Miari

"It was the Loren movie that brought the Hollywood crowd and introduced the island to the big wide world, so to speak," painter Michael Lawrence, who still resides on the island, tells The National. "I first came to Hydra as a child, to audition for the part of Boy on a Dolphin," he says, as his father was in the movie business. 

Back then, the island was even more primitive than it is now. No running water, electricity or telephone lines.

Much has been made of the wild goings on of the foreigners, but I have lived on the island peacefully

“There were no cars and the sheer beauty of the island drew people in. There are artistic people still here who arrived way before I did,” he says on a tour of his studio, which is stacked with colour-soaked canvas upon canvas and abstract watercolours.

Clearly, being on Hydra is an aid to the creative process. “Coming here is a blessing if you can stay and work. You really benefit from slowing down here,” says Lawrence. For the creatives, isolation and social distancing were sought out, rather than enforced.

"We all embarked on our journeys ... shooting out on the current, out and away into the wide blue frightening loneliness of freedom," begins the preface of Samson's new novel. These words come from one of the island's longest residents, Charmian Clift, an Australian author and essayist who moved to the island in the 1950s along with husband, George Johnston. Johnston wrote the Australian classic, My Brother Jack, while on the island, along with a number of novels that were co-written with Clift.

Anastasia Miari
British author Polly Samson sought refuge on Hydra to write a book. Courtesy Polly Samson

It’s here that Samson’s novel picks up, dipping into the Bohemian set of writers and artists – Clift and Johnston at its heart – who called the island home in the 1960s. “They really lived here properly,” she says of Clift and Johnston.

“They were not zipping in and out but rather committed to life here and fostered this community of young creative types. When one had no money, they would have help from someone else whose royalty cheques had just come in off the boat from Athens,” says Samson.

Johnston was writing two books a year and became a literary hero in Australia. The relative isolation and lack of connectivity to modern civilisation was clearly a catalyst for creative output.

This image released by Roadside Attractions shows Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen in a scene from the documentary "Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love." (Roadside Attractions via AP)
Leonard Cohen met his muse, Marianne Ihlen, on the island. AP

“Much has been made of the wild goings on of the foreigners, but I have lived on the island peacefully,” artist Bill Pownall maintains. His studio nestles into the side of Hydra’s port. 

“The beauty of the place and the conviviality of it was the real joy, and George and Charmian immediately made me feel so welcome,” he says.

Then along came Leonard Cohen. Relatively unknown at the time, the songwriter was absorbed into the Clift-Johnston clan on Hydra.

"He was just one of a number of people that came here and worked," says Samson, commenting that his subsequent fame almost eclipsed the others. It was here that Cohen wrote Bird on the Wire. It was here that he met his muse, Marianne Ihlen, subject of the famous track, So Long, Marianne.

HYDRA - The ultimate self Isolation for Artists and writers. Anastasia Miari
Leonard Cohen spent a lot of time on the island. Courtesy Anastasia Miari

Though the most famous of the island’s expatriates have since died, the links between Hydra and visiting artists lives on. Athens School of Fine Arts still has an annex on the port of Hydra, in which students from art schools around the world stay all-year-round at a fraction of the cost of other accommodation.

One of Greece’s most renowned art collectors, Dakis Joannou, hosts an annual exhibition at what was once a slaughter house, perched on a craggy footpath. Internationally renowned artists such as Jeff Koons and Kiki Smith have exhibited here and this summer’s exhibition was set to host Koons again.

Though the island, like much of the world, is on lockdown, the promise is that Koons and Lawrence will both exhibit once it is up and running again. One thing that can be certain in these strange times is that Hydra will remain as it always was.

“Hydra was entered as a pause in the musical score of creation by an expert calligrapher,” writes Miller in the Colossus of Maroussi.

On Hydra, this pause in activity is the norm. It is not to be feared but rather, savoured.