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A Walk on Hydra...

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A Walk on Hydra

A walker's account of a perfect day on the island...

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I have walked a fair bit in Greece because I like the heat and there is lots of variation in the countryside. Rocky, flat, mountainous, rolling hills, trees, scrub land. Loads of variation.

Different islands too. I like walking on islands, Scottish islands or abroad. I like that feeling of freedom and contained-ness at the same time. It’s an interesting mix. A false sense of safety perhaps.

But most of all walking gives me freedom. Take this one walk as an example:

I knew it was going to be hot. Greece in the summer is hot. Hydra Island in the summer can be very hot. But a dry heat. I like it. The ciccadas like it. The ouzo sellers like it!

But when I want to walk the heat can get in the way so I made a sacrifice. I gave up my luxurious lie-in-until-10-am for an early start before the sun was up. My body recoiled and coaxed me to stay abed. But I had had that luxury for a week and today I wanted to do something different. Maybe Hydra would seem different. Maybe I would feel different if I had a different day.

I pulled on my shorts, kissed my sleeping husband and daughter, took solace in the fact that at least they weren’t crazy enough to be up at this time, grabbed a bottle of water and my MP3 player and headed for the harbour.

5am in Hydra harbour. Not a soul stirred. The cats stretched and yawned as I passed. Some didn’t even bother to do that. The boats bobbed lazily and the sea lay like oil. All was still and calm. No hint of the wine dipped night life and the turmoil of the Friday afternoon when all the rich Athenians want to moor their impressive yachts in the tiny harbour. There was no coaxing for bargain buys by friendly shop owners.

There was peace and timelessness. Hydra was mine.

I wandered passed the closed shops, no hanging garments outside, no leaning, smoking shopkeepers, no cool interiors beckoning. One of the cats followed me and others joined it as I headed out of the harbour along its West edge. Past the Gold Shops, past the Souvlaki joint, past the Jetty to the pine trees that mark the edge of the town. The sea laid out on my right glistened with touches of the dawn but not a ciccada was heard. Silence as the heat hadn’t begun yet. A delicious coolness hung like a blanket over the island offering a bounce to my step and a joy to being awake so early.

The familiar walk from Hydra town round to Kamini felt good. The level paved path gave my leg muscles a chance to wake up and my tendons to flex as I gazed over, what I feel is one of the most relaxing, fulfilling and beautiful views in all of Greece. The view over the sea across to the Peloponnese taking in the island of Dokos and the smaller island of Trikeli with the tiny island in the foreground with its whitewashed church completes the postcard ideal. The islands float, the sea and islands choose the same colour but different hues, the sky sympathizes. The whole is a compliment of variant blues and sparkles of sunlight. There is no sight more invigorating and stimulating. No view more calming or peaceful. I had reached a high before I even made the slight descent to Kamini’s little harbour.

The cats had deserted me by now but at Kamini’s tiny harbour jammed full of fishing boats I was joined by a couple of dogs, eager to please and full of life. I heard a donkey bray.

Past Kamini there are some steps that take you out of the harbour along the coast to what I know as Baby Beach. I don’t know why it is called Baby Beach but, oddly enough, it was the beach where my baby (now 10 going on 16 and so much more worldy than me) first saw the sea.

I can still recall her eye catching on the edge of the sea with the joy of the excitement of the new reflected in them and then of her expression changing as she slowly look up and saw the water extend and extend and extend into an awe inspiring vastness. She stared for an age and then retreated to safety from where she assessed the situation, the people in the water, the pebbles, the distance, the relationships between shapes, the edge of the towel until she finally tottered to the edge of the water and dipped a toe. I haven’t been able to keep her out of the sea ever since.

The memories flicked in and out of my head as I passed the Turkish ruin that marks the edge of the beach.

I had walked as far as Vlychos before. There is a ‘back way’ there; up and through the town and round the back. Not a long walk but along a rolling valley with an idyllic farm, penned goats, wandering sheep and grazing donkeys. It’s the walk I can persuade my daughter to take because of the animal interests. The walk along the coast to Vlychos is paved and smooth and not quite as exciting by ten year old standards but by approaching this way you get the best view of the most unexpected and fantasic bridge that takes the ‘back way’ walk down to beach at the edge of Vlychos. The bridge spans the ‘valley’ formed by a stream over the years, thick at its edges tapers to an unbelievable thinness at its apex and is wide enough for just one donkey at a time. Brunel would have been proud!

Vlychos has a sandy beach with palm leaf thatched umbrellas. I have never seen it very busy and the whole feel is of a retreat. I am told that some famous people have houses at Vlychos because it is so private but the nibbling donkeys and swarms of cats and ‘resting chairs’ left out by the locals give no feel of exclusivity. Just a tucked away corner of Hydra that not everyone sees.

Just as I thought I had left the houses of Vlychos they started again. Quite unexpected. I was now on uncharted territory for me. The houses, and their slightly wild gardens and wind bent pine trees, peter out and I feel a surge of excitement as I head into the unknown. My destination was the ‘mountain’ village of Episcopi.

I checked my watch and my map as I feel, to a degree, this is going to be a race against time as the day breaks and brings the heat. I didn’t want to find myself on the top most hill, miles from Hydra town with the midday heat and no more water.

I set off again with new energy striding out along the coast, the way still crazy paved and the ciccadas still sleeping. (They wake up when they feel the heat and the chorus begins).

There are, along the way, some spectacular drops to the sea with tiny sandy beaches at the base, all of which remind me of my honeymoon and that’s all I am saying about that.

My first sign of morning life. A water taxi creates a distant wave as it speeds to Ermioni on the mainland. He’s gone in a few minutes but as I walk I watch the ripples slowly spread from his wake. It is amazing how far they travel on the still sea. Just as I think they are gone another forms and after 10 minutes of so a flat wave reaches the rocks by the path. Slowly the sea slips back into being glass.

The colours are changing on the islands in the sea now as the sun makes it way. The hues are softening and the darks lightening. Someone is mixing an off white into the palette to give everything a misty, dreamy effect. The edges of the island that sit on the sea are turning white and the islands begin to float higher. There is the threat of heat but as yet the day is cool. I turn a corner to follow the coast and I am surprised by a boat yard. Quite a big boat yard. This, according to my map is Palamidas and from here the path turns inland and starts heading up.

I can hear voices amongst the boats. Just two voices, subdued and lazy. Underfoot there is now signs of man. Little pits of plastic rubbish and colour. The odd end of rope. The boats all together look like a grave yard but balanced cups of recent coffees on the bow here and on the helm there suggest some activity, even if it is at a very slow pace. The voices stop and I know I have been seen. I still cannot see anyone. There’s a pause and then the lazy talk resumes.

There is an interesting building on the side of this inlet. It is unexpectedly large and has many windows rather like a mill building in Northern England. Further up the inlet a new building is erected in a similar style. They are so large it is hard to imagine that enough people would want to live this far out to occupy such a space. It looks like someone’s dream that has been abandoned. But I know how often in Greece even the most abandoned building can have signs of life.

I follow the edge of the boat yard and the debris on the ground becomes more colourful and more interesting. A tar brush. Half a shoe. Six water bottles tied together. A plastic scraper. A tin of dried paint. A bucket complete with hole but no handle.

The path winds to the right and starts its incline and as it veers left again the end of the yard is designated by a house. A small abandoned shack type house but shirts are hung over a rusty wire fence and a chair leans at a drunken angle against the door frame. The general practical accessories of buckets with socks soaking and half empty ouzo bottles next to china mugs give this all the impression needed to confirm an elderly bachelor's ‘pad’. Ten yards further on and there is another similar smaller hut. Is it the same person's or another bachelor? Or was the smaller hut his first ‘pad’ until he upgraded to the larger of the two?

The floor debris is getting less again now and the path steepens and turns left into a pine wood. The smell of pine begins to thicken and a stillness overcomes everything that only happens in pine forests. No wind, no sound, no sense of life.

I get into an uphill rhythm. I like hills, they feel good. The trees are twisted and tall. Their trunks seem so very black against the world. The blue of the sky makes blotchy patterns overhead and the sun spikes an occasional finger through the canopy. The ciccadas are just beginning to attempt to sing. One here and one there, threatening their deafening chorus and heralding the heat. I take a drink and turn around to see where I have come. The path winds down the hill in quite a regular line and the crazy paving has been replaced by packed earth. Here and there are gouge lines where water has cut like a knife through the winter mud of the path. Now the dust settles as I leave my prints.

Onwards and upwards, the release of endorphins is making Hydra a paradise and I feel so glad to be alive, so happy to be out walking and so lucky to be on Hydra. I am glad I am not in bed and I hold my arms up to the world and turn circles as I walk. After a moment or two I sober up enough to check that I am really alone, the wood is still, I am unwatched and I spin again and laugh out load.

Eventually the wood thins and the path becomes more smooth and I enter onto clear ground. I feel I am reaching the top and something comes into view. I am expecting a few shacks and goat huts at the top, at Episkopi . But as I climb higher there is a large and, to my mind, beautiful house. It looks so grand out in the rural hills. How do people get to it. Do they have a helipad? What happens if they run out of loo paper – a two hour walk to Hydra? A four hour round trip?

And who protects it from burglary out here in the wilds? Mind you how would the burglar take the things away? By donkey? Robbery by donkey!

There is now a division in the path. One heads away from the direction of Hydra town to the southwest, the other southeast, vaguely toward Hydra town. I pass a couple of low cottages. Ideal holiday lets, all the romance of the isolation but how would anyone get there? Are they abandoned? The path is now nothing but rocks, pretty course boulders and the going is hard. It will take me hours to get back this way even if the path continues all the way back to town. If it is indeed a path and not a collapsed wall. Hard to tell really.

I estimate I probably only have half an hour of relative coolness left and if this way does go all the way back to town it probably goes along the top ridge of the island until it hits the monastery path high above Hydra town. An hour or more of exposed walking.

Or I can go back. It’s down hill for the first part and half of it is in the shade of the pines. Downhill walking always goes twice as quickly as flat walking, and I know the way. But I would rather take a new route but I have no mobile phone with me if it takes longer and dear old hubby starts to worry (By about a week next Tuesday or when he runs out of clean undies I guestimate) and with these enormous boulders there is a nasty chance of a twisted ankle. Am I sensible, am I not. Oh decisions.

I sit and take a drink. I love that feeling of aloneness I get on a walk. No one in the world know exactly where you are. You can’t be reached. You can do nothing but be in the moment. No action is required. You are the only thing in the world and of no importance whatsoever to its continuation. A complete state of limbo. The only thing to do is drink in the surroundings and marvel. Worldly problems fizzle down to a dot and blink into nothing. I would happily take a backpack and disappear into the horizon.

B.C. – that is Before Child, or should I save B.H, Before Hubby, that’s what I use to do. Pick a route, pack a bag and go. Took my own tent and pitched it where I stopped. I have walked Scottish Isles (very wet), Yorkshire Dales and various coastlines. Ireland and bits of Europe with just a map, a tent and a tenner.

I have been woken in winter too hot to breathe to find sheep and cows nestling around my tent to get out of the snow. I have been lifted off my feet, backpack tent and all and deposited 10 yards away by the force of hill top winds. I have had rain drench me from above and, at the same time, sea spray force its way into every nock and cranny from below in a duel of ‘wetter than wet. I have found hidden corries, I have shared my bed with wild animals. I have been attacked by wild animals. I have been more miserable than the miserablest drenched rat in the world and happier than a millionairess on honeymoon with her toyboy. I have been befriended, threatened, envied, warned, exhausted ,bought cups of tea and even proposed to by strangers on my walks. I have given up hope in snow storms and huddled next to walls waiting for whatever that would be to be. I have run and sung with arms flung wide on moorland tops. I even walked topless one very hot summer day thinking I was miles from nowhere to apex a hill and find a dam works laid out before me and a thousand (male) workers digging away, fortunately I saw them before they saw me!

So, on or back, sensible or not sensible.

It was getting hot.

Ok sensible, the shade of the pines.

I stumbled my way back over the boulders to the relief of the mud road and skipped happily to the edge of the pines. The ciccadas were now in full chorus and the heat was building rapidly. It was a good call to get under those pines. My walk induced high increases with the downward momentum and I began to skip and run, the ciccadas serenading and cheering as I passed. My legs moved faster and faster with the joy of every breath. The winter water eroded gullies in the mud road are giving me excuses to leap and jump over them on the corners where the water had cut straight groves that had turned to stone with the heat. After the first jump my legs needed no further excuse to turn into those of a lamb, springing and bounding just for the novelty and the thrill of being airborne. My downhill flight throwing gravity to the wind. My mind escaping its confines. Weightless and timeless and boundaryless, perfumed by the smell of pine trees that whistled past me until the boat yard was mine again - in what felt like seconds. Damn.

The men are visible now. One in blue overalls the other in jeans and checked shirt. They see me from the distance but don’t stop their dialogue this time. Just another tourist to them. Not the timeless, gravity defying spirit I know myself to be.

The floor debris seems more urban on the return journey.

It’s hot.

The sea is ablaze with sparkles and shimmers in the heat. There are water taxis dashing here and there. I savour the coastal walk from the boat yard to Vlychos as people lay beyond.

At Vlychos I dread it and yet when it comes I delight in it. My first Kalimera of the day. After the silence its like music and reminds me I am in Greece and it reminds me of the warmth and kindness of the Hydra island people.

Yes, old lady in black, a good day to you too and thank you for looking me so directly in the eyes when you said it. You meant it and I mean it back. Kalimera.

By the time I leave Vlychos I have been wished a good day by three people and I wish them the same in return. I mount the bridge on the edge of Vlychos to take the back road back. Partly for the animals, partly because I will be in the shade of the buildings more quickly. I hear a donkey bray. It turns into a song lasting several minutes and is followed by a dog chorus.

The goats seem hungry as I pass and their cry of ‘nee’ reminds me of my daughter's goat impressions. I think of her snuggled in bed still, or is she stirring now? There is a feeling of movement as I approach the edge of upper Kamini and sure enough as I enter between buildings I am greeted with more ‘kalimeras’. Smiles and time to talk. I am gradually sucked back into civilization and the presence of other people. By the time I let myself back into where we are staying and I am fully assimilated back into normal mortal life and I am greeted with ‘Mum where's my blue top’ and ‘Did you have a nice walk dear’ from the sleep ruffled love of my life. I can afford to smile and point and say ‘There’ and ‘Yes thank you’ respectively and as I accept my first cuddle of the day to begin another perfect day on Hydra feeling fantastic.