Kiafa, the original permanent settlement in Hydra, is built up high into the hills above Hydra Town. As Hydra grew in size and prosperity, and as the dangers posed by marauding pirates receded, the settlement expanded beyond its fortified boundaries, drifting down the hill toward the harbor, Kala Pigadia, and Kamini. Today, Kiafa is a charming blend of narrow, meandering cobblestone alleys and stairways, high-walled houses, crumbling ruins, and spectacular views over Hydra Town and Harbor and across the Saronic Gulf to the Peloponnese. Kiafa is entirely residential and has no restaurants, cafes, or bars. The walk to the homes in the neighborhood can entail many, many steps, and so are not suitable for those with mobility issues. The climb can take anywhere from ten to fifteen minutes for the average person.
The first families to settle on Hydra in the 1400s, refugees from the Peloponnese following the Turkish conquest of Byzantium, were farmers and shepherds of predominately Albanian extraction, living in the mountains in Episkopi. Due to the island’s poor soil and limited pasturage these inhabitants turned to the sea for sustenance and ultimately for commerce, leading to their transformation over generations into first fishermen and then sailors. In later centuries Greek families also migrated from the mainland, neighboring islands, and Greek Asia Minor.
In the 1600s the island’s inhabitants started to build their homes above the main port, living on the higher slopes over the harbor in an area more easily defended against roving bands of pirates. The settlers called the area Kiafa, literally meaning “top” in Albanian, the name it still goes by today. The choice of location for this settlement likely depended on the construction of the island’s primary monastery in 1640 in today’s Hydra Harbor, uncoincidentally the island’s most sheltered natural harbor. A lookout was established at the top of Mount Eros, Hydra’s highest peak, enabling guards to scan the horizon for threats up to sixty miles away.
Due to the influx of refugees in the early eighteenth century, the town expanded to approximately 604 families, or 3,000 people, who had transformed from an agricultural to a maritime society, resulting in Hydra’s expansion both as a town and as a naval power. With an increased sense of security and with town life taking place more and more near the harbor, the older defensive settlement at Kiafa expanded down toward the port. And during the second half of the eighteenth century, Hydra’s great success in sea trading led to the development of a number of prominent, wealthy families who built large and stately mansions, typically on the west side of the port. By the end of the century, the census counted 2,23. houses and a population greater than 11,000.
After the 1820s, with the influx of refugees of the Greek War of Independence, the population surge to 28,500, leading to the expansion of the town westward over the “saddle” into today’s Kamini. And with the subsequent decline in population in later years, as the treat of invasion from the sea and thus the need for an elevated settlement receded, the Kiafa area was largely abandoned.
Interestingly, despite its great maritime success and prestige in earlier times, Hydra never developed much beyond the port, and thus it never developed as an industrial, manufacturing, or transportation center.
“Neither did it develop the usual features of a port town—warehouses, inland communications, and so forth—a fact which allowed its society to continue practically unchanged, despite the events of the last decades of the eighteenth and the first of the nineteenth centuries. Very few non-Hydriot ships ever used the port. In essence, Hydra served as a dormitory, a breeding and retirement place for the crews, and a shipbuilding, maintenance, and repair center for its own fleet. Its shipyards filled orders only for Hydriots, and its manufacturing facilities never extended beyond the production of food supplies, ropes, sails, and so forth, for its own ships.”
—Constantine L. Michaelides, Hydra: A Greek Island Town: Its Growth and Form
Today Kiafa is among the island’s most populated areas. Situated high above the harbor, this oldest residential neighborhood offers stunning views of Hydra Town, Kamini, the surrounding hillsides, the Saronic, and the Peloponnese. Wandering through the cobblestone streets and alleys, you’ll find some of Hydra’s oldest homes, numerous chapels and churches, and many picturesque ruins.
Churches include η Γέννηση του Χριστού (Birth of Christ), the oldest, which dates to around 1640, Άγιος Αντρέας (St. Andreas), Άγιος Ανδριανός (St. Adrianos), Άγιος Ιωάννης ο Θεολόγος (St. John the Theologian), Άγιος Ιωάννης ο Πρόδρομος (St. John the Baptist), Άγιος Παντελεήμονας (St. Panteleimon), Αγία Παρασκευή (St. Paraskevi), Αγία Τριάδα (Holy Trinity), and Άγιος Αρτέμιος (St. Artemios). Crowning Kiaffa is church of Αγίου Κωνσταντίνου του Υδραίου (St. Constantine of Hydra, patron saint of the island), which began construction in 1968.