A Cultural History of Modern Hydra

Since the early 20th century, Hydra has drawn the interest of artists and intellectuals, gradually becoming a cosmopolitan cultural hub.

A number of well-known Greek artists and intellectuals have been Hydriots, including painter Nicos Hantzikyriakos-Ghikas and poet Miltos Sahtouris.  Others, like painters Panagiotis Tetsis and Periklis Vyzantios, architect Demetrios Pikionis, poets George Seferis and Odysseas Elytis, author D. Petsalis, and painter-poet Nicolaos Engonopoulos, fell in love with the island on a visit and subsequently made Hydra their full- or part-time residence.

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas

In 1936 painter Periklis Vyzantios (1893–1971) orchestrated the establishment of a branch of the Faculty of Fine Arts of Athens on Hydra housed in the Tombazis’ mansion, where eminent artists like Marc Chagall spent long periods.

In the 1950s and 1960s Hydra was the adopted home of a community of artists, expatriates from their own countries, that included celebrated Norwegian novelist Axel Jensen and Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. Cohen wrote several of his better-known songs on Hydra, including “Bird on the Wire” and “So Long, Marianne,” while living with Jensen’s ex-wife, Marianne Ihlen. This period was depicted in the 2019 documentary film Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love.

Charmain Clift, George Johnston, Marianne Ihlen, and Leonard Cohen at Spilia

Foreign artists who have spent much time on Hydra include American novelist Henry Miller, Canadian songwriter-poet Leonard Cohen, modern artist Brice Marden, and contemporary painter Bill Pownall. Hydra is still home to a vibrant community of working artists. The Hydrama Theater and Arts Center hosts performances, drama and dance workshops for the local community, and courses in ancient Greek theater for international participants. The island hosts an annual conference on Rebetiko, a type of Greek urban folk music, in mid-October.

Panagiotis Tetsis in his kitchen on Hydra
Laskarina Bouboulina, hero of the Greek Revolution

Notable people from or otherwise associated with Hydra include

  • Laskarina Bouboulina (1771–1825) merchant, shipowner, naval heroine, admiral
  • Brenda Chamberlain (artist) (1912–1971) Welsh artist and writer
  • Charmian Clift (1923–1969), Australian novelist and writer
  • Leonard Cohen (1934–2016), Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and novelist
  • Dorotheus (1888–1957), Archbishop of Athens and All Greece
  • Axel Jensen (1932–2003) Norwegian author
  • George Johnston (1912–1970), Australian journalist, novelist and writer
  • Gikas N. Koulouras, shipowner, member of Parliament, founded and donated the Historical Museum and Archives of Hydra, founder and first President of the Greek Shipowners Association
  • Georgios Kountouriotis (1789–1858) merchant, shipowner, politician, Prime Minister of Greece
  • Lazaros Kountouriotis: merchant, shipowner. The biggest funder of the Greek War of Independence.
  • Antonis Lignou (1871–1956), Hydra mayor for nearly 40 years
  • Pavlos Kountouriotis (1855–1935) naval hero, admiral and President of Greece
  • Panayotis Koupitoris (1821–1881), writer
  • Antonios Kriezis (1796–1865) merchant, shipowner, naval hero, admiral, Prime Minister of Greece
  • Marios Loizides (1928–1988) was a Greek visual artist.
  • Michalis Maniatis (1952–) film and TV actor, producer, screen and book writer
  • Rallou Manou, choreographer
  • Andreas Miaoulis (1768–1835), merchant, shipowner, naval hero, admiral
  • Athanasios Miaoulis (1815–1867) Prime Minister of Greece
  • Nikos Nikolaou (1909–1986), artist
  • Georgios Sachtouris, shipowner, admiral during the Greek war of Independence
  • Georgios Sachinis (1789–1864), merchant, shipowner, naval hero, admiral
  • Stavros Sachinis died in the Battle of Sphacteria (1825), holding off the Egyptian-Turkish landing force.
  • Panayiotis Tetsis (1925–2016), painter
  • Emmanouil Tombazis, merchant, shipowner, naval hero, admiral
  • Iakovos Tombazis (1782–1829) merchant, shipowner, naval hero, admiral
  • Anastasios Tsamados (1774–1825), shipowner, admiral, Greek national hero
  • Göran Tunström (1937–2000) Swedish author
  • Nikolaos Vokos (1854–1902), painter
  • Elena Votsi (1964–), jewelery designer
  • Nikolaos Votsis (1877–1931), naval hero and admiral
  • Dimitrios Voulgaris (1802–1878), merchant, shipowner, Prime Minister of Greece
Charles W. Heckstall at his type writer.  Hydra, Greek. October 1960 (photo by James Burke/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Over the decades, several books have been written either on or about or set on Hydra:

  • Charmian Clift, Peel Me a Lotus (1959)
  • Elizabeth Jane Howard, The Sea Change (1959)
  • Brenda Chamberlain, A Rope of Vines: Journal from a Greek Island (1965)
  • Catherine Vanderpool, Hydra (1980)
  • Margarita Karapanou, Rien ne va plus (The Sleepwalker) (1994)
  • Charles Young, Clouds over Hydra (1996)
  • Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces (1996)
  • Tim Winton, The Riders (1996)
  • Roger Green, Hydra and the Bananas of Leonard Cohen (2003)
  • Jeannette Winterson, Lighthousekeeping (2004)
  • Susan Johnson, The Broken Book (2005)
  • Marc Levy, Le Premier jour (2009)

Daniel Klein, Travels with Epicurus (2012)
David Fagan, Rhubarb! Tales of Survival on a Little Greek Island (2013)
Catherine Panchout, Hydra vues privées (Private Views) (2015)
Gabriela Staebler, Island of Cats—Hydra (2015)
Kari Hesthamar, So Long, Marianne: A Love Story (2015)
Lawrence Osborne, Beautiful Animals (2017)
Ruth Larrea, Fragments of a Dream (2018)
Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell, Half the Perfect World: Writers, Dreamers and Drifters on Hydra, 1955–1964 (2018)
Michael Loudon, Hydra: An Island and Its Architecture (2018)
Tamar Hodes, The Water and the Wine (2018)
Helle V. Goldman, When We Were Almost Young: Remembering Hydra Through War and Bohemians (2018)
Polly Samson, A Theatre for Dreamers (2020)

Sophia Loren in 1957's Boy on a Dolphin

Perhaps the cinema contributed most to Hydra’s fame and the development of tourism on the island. Famous movies filmed on Hydra include The Girl in Black by Greek director Michalis Cacoyannis, the Boy on a Dolphin starring Sophia Loren, and Phaedra by director Jules Dassin and starring Melina Mercouri, Anthony Perkins, and Ralf Valone. Other movies filmed all or in part on the island include

  • A Girl in Black (1956)
  • Boy on a Dolphin (1957).
  • Phaedra (1962)
  • Island of Love (1963)
  • Incense for the Damned (1970)
  • The Blue Villa (Un Bruit Qui Rend Fou) (1995)
  • Boat Trip (2002)
  • Fugitive Pieces (2007)
  • The Capsule (2012)
  • Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love (2019)

Due to the exposure Hydra received in these films, Greeks and foreigners alike have since flocked to this tranquil island. No longer a “secret,” Hydra became a must-see for visitors to Greece.

For a meticulously researched and beautifully written history of Hydra as an artist’s colony, see Do you remember the pink oleander: The making of an international artists’ community on the island of Hydra during mid-20th Century