Situated in the Saronic Gulf, near to the Mirtoon Sea, are the gorgeous Saronic Islands – Aegina, Poros, Hydra and Spetses. There are a couple of others (as in the way of Greece) but these four are the most visited. In easy reach of Athens via the port of Piraeus, they are just a day trip away, either by tour or by simply catching the regular hydrofoils (the Flying Dolphins) and speedy catamarans. Aegina is the least interesting, in my view, but it does have an interesting temple built in 480 BC, the Temple of Aphaia.
You would be forgiven if you thought Poros was not an island at all. It’s only a few hundred meters (five minutes in a tiny boat) from the shore of the Peloponnese. In actual fact there are two islands – the main port, Poros Town, sits on the tiny island of Sferia, separated from the main island of Kalavria by a canal. Boats of all descriptions tie up at the waterfront, and it’s pleasant just to sit and watch them as they ply to and fro. The waterfront stretches for some way and is full of interesting tavernas and shops, while steps lead up to lanes and squares that make up the upper town. At the top is the focal point – a clock tower and cathedral. The interior of the island is wooded and sparsely populated. It was devastated by fire in 2007 and has taken some time to regenerate, but Poros has some quite nice beaches and is well patronised by visitors from Athens. Also it has a very active group of wildlife rehab workers who are doing a sterling job with native birds and raptors.
Hydra is one of my favourite islands in Greece. Here’s a quote from my travel memoir “Make Mine a Moussaka.”
“We disembarked from the catamaran onto the cobbled quay and stood and stared. It was like landing in the middle of a postcard. The marina was so full of craft it looked like a Boat Show poster. Modest rented yachts to luxury cruisers and everything in between were there – quaintly painted caiques (fishing boats), pleasure craft for every occasion, tiny tinnies, revving water taxis, huge rusty cargo boats and even small ferries.
Behind the perfect horseshoe harbor, the stone town rose in tiers to form an amphitheater, the houses rainbow painted, their terra cotta tiled roofs like matching flat hats. The paralia (waterfront) was lined with the usual quaint boutique tourist shops. Eclectic tavernas spilled out across the flagstones, their rows of cane chairs facing the action, and the whole place buzzed with people. Narrow cobbled streets led back into the town, like slits between the walls, mysterious and inviting. A stoic string of donkeys stood unmoving while crates of vegetables, soft drinks and bags of cement were transferred from one of the cargo boats to wooden racks on their strong backs.”
Hydra has always been a barren rock, stuck in the sea like a beached whale, with very little vegetation, hardly any trees and no water. Early settlers couldn’t follow their tradition of agriculture so they took to boat building, which explains the strong maritime influence in the town and its history of seafaring. During the Greek War of Independence, Hydra was responsible for supplying ships for the blockade of the Turks. A maritime school is still in existence. The shipping merchants accumulated much wealth and built large and beautiful mansions around the town, most of which are restored and used to this day, some as galleries and museums, others as hotels, or weekenders for the rich and famous. As it is now proclaimed a Greek national treasure, the island cannot alter, rather it dresses up, evolves and reinvents itself. A wander around the back streets of the town finds little narrow cross streets suddenly opening into tiny squares, each with a taverna tucked into a corner, and little shuttered shops concealed in odd places. Behind old whitewashed stone walls the houses hide in cool courtyards, their pergolas hung with vines and bougainvillea, shaded with lemon trees and decorated with eclectic plants in pots. Each corner is a tiny idyll, a fascinating glimpse, an enchanting surprise. Back of town, houses cling to the hillsides, staring down at the harbor, and across the Saronic Gulf to the misty Peloponnese.
All streets eventually lead to the paralia (waterfront). You can’t get lost, no matter how far you ramble through the labyrinthine back alleyways. Under the clock tower is the archway leading to the peaceful Monastery of the Virgin Mary where the Byzantine Museum is housed, icons and oddments, a haven from the hurly-burly. My all-time favorite hotel, the Hotel Miranda, is a challenging pull up Miaouli Street, one of the narrow lanes. It’s an eighteenth century sea captain’s mansion, converted and stylishly restored into a hotel, retaining much of the old ambience. Luggage bounces over cobbles polished smooth by eons of donkey hooves. It has been decreed there be no cars or mopeds on Hydra (except for rubbish, sanitation and construction vehicles), so you travel by donkey (or mule) or walk. I could sit all day and watch the donkeys. The village of Kamini is walking distance along the cliffs and is picture perfect. All the beaches on Hydra are pebble, but it is fun to dive off the rocks into the crystal clear water. Yellow and red water taxis take you everywhere, and it’s quite an experience zipping along.
Evening lends enchantment. Down at the port the water ripples change color as the sun sets over the far shore of the Peloponnese, flooding the harbor with orange and pink. The yachties come home to roost, berthing among the caiques, as the water taxis dash to and fro. The occasional hydrofoil, the Flying Dolphins, and the Catamarans skate in and out. As it grows dark, lights come on around the paralia, washing the shadows and the shiny cobbles with yellow, and the whole waterfront becomes illuminated with a string of white fairy lights like a giant stage necklace. I’d describe it as beautiful, but that’s an understatement. For dinner it’s fun to opt for a taverna with tables perched right on the edge of the narrow cobblestone street, or out on the edge of the harbor where you can watch the action while you eat. As darkness slips over the harbor, the fishing caiques chug into port, easing into their berths through the golden ripples of the reflections from the fairy lights. The water taxis gradually park for the night, the beautiful people emerged from their boats looking for tavernas, and the local youth gather to sit on the sea wall and eat yiros and ice cream.
Spetses is an island not so often visited by tourists, and therefore is a little more “normal Greek” than Hydra. However it does have a certain charm, and is well worth a visit. The Dapia Harbor of Spetses Town is another of the fascinating waterfronts of the Saronic Islands. I was particularly interested in the water taxi rank (see here) – much more organised than elsewhere, and the horse-drawn carriages all waiting for customers. A wander around the tranquil town shows leafy alleyways, shops, and boutiques. The delightful main square is full of tempting tavernas – check out the brightly coloured signage. I haven’t seen much like it anywhere else. Spetses has a strong maritime influence, and like Hydra grew wealthy from ship building. Captains from here led ships to the Napoleonic wars, and of course the War of Independence. Although there are remains of Hellenic, Roman, and Byzantine settlements, it seems Spetses was virtually uninhabited from the 10th century to the 16th. Once again, there are some interesting museums in the town.
Next time I’ll take you to the Cyclades Islands. These islands are where everyone goes – but there’s more to them than just Mykonos and Santorini…