At the turn of the 19th century, when Athens was home to about 6,500 inhabitants, the population of Hydra may have exceeded 30,000—nearly five times its size. Today its residents number less than 3,000, while in Athens they now exceed five million. The demographics are important for understanding Hydra and its history and architecture. Maritime Greece, with its fragmented geography of is lands in the sea, has always been an interconnected net work of moderately small comparable entities. Hydra was for a while an important player in this constantly changing map of evolving and declining centres. The island (like Chios before it and Syros and Symi after it) came into a period of remarkable prosperity at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, when it was a magnet for commercial shipping interests in the Aegean area. The parallel is perhaps closest with Symi, which like Hydra was a mountainous rock in the sea with no extensively cultivable terrain: both islands were thrown back onto shipping and commerce in order to survive. The sudden growth of wealth has produced in both islands a narrow period of extraordinary architectural flowering, endowing them both with ports that are among the most strikingly beautiful in the Aegean.
Hydra is the only island in the Aegean in which the municipal authorities have had the tenacity to maintain a total ban on motorised traffic. It is one of a very few places in Europe where this is the case, and it has transformed the quality of life on the island. As a consequence, Hydra is a dense urban tissue but with none of the negatives which that normally implies. The interior of the island is also only accessible on foot, and in recent years a growing monastic community has returned to Hydra to take ad vantage of the peacefulness which that has brought.
Proximity and fast communications to Athens mean that visitors often come to Hydra merely for a day’s excursion. But—not least because it has a number of very beautiful hotels and guest-houses—it is an island that should be visited for several days so as to savour both its extraordinary tranquillity and to explore its uncompromised wealth of architecture. Hydra has few ‘great buildings’ as such, but it is one of the best preserved and least modified architectural and urban ‘wholes’ in Greece and should feature in any serious traveller’s first acquaintance with the varied beauty of the Greek Islands.
Hydra Island is part of the Argosaronic Island group
Hydra General Information
Profitis Elias Monastery
Hydras’ Island town and harbour