Greece's islands can cast a real spell on visitors. But this one, Hydra, is more than enchanting. It's evocative. Its beauty is so soulfully expressive, so enveloping, it makes your heart somehow soar & sink at the same time.
Hydra is a nearly two-hour hydrofoil ride from Athens; the journey is bumpy aboard the small, high-speed boat, but the destination makes the distress worthwhile. This is the far-flung place that captivated Leonard Cohen so much, he bought a house here in 1960 & spent many of the years that followed soaking up the Greek way of life.
These past decades haven't changed this island very much. Cars & motorcycles remain completely banned, so donkeys supply the sole means of transporting wares for Hydra's 1,800 inhabitants. With no vehicles roaring past or crawling in traffic, without even the hint of a crowd surrounding us, we find ourselves in a different, calmer world, over 5,000 miles from everyone we know.
On Hydra's fringes, the Aegean Sea stretches far, far out, looking formidably vast, as seas are wont to do. People fish pensively, staring over the waters & saying very little, comfortable in their unhurried pace.
We have many hours here. The boat brought us over in the morning; there's none returning to Athens until late in the evening. We take slow steps through streets that wind into the heart of Hydra. We pass whitewashed homes, photograph them & look out for spots to eat, ending up at Ostria, a tavern owned by married couple Stathis & Tassoula.
Stathis tells us that he'll feed us 'the best calamari in the universe.' We laugh in response of course, while he half-smiles knowingly (it's a line he must have used a hundred times at least). He caught these himself, assuring us we're eating what was still in the sea only several hours ago. They're fried in olive oil. They're brilliant. Not rubbery, not bland. They're what Stathis promised us. The calamari that food fantasies are built on.
There's no menu here, but we tell Stathis & his never-speaking wife that we want more. We receive more. Gratefully, greedily.
Shrimp with shells of fiery hues. Salty-sweet & succulent, the ocean's gift. It sounds melodramatic when we type it out, but we think to ourselves (the way that wanderers in thrilling & unfamiliar areas do), what an ocean, what an island, what a restaurant.
Sitting outside the entrance, a few Americans talk, drink & ask where the two of us are from. Stathis says 'Kuala Lumpur' when we say 'Malaysia.' He says he'd like to travel to Thailand, but his wife won't take any plane trip that lasts longer than three hours. She hears him, but we're not sure she understands. She probably does.
More, we demand, more, desperate with the fear that we'll never find ourselves here ever again. This is our last chance to eat what Hydra carries, what Stathis catches, what Tassoula cooks.
So we eat everything. Heads, shells, flesh, tails. By the time we finish our carafes of wine, it's nearly 3 p.m. (8 p.m. back in KL, we calculate) & two hours have passed. We pay a modest sum to the couple & say goodbye. We say we're lucky we were here, because we really, honestly, wholeheartedly believe that's true.
Ostria, Hydra, Greece
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