Home of Leonard Cohen and his ’muse’ Marianne
Travel after the pandemic #1: Hydra, Greece
Apart from its attraction to Leonard Cohen aficionados, Hydra is popular simply as one of the idyllic Greek islands where, as the travel writers say, Father Time has had limited influence. Narrow streets and flights of steps lead up the hillside from the horseshoe-shaped harbour. The serene island does not allow cars. Everyone uses their feet, boats or a large herd of working equines to get around. The mules, donkeys and horses do most of the carrying.
A preservation order ensures that every building is a monument to the 1800s. All new constructions must conform. Hydra is deeply Greek Orthodox, and monasteries, churches and chapels are everywhere, even in the remotest areas. Landmarks include windmills, mansions, bell towers, a stone bridge, the Mandraki Fort, a lighthouse and old wells still in use.
And there is a lot of sunshine. Cohen biographer Ira B. Nadel offered this semi-official legend of how Leonard, a Canadian born in Westmount, Quebec, on September 21, 1934, came to move to Greece: “In March 1960, when he had completed his manuscripts, Cohen was free to consider his position in London, and he found it wanting. After having a wisdom tooth pulled one day, he wandered about the East End of London on yet another rainy afternoon and noticed a Bank of Greece sign on Bank Street. He entered and saw a teller with a deep tan wearing sunglasses, in protest against the dreary landscape. He asked the clerk what the weather was like in Greece. ‘Springtime’ was the reply. Cohen made up his mind on the spot to depart, and within a day or so he was in Athens. I said to myself that I should go somewhere completely different in order to see how they live,” he later explained.
Arriving in Athens on April 13, 1960, Cohen made the then-five-hour sea trip to Hydra via steamer, to find an island where electricity was just being introduced to replace kerosene lamps, where plumbing was primitive and the household water cold, and where transportation was dependent on walking or using animals.
The surroundings may have been rather primitive but it was a place of solitude, just right for the poet and author to recollect in tranquility. Cohen was enamored, initially renting the three-storey whitewashed house in need of much repair for USD 14 a month. Then, on September 27, 1960, six days after his 26th birthday, he used a USD 1500 bequest from his grandmother to buy the house, without running water, plumbing or electricity, and join the island’s small colony of expatriate English-speaking artists, writers and bohemians.
The port consisted of four coffee houses and a taverna. Water was delivered by donkey and homes were lit by kerosene or oil. The expats met up at the kafenion O Katsikas café-taverna, under the clock tower in the harbour, to wait for the mail to arrive on the delivery boat and be taken to the Katsikas for sorting. In those days the place was a bit of a post office, shop, bar and café. Nowadays it is the Roloi cafe,
For Cohen there was something mythical and primitive about Hydra. At that time, he considered himself more a writer than a musician and he worked on his poetry and novels at the house, and swam in the Aegean Sea. During his early years on Hydra he wrote a controversial poetry collection, “Flowers for Hitler” published in 1964, his first novel “The Favourite Game” (1963) and a book about religion and sexuality, “Beautiful Losers” (1966).
He learned Greek within months of arriving and Hydra is where he first sang and played guitar, in front of his friends in the shaded courtyard round the back of the Douskos family-run Xeri Elia tavern and the Katsikas on “most drunken nights”. Both these haunts were described as “incubators” by the budding songwriter. These places are still tied to his presence, and The Pirate Bar, also in the port, formerly called O Peiratis, was another favourite.
Cohen knew he had been accepted by the community when he began receiving regular visits from the garbage man and his donkey. “It is like receiving the Legion of Honour,” he said.
Biographer Nadel quoted him on his decision to buy the traditional house: “Having this house makes cities less frightening. I can always come back and get by. But I don’t want to lose contact with the metropolitan experience. The years are flying past and we all waste so much time wondering if we dare do this or that. The thing is to leap, to try, to take a chance.”
Cohen described his Hydra home to his mother as a spot where he could “recollect in tranquility”. It is a 10-minute walk from the sea, up several flights of steps and through winding alleys. Modern-day seekers can find their way via a YouTube video.
Hydra gave him “the life he craved for”. It also introduced him to the love of Marianne Ihlen, a Norwegian living there who is the lady pictured on “Songs from a Room” and who inspired two of his most famous songs, “So Long, Marianne” and “Bird on the Wire”. The latter is the most emblematic song linking Cohen to the island. He wrote it on returning to his house to discover an electricity cable now running outside his window. The telephone service had arrived.
The two lovers both died in 2016, Ihlen on July 28 and Cohen in Los Angeles on November 7 aged 82. Told she was ill, he sent a farewell email: “Dearest Marianne, I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand. This old body has given up, just as yours has too. I’ve never forgotten your love and your beauty. But you know that. I don’t have to say any more. Safe travels old friend. See you down the road. Endless love and gratitude. — your Leonard”
In November 1966 Cohen left Hydra to leave behind the writer’s life, which had not brought him the recognition or rewards he desired, and pursue a singing career. He found a burgeoning folk scene in New York and released his first album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen”, in December 1967.
Hydra had a great influence on the man who became one of the finest songwriters of his time, and his years there are a source of pride for the inhabitants, On the coastal path to Kamini is a stone bench dedicated to Cohen, unveiled in 2017 and overlooking the Aegean. Initially intended to be a present for his 80th birthday, now it is dedicated to his memory. His street has been renamed in his honour too. Cohen said he bowed his head in gratitude, and responded: “Dear friends, thank you for the countless times you have lifted my spirit, thank you for the comfort and encouragement. Love and blessings, Leonard.”
Cohen returned to Hydra for breaks over the years. His children occasionally use the house now. Fans held a Leonard Cohen Event on the small island in 2002 followed by biennial meet-ups in 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019, with 205 people attending over the five days in June 2019. They leave flowers and tributes at Cohen’s door. These get-togethers include walking and boat tours and singalongs organised by Cohen’s biggest fan club, the Leonard Cohen Forum, which is run out of a small brick house in a suburb of Helsinki, Finland. The 2021 event has had to be moved to 2023 because of COVID-19.
Fly to Athens International Airport, take a train or bus to the Piraeus port, then a Dolphin hydrofoil to Hydra, about a 90-minute trip, or a slower ferry. See www.hydradirect.com for general information on accommodation, attractions and so on. Listen to the music.
Traveling to Greece (Greece plans to do a full opening on May 14th, please visit https://travel.gov.gr for the latest information.) As of May 11th the following travel restrictions apply:
– As of April 19th, travellers arriving in Greece should possess a negative PCR certificate from a testing laboratory, for a Covid-19 test taken no more than 72 hours before arrival. This test is mandatory for all tourists (including children over the age of 5), regardless of the epidemiological situation existent in the country of departure.
– If the traveller has completed his/her vaccination (i.e., 14 days have elapsed since the last vaccination, depending on the doses required) and holds a vaccination certificate, then proof of a negative test is not required.
– Vaccination certificates for the vaccines Sputnik, Sinovac, etc., not approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) also exempt visitors from the obligation of producing a negative PCR test. Αcceptable vaccines are: Pfizer BioNtech, Moderna, Astra Zeneca/Oxford, Novavax, Johnson + Johnson/Janssen, Sinovac Biotech, Gamaleya (Sputnik), Cansino Biologics, Sinopharm.
– Every traveller who arrives in Greece, regardless of the certificate in their possession, may undergo a random health screening. If selected, the screening is mandatory. Otherwise, authorities reserve the right to refuse entry into the country. The selection is made through a targeted sampling system, based on the EVA system used in the summer of 2020.