– Fred de Vries

First thought in the early morning: wrong! The drone of an idling truck isn’t supposed to wake you up in Hydra. It has been advertised as an unspoilt, car-free Greek island where donkeys and wheelbarrows do the hard work and twittering birds announce each new day.

But one look outside proves that this is not a delusion. It’s indeed a truck hurting the silence. It’s one of the three dustbin lorries, the only motorised vehicles on the island. Even that’s not true. Occasionally, a helicopter lands on the tiny football field behind my pension, delivering the rich and lazy for a few days of fun on the island, which, over the last sixty years, has gained fame as a resort for aristocrats, millionaires, pop musicians, writers and artists.

We can blame it on Henry Miller, who in 1940 described entering Hydra as ‘a pause in the musical score of creation by an expert calligrapher’. The Beatles came, and so did Mick and Bianca Jagger, and Madonna. And in 1960, an unknown 26-year-old Canadian poet called Leonard Cohen bought a three-storied house in Hydra, for a mere 1 500 dollars.

Cohen loved Hydra. To his mother he wrote: ‘It [the house] has a huge terrace with a view of dramatic mountain and shining white houses. The rooms are large and cool with deep windows set in thick walls. I suppose it’s about 200 years old and many generations of seamen must have lived here … All through the day you hear the calls of the street vendors and they are really rather musical…’

While the sun was out, Leonard wrote his poetry. And by candlelight he made love to his muse, Marianne Ihlen – the end of the affair was immortalised in So Long, Marianne.

Today, Cohen is Hydra’s most famous inhabitant. His house has become a shrine for fans. Every couple of years they gather on the island to honour the Canadian bard, whose eternal pessimism gives them so much pleasure.

While doing the Stations of Cohen, they also pay respect to the place where Bill’s Bar used to be. Until its closure in the late eighties, this pub gained a reputation as ‘the most important Mediterranean watering hole for the alcoholic jet set’. Cigarette smoke and the torment of Edith Piaf accompanied the consumption of martini, tequila, beer and ouzo from as early as ten in the morning. To everyone his own medicine – Leonard got loaded on schnapps, aquavit and vodka. Sometimes he used to sing Christmas carols, which allegedly sounded more cheerful than his own ballads.

For Cohen, this Hydra period must be quite murky by now. In the seventies, his fascination shifted toManhattan, where he overindulged in drugs and alcohol. Eventually he joined a Buddhist monastery inCalifornia. In the last fifteen years he visited Hydra maybe twice. But Hydra doesn’t forget. Not a day passes without Leonard’s name being mentioned at one of the tables of the numerous cafés near the harbour.

Shortly after my arrival, I meet Fani, a formidable Greek woman who resembles Simone Signoret. She swiftly introduces me to some Hydra characters. One of the first hands I shake is that of a pale woman with full lips, dark sunglasses and a straw hat. “This is Suzanne,” says Fani.

This is not just some Suzanne, I learn. No, this is Suzanne Elrod, for many years the partner of Leonard Cohen. The woman who was busted for drugs in Hydra in the seventies. Old-timers remember her ‘coming down donkey’s hit lane, surrounded by policemen’. This is the mother of Leonard’s children, Lorca and Adam (who also happens to be around, doing his aspiring rock star bit).

The Suzanne?” I ask, referring to the eponymous Cohen song. Fani nods. Words from the ancient hippie dirge crawl through my brain: Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river … Someone at our table spoils the moment by claiming that the celebrated Suzanne was someone else. Arguments go back and forth. There’s no agreement. We turn around for the answer, but Suzanne and Adam have left. And you want to travel with her

I stare at the boats slowly rocking in the harbour, wondering what attracted people like Cohen to Hydra. It’s definitely a stunning island, with its horseshoe-shaped harbour, where yachts drift in and out. On the quay, donkeys wait patiently for their load. The village itself, white and blue, has crept up the surrounding hills, resembling an amphitheatre. Tavernas, hotels, jewellery and art shops hide in the maze of small cobbled streets. Hundreds of cats laze around in the squares and alleyways. It’s undeniably beautiful, but also suffocating.

Hydra has three rhythms – that of the locals, who wake up early to go to work; that of the tourists who descend from cruise ships to have lunch and buy souvenirs; and that of the ‘imports’ – expats and wealthy Greeks. It’s a small international scene of amateur painters, minor poets, estate agents, fortune seekers, masseurs, alcoholics and aristocrats. When they meet for breakfast in the early afternoon, they invariably greet each other with, ”Good morning, darling.”

The rest of the day is more or less fixed: coffee at the Pirate, the last bar on the quay, followed by a first glass of wine. Then the discussion on whether the trip to the stony beachof Vlychosshould be made by foot (over 30 minutes) or by water taxi (11 €). There they run out of conversation topics, and eventually end up singing tunes from The Sound of Music.

After a siesta you see the same faces at the Ydronetta, where wine and music enhance the splendour of the Hydra sunset. At night, the open-air cinema provides entertainment. And eventually, everyone meets at the Amalour Bar, the successor to Bill’s Bar.

After three days I’ve had enough of Hydra. But I still haven’t found the House of Leonard Cohen. People point vaguely towards a hill. Or claim that “… you cannot see it from here”. The house has become an obsession. After all, how can you visit Hydra without seeing The House of Leonard Cohen?

On my last day, I know on which hill it is. Another clue is a book by the English poet, Roger Green; Hydra and the Bananas of Leonard Cohen. He wrote it after finding out that Cohen was his neighbour, and that Leonard, as the only Hydriot, had banana trees in his garden. So what, one thinks…

I take the small road past the Pirate Bar and start my ascent. Puffing and sweating, I climb hundreds of steps. Finally, I reach the top of the hill, rewarded with a magnificent view over the harbour and the village. From here I hope to catch sight of those banana trees. But alas.

Defeated, I walk back, taking a different route. Then, suddenly, after turning a corner, I see huge green leaves, hanging over the wall like carved tongues. The House of Leonard Cohen.

Of course it’s as dull as anything. A white house with white walls. I remember the stories about obsessive Cohen fans who broke into the garden, to find a naked Suzanne in the shower. I try to imagine how Leonard wrote Bird on a Wire here, with the lines, Like a drunk in a midnight choir inspired by the boisterous singing of the Hydriots. I try to picture Marianne behind a typewriter, like on the cover of Songs from a Room. But all I see are walls, windows and a door.

When I’m back at the harbour, I spot Suzanne in a café. Same hat and sunglasses, like a film star from the thirties. I decide to ask her that one, burning question.

No, she says, she’s not Suzanne from the song.

I nod. “Then he must have had a premonition.”


Fred  de Vries  is a Dutch writer/journalist, who moved to South Africa in 2003 to do research for a biography of Johannesburg Beat poet Sinclair Beiles

He runs travel writing workshops and a travel writing mentoring programme for All About Writing.

His books include Respect! (with Toine Heijmans), about hip-hop in Europe, Club Risiko, a look at 80s underground  music in six citiesAfrikaners, volk op drift about the post-1994 fate of the Afrikaners which was translated into Afrikaans as Rigtingbedonnerd and Gehavende Stad with Erik Brus, an overview of 50 years of literature and music in Rotterdam. 

He wrote about his travels for The Sunday Times and Sunday Independent, and taught travel writing as a guest lecturer at Wits.  He had an interview column for The Weekender, which were collected in  The Fred  de Vries Interviews; From Abdullah to ZilleAfrikaners, volk op drift was nominated for Best Journalism Book and Best Travel Book in 2013. De Vries was nominated for Correspondent of the Year in 2014 and 2015. 

His seventh book, Wiegelied voor de witte man: ras en muziek in het Amerikaanse Diepe Zuiden en Zuid-Afrika was published in October 2017. 

For a brief moment she seems to smile.

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