One of the unnamed streets ascending to Leonard Cohen’s house on Ydra (Hydra).
Leonard Cohen’s Ydra
By Colin Hayward
The deckhands tossed mooring lines to waiting hands as our hydrofoil docked in Ydra (Hydra) after a two-hour crossing from Pireus, the main port of Athens. Odysseus needed 10 years to make it home to Ithaca from Troy. I have been much slower to find my way to Ydra since I first fell in love with the Greek islands in 1967. In the intervening years I have visited over 20 of them but never this one. Until now.
As my wife, Linda, and I had been planning our latest visit to Greece, I suggested a visit to Ydra as word was spreading that Leonard Cohen was working on a new album that would be his last. I had met him once in the early 1960s just after he had bought a house on Ydra. Cohen had visited Western University to promote his second book, The Spice Box of Earth. He gave a mesmerizing reading and I had met him at the reception afterwards.
Did he make an impression? Let’s just say he was wearing a black leather sport jacket that day and, over the next few months, I scraped together enough money to buy one for myself. I kept it for years, long enough to have replaced the lining three times.
So Ydra, the island where Cohen had lived for seven years in the 1960s, became our destination. Packing some of his poetry and loading his songs on our phones, we set out for Greece.
Just after noon on a perfect September afternoon, we stepped ashore in Ydra. A porter offered his blue, wooden handcart for our luggage and we set off around the harbour towards the clock tower. The wharf and the streets leading up from the harbour were paved with marble flagstones. On our walk, we threaded our way through several sea front restaurants, past a herd of mules and, lined up along the wharf, the water taxis. These are the only means of transport on the island both for people and for merchandise. No frantic crowds, no smell of exhaust The only noise of an internal combustion engine came from a fishing boat or water taxi heading out to sea.
At the clock tower, the burly porter turned his cart up one of the steeply rising streets. By the time we reached the Hotel Angelica, a charming place with a walled courtyard, we had spotted a wide variety of the well-fed cats that roam the island.
On that first evening, we descended towards the lights of the harbour and ended up eating at the Rolo Cafe. In the 1960s, Cohen had given his first informal concert here when it was called the Kafenian O Katsikos. No music tonight and only a few tables occupied so we ordered drinks.
In my head was playing ‘Bird on a Wire’. When Cohen had bought his three-storey house here in l960, Ydra did not yet have running water, plumbing, electricity or, for the most part, telephones, so ‘Bird on a Wire’ had not appeared until after the telephone poles and their wires went up a few years later.
Over the next day, we climbed up the many steps to see Cohen’s unprepossessing house before descending to the harbour to watch as the freighter Georgia unload a full household of furniture, complete with a bedroom vanity with mirror, on to a train of mules. Cruise ships don’t stop here and there are only a couple of small beaches, so tourists are few.
The only mechanized transport on Ydra is the electric garbage truck. Despite the intervening years, the magical, laid-back feel of the place that had attracted Cohen still infuses the place. Today we are used to urban noise but the sounds of Ydra are of a quieter era: the clops of hooves, the trundle of a handcart, the sounds of human voices and the clack of backgammon pieces.
Oh, and it rarely rains. Rarely, but not never. One evening the sky darkened and an hour later the black clouds opened up for the first time in 10 months. Torrents of flood water swept down the streets to the sea. We managed to shelter in a little shop above the harbour and wait out the storm while three Greek fishermen serenaded us.
When we sailed back to the mainland a few days later and caught a last glimpse of Ydra diminishing into the distance, I remembered what Cohen had said about the place: There is nowhere in the world where you can live like you can live on Ydra, and that includes Ydra.