Monday, July 9, 2007

Hydra, Isle of (Ugly) Cats

Hydra is the most cosmopolitan of the Greek isles, so it says on the island's website. Cosmopolitan or not, it is certainly beautiful. Hydra town climbs from the harbor in a steep semi-circle of white stone buildings and terracotta roofs, punctuated by brilliant outgrowths of hot pink bougainvillea. The only engine-powered vehicles are the utility vehicles owned by the island government, which makes the island a peaceful pedestrian haven. The donkey "taxis" that wait to take your luggage to your hotel are charming, if aromatic - though the owners are fastidious about immediately scooping the piles their donkeys produce into canvas bags. The water is a crystal clear blue-green that's enticing even to a non-swimming aquaphobe.

Still, Hydra was a disappointment: the only dive shop, which is still advertised on the web and by local tourist agencies, had closed. For me this wasn't a problem, but for my partner diving is one of the reasons went to Hydra in the first place. It wasn't just this disappointment that set us against Hydra, though. Hotel and restaurant prices are inflated and the quality of the latter ranges from awful to just good. The highly touted shopping isn't any better than the shopping here in Parikia, Paros, a much less aggressively self-promoting port. The real problem was that Hydra town was claustrophobic and fly-ridden. The streets, which are more like paths with steps, are made of the same stone as the majority of the buildings, giving the effect of a single organism that bulges into hotels, restaurants, and shops like mushrooms protruding from a giant rhizome. All paths seem to force you down to the harbor, a destination whose charms are exhausted in a day. Vast numbers of flies make outdoor eating almost impossible. I suspect that the number of flies has to do with the presence of the donkeys (or more specifically, the donkey dung), which makes the whole experience distinctly unsavory. Also, the town is overrun with cats -- scrawny, mangy, scarred, rheumy-eyed cats. One was so ugly I called it the Nazgul cat, and I'm a thoroughly soft-hearted cat lover from way back. There is clearly no spaying or neutering going on and it seems that the size of the cat population exceeds the available resources. We had planned to stay five days, maybe seven -- we stayed only three, which was one too many for me.

If you go, don't avoid the donkey taxis. If you don't want the donkey experience, hire one of the human-powered two-wheeled carts.They charge 10 Euros per donkey for luggage or riders. They also cost 10 Euros. Just don't roll your suitcases to and from the hotel yourself. You'll make a hellish racket and probably ruin the wheels of your suitcase on the uneven stone pavement in the process.

The nicest man in Hydra runs a jewelry/clothing store called "21st Century" right on the harbor. I think his name is Lakis Christidis - that, at least, is the name on the store bags. He's a silversmith as well and has a sharp eye for unusual artist-made jewelry. His prices are fair and he is kind, helpful, and genuinely informative.

Next, Escape from Hydra, in which our protagonists overcome great obstacles in their attempt to travel from Hydra to Piraeus and then to Paros in one day.

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