Hydra is the picture postcard many of us have in mind of the quintessential Aegean island. Topped by terracotta tiled roofs, squat stone houses clamber up towards the natural springs for which the place is named, on hillsides overlooking perfect blue coves, their white walls the backdrop for shocks of bougainvillea the colours of an Instagram sunset.
It’s not just Hydra’s visuals that stun though. It’s the quality of the silence, for here there are no cars.
1. Like a call from the past
Silence is the wrong word. Horses clop on cobblestones. Donkeys honk and wail and the sound resounds from ancient Orthodox monastery walls like a call to prayer from the past. Hooves thunder and pad across sandy beaches, where tourists ride next to imaginary counterparts among the waves.
Locals ride too, because, here on Hydra, our hooved friends are, after all, a mode of transport and labour, not just a leisure activity. The island has the world’s largest herd of working mules. But why?
Motorized vehicles (except fire and refuse trucks and ambulances), indeed all wheeled vehicles including bicycles, have been banned since a presidential decree in the 1950s was put in place and enshrined in local legislation to safeguard the island’s character and architecture as a Preserved National Monument.
2. The problems of waste and accessibility
It worked. The island has taken many hearts, especially those of artists and creatives like Sofia Loren, Henry Miller, and Leonard Cohen, who wrote the song Bird on a Wire there.
Like Cohen’s bird then, Hydra has “tried in a way to be free.” Sometimes it is a struggle and the 3,000 islanders’ experience can teach us much, especially now that so many of us want to reduce our reliance on motorised vehicles. How to manage cumbersome waste? How to ensure the isolated and the ill have dignified access to facilities they need?
4. Wildfires and climate change
Other risks must also be considered. Wildfires lick and race through the Greek landscape every summer, and they are worsening with climate change. As Hydra’s winding roads are not always adapted for motorised transport and vanish into dusty tracks and paths, emergency vehicles have to be backed up by fire planes and locals with manual solutions.
5. Embracing inconvenience
Reminding us how the world can look and sound and feel without cars is for now part of Hydra’s charm – and USP. Voted the best Greek island by National Geographic Traveler in 2007, it’s a place that has led the way in showing how tourist destinations can actually benefit from something that at first seems like an inconvenience; preferably something others can admire but not quite emulate. Hydra has its own circumstances: it’s a particular time capsule, popular, in a way, because of its proximity and juxtaposition with busy, polluted, chaotic Athens.
The rest of us are never going to return to an 18th century caricature. Freeing ourselves from the shackles of cars will involve enjoying electric transport, as well as shared and personal mobility options not available to the islanders. More of us using our cars less, and finding other ways to embrace sustainability, will not therefore threaten Hydra’s special status. On the contrary, these are acts that might help slow climate change and preserve Hydra – and life on Earth – for a little longer.