Saturday, July 16, 2011

Notes from Hydra. 1.

The trip to Hydra from Athens is two hours by fastboat. Stephanos, the housekeeper, is waiting for us when we arrive at the port. His skin — tanned the color of sunned wood — suggests he's lived here all his life. Immediately, we begin our walk towards Kiaffa Cottage — rolling our suitcases on hundreds-year-old cobblestones and past rows of cute, saddled donkeys (four-legged taxis that are the only mode of transportation on the island besides foot, bicycle or garbage truck) that doze standing-up in the 100-degree heat.

The island of Hydra emerges like a battered rock in the sea. And the terrain rises fast. For 20 minutes we climb up, up, up hundreds of winding, steep and narrow stony stairs with curves that reveal more and more white-plastered houses, shaded by vines that look like gnarled green lace, topped with identical red-tile-roofs. Brightly colored doors and windows pop from the white surfaces like Tempera paint on blank canvas.

The walk to Kiaffa Cottage shouldn't be long, but the shortcut is too steep with our suitcases in tow. Ten minutes in, Stephanos stops to buy bottled water (the water here is undrinkable and, according to Tom, it tastes like licking a rock). Already, we drip with mid-day sweat.

Stephanos, it turns out, was born in Bulgaria. He's lived here for 10 years. He doesn't speak English. Greek, Bulgarian, Russian and German are enough. He is a painter and sells pictures in a small shop by the port from 9 in the morning till 2 p.m. His sweat-stained safari hat and ruggedness remind us of our equally sweaty and safari hatted friend from Columbia. And we continue to follow him, past the grocer and past more white buildings. One is punctuated by an elegant pair of evergreen doors (leading to who knows where). We wonder how we will ever find our way back to town. "You cannot get lost here," Stephanos tells us. "Just walk down. Or walk up."

The outside of the cottage is unassuming. Just another white-plaster wall with a door. Stephanos unlocks the entrance, whose plain front is adorned only with a heavy, metal knocker that looks both menacing and cherubic. We walk into what I can only describe as a hybrid open-air foyer and front porch. Like the outside of the house, it is also painted white. There is an outdoor sofa built into one side, and the bare walls climb high. We can hear the donkeys that clatter up and down the cobbled stairs outside, but we don't see them (Nor they us).

In the ceiling-less entrance, a set of white stairs leads up to the roof, where there is room for another built-in bench and a canvas hammock-chair. Since arriving, I have tried to avoid phrases such as "breathtaking" or "speechless," but from the rooftop, with the Greek sun burning our backs, we are stunned by the view: a sea any painter would love to capture that meets boats and rock beaches. And the port that rises fast, from the umbrella'd restaurants below, to white houses built into the rocky island like haphazardly stacked porcelain teacups.

The inside of the cottage is exactly what you'd expect the wedding guests of Mama Mia to retire to after a long afternoon of hanging with Meryl. The 300-year old cottage is completely renovated, but vignettes of tactfully exposed stones and weathered rafters afford it an unavoidable charm and beauty. A wardrobe in the study (like all of the rooms, it is painted white, white white) opens up to an enviable record collection and player. A guitar and a mandolin lie dormant in the corners. The frenetic, caffeinated chirp of cicadas plays on repeat all morning and night. Their thousands of voices scatter about before sunset, but by 9 p.m. they sing that long, all-familiar locust-song in unison.

And there is a trapdoor. Open it up to reveal stairs that lead to an expansive lower level. The tile floor and dim light grants cool relief from days that reach 95 degrees by 8 a.m. The fireplace fills a large corner and elicits daydreams of returning in winter. Beneath the cicada song, we can almost hear the crackling, burning wood.

There is no air conditioning, but throughout the cottage, fans circulate the ancient, sea-breezed air. We sweat freely, happily.

Stephanos told us to close the doors and unscreened windows at night: "The cats might scare you." We follow his advice, and when we wake the next morning to the distant cock-a-doodle of roosters, we discover five felines who've nested into the outdoor couch. Tom mews to them, and they scramble to a secret cat-hole in the corner — away from us and into the shade.


Sam Cooke on the record player

Saw, among other things:

Cloudless sunset

Ate, among other things:

Grilled octopus

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