Leonard Cohen’s Greek Hideaway by James Robertson
In the year of 1960, Leonard Cohen bought an old, white-washed house on the Greek island of Hydra. You know him. The guy who first sang Hallelujah, before everyone else did. He accomplished a lot more than just that song though. He was a poet, a novelist and a singer who’s devastatingly exquisite delivery could reach into the very depths of your heart. His death in 2016 was equally devastating for his fans and music-lovers across the world. This made visiting the obscure place where he once called home even more poignant. His presence hadn’t quite left this world yet. Especially not on Hydra.
Docking at the picturesque waterfront, my travelling buddy, Jorge, and I hopped out of the boat which had transported us here from Athens and, dragging our luggage along the cobbled street, made our way to our hotel. It was a small, white-slapped building, topped with beautifully a curved tiling jutting out from the roof. We were greeted with the typical Greek hospitality we’d become accustomed to on our travels. Considering my friend Jorge was an Australian of Greek descent with some understanding of the language and a few phrases under his belt, we were welcomed amiably by the hotel owner who conversed with Jorge as much as his language skills could stretch.
Opening the thin curtains that barred the entrance to our small balcony, we came to overlook the alleyway below us where a donkey was led down by its owner as the front menus were set up by the entrance of a quaint restaurant. Above tanned-brown roof-tops dotted the township until they dissipated with the rise of the craggy mountain range that surrounded on every side. Tussles of green vines and blossoming purple flowers seeped from the sides of other balconies, wrapping themselves around the corners of baby blue shutters that wavered in the cool breeze of the Aegean Sea. We couldn’t quite believe this was the view from our modest apartment.
We walked along the miniature harbour, its shore lined with boats docked to sway. Donkeys with saddles hunched on their backs stood obediently in rows, awaiting a rider. Do we dare pat one?
As we wanted to refresh ourselves in the sea before the day was done, Jorge and I ventured out of the township of Hydra to explore the surrounding settlements that hugged the side of the island. Wedged between steep slopes and the drop down to the craggy ocean below were situated dozens of twee abodes. Everywhere we looked, people were scarce to none. Instead we got cats. Dozens of them lazed about the roads, slumped across the pathways or hung in trees above our heads. They were the true inhabitants of Hydra.
Beside the man-made pathway that cut along the clifftops was a collection of books lined across a bench. Weathered by the elements, each one sat neatly apart from each other. Waiting to be picked up. I couldn’t read at a bench like that. The view would be too distracting.
A smattering of tourists like us had congregated at one of the only accessible beaches close to the township. We descended some arrow steps to set foot on the pebbled inlet, quietly lapped upon by the clear waters. The setting sun electrified the multi-coloured pebbles with hues of yellow, tinging the surface of the water with a radiant glow. Stripping to our shorts and submerging ourselves in it felt like the first bath in a decade of drought.
The cool night was descending on Hydra, spots of light dotting through window panes. The breeze stayed warm despite the disappearance of the sun. A dull crimson glow lined the edge of the horizon, propping up on the mount tops of the other islands in the distance.
The next day we set out to find Leonard Cohen’s old home. With the morning sun beating down on our heads, protected only by our caps, Jorge and I scaled the many winding stairwells and passageways of the meandering streets of the township. We found ourselves gradually ascending higher the further we pushed into the packed urban area. At a mustard-yellow building that gazed out onto the dinky harbour, we asked for directions which sent us further down the rabbit hole.
Thinking we were almost lost, we finally stumbled upon a street sign plastered dark blue against the side of a chalk-white house. Sandwiched by two lines of Greek text was the name “Leonard Cohen”. He had a street named after him! The closed door adjacent to the sign was adorned with an elaborate, bronze knocker. Formed in the shape of a hand grasping a ball, it was clamped down by two stars on either end. I could tell it was Leonard Cohen’s house. They were both the Star of David. In this very building he had penned songs such as “Suzanne” and “So Long, Marianne.” I could almost feel the music permeate the walls.
We decided to explore the other end of the island leading out from the township, where Hydra’s only sand beach was. Seeing an inlet that wasn’t inundated with pebbles was a welcome change. We drank in the view of numerous boats bobbing silently as we helped ourselves to some tzatziki, washing it down with inexpensive Greek beer.
After filling our bellies we attempted to walk past the sand beach to see how far we could go before turning back. The whole island was designed to keep automobile transport to a minimum, as the only cars that were used were for transport of food and to assist in emergencies. So the only others we shared the roads with were sun-drenched tourists like us who didn’t know the possible extremity of the heat, and donkeys. But once we walked past the ruins of an old fortification jutting out from a bend, the capability for even a donkey to traverse the path would have been minimal. Jorge and I truly felt cut off now. There was no sight of any boats on the waters or perhaps another little cottage nestled into the escarpment. In a moment we’d been sent to a desert island, with only ourselves for company. This path was probably unchanged for centuries, maybe even thousands of years. The very few ancient Greeks who would have called this island home wouldn’t even have made it this far, only if they really needed to. Did Leonard Cohen ever get so curious?
That night we endeavoured to utilise one of Hydra’s few forms of practical entertainment; the Hydra Cinema Club’s open-air movie theatre. Why did that name sound so familiar, I wondered. Anyway, we were quick to assure that the film showing, 1965’s British drama “Darling”, was in fact in our own native tongue. It seemed so odd, watching a black and white film about the aristocracy of mid-20th century London when we had just been partaking in the finest of Mediterranean leisure, but it was in enrapturing all the same.
Afterwards we ate our own make of Greek salad on the rooftop terrace of our hotel, rewarding us with 360 degree views of the surrounding houses and mountain range. Staring off at the lights that glittered at the waterfront, I suddenly remembered why the Hydra Cinema Club had sounded so familiar. The bench we had walked past, the one that was adorned with a plethora of books to take and read, had a plaque installed on its side. “Dedicated to Leonard Cohen,” it read. The bench had been erected by the Hydra Cinema Club, in honour of their most famous inhabitant.
Underneath his emboldened name, it read; “He came so far for beauty…”
Standing on that rooftop in Hydra, I believe we had too.