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Leonard Cohen’s Home in Hydra

Greece is a good place

to look at the moon, isn’t it?

You can read by moonlight

You can read on the terrace

You can see a face

As you saw it when you were young

This is an excerpt from a poem of Leonard Cohen, one of the most inspiring singer-songwriters of his generation. Did you know that his inspiration came from Greece? Hydra was the musician and poet’s home in his 20’s, which were some of his most productive years of writing. Many places in Hydra still are impacted by Cohen, even now that its popularity has grown. Cohen is a source of pride for the local residents, much like the other internationally famous creatives and artists who lived on Hydra.

Hydra Island, Greece

Where is Hydra?

Hydra is a tiny island in the Argosaronikos, not far from Athens. All it takes is a short boat from Athens’s port to arrive here. Like some of the neighboring islands in the Sporades (Skiathos, Skopelos, and Alonisos), it does not allow cars. Transportation is primarily by donkey. As a result, the island has retained its charm, and does not suffer from the noise pollution of nearby isles.

 

UNESCO has voted Hydra as the “BEST PRESERVED ISLAND OF THE MEDITERRANEAN” because of its efforts to preserve both its buildings, its heritage, and its nature. Hydra town looks like a painting when you approach by boat. The typical Hydrian mansions are a testament to the island’s prosperity from the 18th and 19th centuries. The mansions were built to be impressively large but with simple exteriors.

Hydra Island

How Did Leonard Cohen Come to Hydra?

Cohen grew up in Montreal, Canada, and his first trip outside of North America came with a Canadian Arts Grant. He wrote in Hampstead, England during this time. In April of 1960, it was very rainy in Hampstead, and he met the wife of Greek artist Nikos Ghika at a party, who told Cohen about the island of Hydra. She told him about a beautiful island that was ideal for writers and artists like Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller, Cyril Connolly, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and of course her husband Nikos.

Where Did Leonard Cohen Spend Time in Hydra?

By the port of Hydra, you can find a few spots that used to be popular places for Cohen to sit and drink coffee. Among them is Rolo Cafe, which used to be known as “O Katsikas”. Cohen and other artists used to hang out here, and it’s where his first concert happened. Cohen played his guitar and a few friends hung out in the back of the shop. 

 

In the port, where there are no street names, you will find the Pirate Bar, one of Cohen’s favorite spots to stop for an ouzo. Cohen and his friends used to sit at “O Peiratis” and discuss philosophy and writing. 

Leonard Cohen’s House in Hydra

Cohen describes buying the house in Hydra as the smartest decision he ever made. He bought it in 1960 for $1,500. It was an ancient whitewashed building, with five rooms and no electricity or plumbing. But for him, it was very important to have a private space to work. His music room was on the third floor. Over the years, Cohen gradually worked on the house and turned it into a mansion where he could host his fellow artists and writers. 

 

Leonard Cohen’s Daily Routine on Hydra

Cohen writes about his daily routine on Hydra in a letter to his mother. In his words: “I get up at 7:30 every morning and work for 3 hours. Then I go down to the port for a breakfast of milk and bread and honey. This is famous honey; the ancient poets sang about it . . . I sun for a few hours, then lunch on artichokes, cheese and roe and then the whole island goes to sleep for a few hours, I work for another two hours after siesta and then I wander down to the port & talk and watch the fishermen repair their nets and learn Greek. All in all, life is orderly and sweet.”

Leonard Cohen’s Career in Hydra

On Hydra, Cohen met the love of his life, the Norwegian woman Marianne Ihlen. She was the woman he wrote about in one of his first masterpieces, “So Long, Marianne.” Cohen was also inspired to write the song “Bird on the Wire” by the birds that lined up on Hydra’s first telephone wires in the 1960s. 

 

On Hydra, Cohen wrote his two first books: The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966). The island of Hydra is also where he wrote his first two musical albums. “Songs of Leonard Cohen” (1967) and “Songs from a Room” (1969) were popular and created a name for the young Canadian in the music industry.

Hydra Changes

Since the 1980s, Hydra became more popular among tourists, and has lost some of its bohemian charm for young writers. In the high season in summer, it can feel like a glamorous island. The winter is a better time for creatives, and thankfully there are no cars allowed, which helps preserve a more relaxed Hydra that moves slowly.

Leonard Cohen Leaves Hydra

Cohen left Hydra and spent the rest of his life in colonies. He tried to join groups of Scientology and Hare Krishna, he spent six years at the Mount Baldy Zen Budhism centre, and he lived in Mumbai for one year to do daily satsangs. But he was quoted after this search saying, “Religion, teachers, women, drugs, the road, fame, money, nothing gets me high and offers relief from the suffering like blackening pages, writing.” 


And it was this writing which he learned to do while on Hydra. Another great poet, Kenneth Koch, also present in the summer of 1960 with Cohen, said: “Once you’ve lived on Hydra you can’t live anywhere else, including Hydra.”

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