As the full length of Hydra stretches before you when you round the easternmost finger of the northern Peloponnese, your first reaction might not, in fact, be a joyful one. Gray, mountainous, and barren, Idra (to use its alternative spelling) has the gaunt look of a saintly figure in a Byzantine icon. But as the island's curved harbor—one of the most picturesque in all of Greece—comes into view, delight will no doubt take over. Because of the nearly round harbor, the town is visible only from a perpendicular angle, a quirk in the island's geography that often saved the island from attack, since passing ships completely missed the port. Although there are traces of an ancient settlement, the island was sparsely inhabited until the Ottoman period. Hydra took part in the Greek War of Independence, begun in 1821, and by the early 19th century the island had developed an impressive merchant fleet, creating a surge in wealth and exposing traders to foreign cultures. Their trade routes stretched from the mainland to Asia Minor and even America.
In the middle of the 20th century the island became a haven for artists and writers like Arthur Miller, Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, and the Norwegian novelist Axel Jensen. In the early 1960s, an Italian starlet named Sophia Loren emerged from Hydra's harbor waters in the Hollywood flick Boy on a Dolphin.
The site of an annex of Athens's Fine Arts School, Hydra has long been a favorite haunt of new and established artists. Now it takes center-ring status thanks to the arrival of world-famous contemporary art collector Dakis Ioannou. His exhibition arena called Project Space, set up at the island's former Slaughterhouse in 2009 by his Deste Foundation (www.deste.gr), has made Hydra a top magnet for today's chicest art crowds. Spotted in 2010: Brice Marden and Maurizio Cattelan, two of the hottest artists in the world. Every summer, their ilk is drawn to the opening night of the Slaughterhouse; last year, many modern art lovers flocked to the Project Space to catch a glimpse of Douglas Aitken’s multi-channel video work, “Black Space,” which starred Chloë Sevigny in a performance dazzlingly refreshed by a breeze of Hydriot air.
In addition, there are many avant-garde art exhibitions in summer venues around the island, ranging from the town’s Schools—where curator Dimitris Antonitsis organizes his annual collaborative “Hydra School Projects”—to the Melina Mercouri exhibition space right by Hydra’s harbor (opposite the hydrofoil dock). Another main attraction is the Hydra Workshop, a waterfront art space created out of a mansion once owned by the Bulgari family, which puts together an annual exhibit inspired by the collection of London-based art patron Pauline Karpidas.