The Greek island of Hydra, just a couple of hours from Athens by ferry, offers visitors a snapshot of the past. The island’s architecture must conform to the past, designed to preserve its heritage, so you’ll find no high-rise hotels or gaudy package tourism here.
Instead, the typical Captains’ mansions with high ceilings and marble floors rise over the picturesque harbour, tangible evidence of the island’s economic prosperity and maritime power during the late 18th century.
Streets are lined with boutique shops and tavernas, and the traditional stone-built houses preserve many local elements. Flourishing gardens surround smaller local homes, the ubiquitous bougainvillaea hangs from walls, and twisty alleyways culminate in squares surrounded by small tavernas.
Hydra has a preservation order in place which means no motor vehicles are allowed except the ambulance, fire and refuse trucks. Not even motorbikes are allowed on the island, so the locals transport household goods and building materials using donkeys and mules. As a result, Hydra has the largest herd of working equines in the world.
As there are no vehicles, there’s a certain energy on the island. People are more relaxed as there’s no ‘rush hour’. Animals are not as skittish, and the many cats will more than likely come for pets rather than run away.
Being away from the everyday stresses of traffic and noise pollution, with only the sounds of donkeys braying and cockerels crowing, helped me understand the peaceful energy that Hydra exudes.
As a transplant to Greece, I always love seeking out new places to explore and unique people to talk to. So, imagine my delight when I chanced upon a local iconographer in Hydra, who produces Byzantine-style artwork for some of the churches on the island.
The main religion in Greece is Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which originated from the churches founded by the Apostles in the Balkans and the Middle East during the first century CE. Many Greeks incorporate their religious beliefs into their daily lives, shaping their culture, lifestyle, communal spirit and festivities.
Despite fewer people attending church in recent times, there are thousands of Orthodox churches in Greece – you can always find one nearby – and the majority of these feature Byzantine art. This style of art developed under the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) in the 4-15th centuries CE, and the style remains prevalent throughout Greek Orthodox churches today.
Orthodox churches use religious icons to assist with prayer and worship. These icons are works of art, such as paintings, frescos and sacred images and are some of the best surviving examples of Byzantine art. Any contemporary icons in Orthodox churches are usually done in the same style. Common subjects of icons include images of Saints, Angels, Christ and Mary.
The order of icons in Orthodox churches across the country is always the same. In the nave, you’ll see an Iconostasion - a screen bearing icons - which separates the Sanctuary of many Eastern churches from the nave.
On the left, you’ll see an icon of Mary, and to her left is an icon of the Saint of the church. To the right is an icon of Jesus, followed by St. John, an important person in Greek Orthodoxy as he’s thought to have preceded Jesus, baptising him.
You can find Byzantine-style icons throughout Greek Orthodox churches – some magnificent pieces can be viewed in the Meteora Monasteries on the Greek mainland and in Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. And, of course, you can see them in the local churches on Hydra.
Along with the other historic buildings on the island, Hydra has approximately 300 churches, monasteries and chapels. Many of these are tiny, so there is only a handful in operation, with many of the churches only opening their doors on their Patron Saint’s Name Day.
Four of Hydra’s churches operate on a regular basis, and all of them commission Byzantine art, especially for their social centres. To learn more about this process and see some of these special works of art, I met with Nikolas Asproulis, an iconographer on Hydra Island. He trained at the Athens School of Fine Arts and has been commissioned to create these frescos for some of the island’s churches.
One of these churches is Agios Vavara (Saint Barbara) church, located just off of a cobbled side road near Hydra Port. The foundations of the church date back to 1798, and as you approach, you’ll see an attractive façade with a bell tower and stone entranceway leading into a beautifully tended garden courtyard.
It’s here I meet Nikolaos and his family as they show me first the social centre–the area where people gather after a Sunday service for coffee and where children come to learn about Orthodoxy – then, inside the church itself.
When creating work for the island’s churches, Nikolas uses a centuries-old technique.
“Beyond the fact that [Byzantine art] is intertwined with our tradition and faith, it is an art that lives in our hearts,” he explains.
“Too often now, we see the past slowly being erased. I believe in keeping it alive, so I am proud that I can contribute in this way.”
Inside both the centre and church are Nikolaos’s masterpieces. Being up close and personal with such intricate work fills you with wonder. There’s a mixture of ancient Byzantine frescos in Agia Vavara alongside Nikolaos’s more recent work.
Having witnessed Nikolaos’s work first-hand, he now took the time to explain to me how he undertakes such a process.
‘The frescos take me about a month,” he tells me when I express my wonder. His shy shrug cements my belief that he really does not understand the talent he possesses.
Nikolaos uses linden wood, prepared with organic glue, chantilla – 100% cotton, cheesecloth or solid cloth - and chalk dust to make the icons.
“Organic paints are prepared to give the icons their colours: egg tempera, vinegar and natural pigments,” he says.
“The paint brushes are made from animal hair - usually beaver - of different thicknesses, and the background is created using genuine 22-carat gold leaf.”
You don’t need to be particularly religious to respect the talent and patience that goes into this work. Having now taken the time to fully appreciate the painstaking process it takes to create this artwork, it is really quite an emotional experience to see such icons on display.
When you come to Hydra, be sure to visit any church to see the icons, especially now that you understand more about their process. Hydra is a small island and Ag. Vavara is the perfect place to see Nikolaos’s work on display.
How to get there
Dolphin ferry from Piraeus port: roughly 2 hours via Poros island
Sea Taxi from Varkitza in Athens to Hydra Port, Kamini, Vlychos, Plakes or Mandraki (all on Hydra): roughly 2 hours and up to 8 passengers
Sea Taxi from Ermioni in the Peloponnese to Hydra Port: roughly 25 minutes
Orloff Boutique Hotel in Hydra Town: an historic townhouse built in 1796 by Count Orloff of Russia offering double rooms and suites.
Small Guesthouses and Pensions: bookable through Hydra Direct
Omilos: just past the harbour heading out of town (walking distance) with unique seafood dishes, salads and prime meats. Excellent sunset views.
Sunset Cafe/Restaurant: past the harbour offering lunch, and dinner specialising in seafood and vegetarian dishes. Another good choice for sunset.
Spilia Bathing Platforms: below the Sunset cafe
Kamini: a pebble beach about a half-mile easy walk from the harbour with sunbeds
Last Updated 15 August 2023