Islands for the art crowd

“We sat on the terrace under the starry sky and talked about poetry, we drank wine, we swam, we rode donkeys, we played chess — it was like life in a novel,”  the painter Niko Ghika wrote of life on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1930s.

When Ghika returned to Hydra in 1936, after living in Paris for almost 20 years, he set about restoring his ancestral home — a 40-room mansion built in the 18th century by his seafaring forebears. Ghika’s brilliant coterie soon followed: Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor, John Craxton, Cartier-Bresson, Walter Gropius, George Seferis, Henry Miller…

By the time Leonard Cohen arrived in 1960, a straggle of nomads with literary and artistic ambitions had settled on the island, forsaking electricity and running water for naked swims, boozy lunches, and creative freedom.

While Hydra still attracts the contemporary art elite, it is no longer affordable for most charismatic dropouts; but the nearby island of Aegina continues to quietly lure artists from Greece and beyond. Whereas Hydra’s paved alleys commemorate naval heroes, on Aegina the streets are named after the artists and writers who adopted this unassuming island only an hour from Athens: Nikos Kazantzakis, Yiannis Moralis, and other leading lights of the so-called ‘1930s generation’. Many of them discovered Aegina because of Nikos Nikolaou, a prolific painter and set designer, as well as a consummate host and inveterate bon viveur.

The charming seaside home on Aegina where Nikolaou spent most of his time from the mid-‘60s until his death in 1986 is now one of the loveliest guesthouses in Greece.