Adventure & Experience | Island
Hydra: The Greek island that banned wheels
(Image credit: f8grapher/Getty Images)
A growing number of places around the world are looking to reduce reliance on cars. What lessons can be learned from a place that never allowed them in the first place?
On my final morning in Hydra, I woke up early and ambled down to the waterside to watch the weekly deliveries. Docked at the stone harbour walls was a barge that brings over islanders’ orders from the mainland. Patiently queuing to board the boat were several donkeys. Groups of three or four would climb aboard then return a few minutes later bearing household items, packages and even bags of cement in woven baskets strapped to their backs. The donkey drivers – all moustachioed island men – quickly led their charges away up alleys leading off the port and out of sight.
Hydra’s archaic reliance on donkeys for transport stems from a 1950s presidential decree that is intended to preserve the Greek island’s architecture and character. It includes a rule that wheeled vehicles – cars, motorbikes and even bicycles – cannot be used there. Since the town is built on steep, amphitheatre-like hills rising from its horseshoe-shaped harbour, donkeys are the only form of transport that can climb the steep steps and narrow alleyways up to many residents’ homes.
Municipalities around the world are currently looking at ways to reduce reliance on private cars, or even ban them from certain parts of a city altogether. Indeed, the London borough I live in has recently introduced a “low traffic neighbourhood”, a scheme that uses number-plate recognition cameras to restrict through-traffic so only residents can drive there. So, towards the end of an island-hopping holiday through the Greek islands, I was intrigued to see what a place that had never permitted cars was like.
Donkeys are the only method for transporting goods up town’s steep hills and alleys (Credit: Molly Dailide)
On first impressions, car-free island life felt idyllic. In towns on other Greek islands, I’d found myself regularly pressed up against walls on pavement-less roads to let mopeds buzz by. In Hydra, by contrast, I could wander around at my own pace, gawping at pink bougainvillea cascading down whitewashed walls, citrus and pomegranate trees in gardens and pretty squares framed by red pantile-roofed buildings.
Exceptions to the rule
Despite the presidential decree, visitors to the island may occasionally see a handful of vehicles, including a town rubbish truck. And while forbidden for adults, bicycles are allowed for children up to the age of 12 – but they can only be ridden in the winter months and not during the tourist-heavy summer.
It was also remarkably quiet; none of the screeching breaks or roaring engines typical of towns and cities elsewhere. Occasionally I heard a donkey honking or church bells clattering, but otherwise silence reigned.
The town also felt very human in scale. Walking up the maze of narrow streets and alleys to get a view over the harbour, I frequently saw groups of friends and neighbours greeting one another, …….