Hallelujah: A Pilgrimage to Leonard Cohen's Former Home on Hydra

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Everybody knows the Canadian poet and singer‑songwriter lived in Greece in the 1960s. Our writer went to see where.

I’m in Athens visiting friends when I learn that legendary Canadian poet and singer‑songwriter Leonard Cohen once lived in Greece. As a fan, I decide I have to see exactly where for myself. Because the ferry schedule is literally Greek to me, I end up on a commercial cruise whose first stop is Hydra, the small island Cohen called home from 1960 to 1967, 60 kilometres south of Athens.

For Cohen, Hydra was a pre‑fame incubator: a place where he could write poetry, spend time with his girlfriend and muse Marianne Ihlen and play his music live for the first time at kafenion O Katsikas (now called Roloi Café). Although locals say tourism has changed the island’s spirit, an intimate vibe remains even as the population has grown to 2,500.

The cruise itinerary only allows for a 90‑minute visit, so the moment the boat docks, the clock starts counting down on my pilgrimage. I bolt to look for the house Cohen purchased with funds left to him by his grandmother, a quest that takes me up dusty staircases and between rows of orange‑roofed homes, weaving through the island’s legions of cats, sweat dripping down my back from the summer sun. Since most streets on Hydra aren’t named, I am guided by a few vague hints pulled from the Internet, including: “Locate the Four Corners grocery shop up on the hills. Turn right at the shop. Cohen’s home has an elaborate door knocker in the shape of a hand.”

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August 26, 2021
The harbour in Hydra, Greece with boats in the foreground and many buildings up a hill
Hydra, Greece   Photo: Mauricio Muñoz

By the time I spot the grocery, my ragged breathing is drowning out the cicadas singing on the hillside. Moments later I’m at his front door, knocker and all. This is where Cohen transformed into pop’s poet laureate and found a sense of belonging that some say he spent the rest of his life chasing. Somehow, just being on the island is giving me a deeper sense of his creative journey.

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The house is still owned by Cohen’s family; I don’t knock. Instead, I close my eyes, breathe deeply and mark my visit by leaving a loonie on the doorstep. Satisfied by my experience, I celebrate with a “Suzanne”‑inspired orange juice and slowly walk back down the hill to the harbour.