The Pirate Bar is an oddity, even for this column: a bar and restaurant themed in homage to a pirate, whom I consider to be generic, and Leonard Cohen. It is in Hydra, a three-hour boat ride from Piraeus, and Cohen’s home in the 1960s with his muse — this means unpaid female servant who also provides sex — Marianne Ihlen. He bought a house on the hill with an inheritance from his grandmother. Thus are famous hippies made — with inherited money.
Hydra is known as Leonard Cohen Island. The locals don’t mind living on Leonard Cohen Island. ‘Cohen?’ asked a native, as I loitered on the steps of his house on the hill. ‘He was my friend.’ The pharmacist was also his friend. He told me how they drank together, while I was buying Nicorette gum.
Hydra is not only famous for Leonard Cohen, of course; it was mentioned by Herodotus, was an important maritime power in the 18th century, and also hosted Princess Margaret. But that is presumably less interesting than being Leonard Cohen Island — for he was that strange thing, a sexy Jewish nerd running away from Montreal. It does happen.
In Hydra you remember how awful cars are, because it doesn’t have any. They are banned. Instead, a small fleet of donkeys stand on the quayside waiting to carry the shopping up the hills, should you lack a muse to do it for you. Cohen knew he was accepted in Hydra when the rubbish donkey — I mean the donkey that collected rubbish — called at his door. ‘It is like receiving the Legion of Honour,’ he said.
The Pirate Bar (formerly called O Peiratis) is a tourist café, in case anyone thought it could ever be anything else, which often hosted Cohen. It is a simple white two-storey house on the quayside, with shabby chairs under grey and white awnings to protect tourist heads. Inside there is a bar — an alcoholics’ bar, the best kind of bar. You could quietly drink yourself to death here. It has that kind of peace. They have written ‘The Pirate Bar’ on every conceivable surface. I like this. It is not redecorated to please passing billionaires who arrive by yacht. I like this too.
There is a lifesize, or perhaps three-quarter-sized, pirate inside. He is toothy and menacing. He looks like a pirate of Penzance. He has only one hand. There is a Leonard Cohen album with his signature on the wall, so faded as to seem ghostly — was he ever really here? — and a giant photo-graph of a tongue. There is also a photograph of part of Eric Clapton. It includes his guitar but misses out his head. I am not sure Eric Clapton should be here. This is Leonard Cohen Island. It is not Eric Clapton Island.
The food is merely adequate, presumably because you can’t complain about lazy food when you are on a boat back to Piraeus. The chips are generic, the chicken tastes somehow tense. The Greek salad, though, is fabulous, with lumps of cheese painted with olive oil and tomatoes tasting as they should; that is, ripe. English tomatoes are hellish. I do not know why we tolerate them.
If it were cynical, the Pirate Bar would become the Leonard Cohen Bar. It would play Leonard Cohen songs and serve toasties named after anxiety disorders. But it hasn’t done this, either because it thinks no one could eat while listening to Leonard Cohen, or because it is attached to the three-quarter-sized pirate with only one hand, and if the Pirate Bar became the Leonard Cohen Bar it would either have to get rid of it or disguise it as Leonard Cohen.
I think this would be impossible, and a donkey — or a muse — would have to carry it away.
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