This quirky island, snug in the wine-dark northern Aegean Sea, came alive with tantalizing tales my grandmother spun when I was young. The narratives, some real, others not so much, were a balm.
On school nights, they kept me up past my bedtime. Colorful characterizations of pirates and poverty; of mineral springs said to heal arthritis; and tales about Costa, a goat who wreaked havoc in her native village. Ikaria, I learned then, was also the birthplace of a humble dish called soufiko — a cocktail of fresh veggies crafted by cooks expert in the art of farm-to-table dining.
Wedded to the mantra that money is always better spent on rich experiences than on PlayStation 4, I traveled to Ikaria last summer for a two-week pilgrimage to explore my roots. As the plane circled the island's small airport, my wife pondered my Hellenic back story.
"It's amazing," she said, "that all four of your grandparents were born here on this forgotten land. Did any of them know each other as children?"
I explained that each of them was born in different villages. Then there was the reality that the craggy mountains along the spine of the island promoted xenophobia — the fear of strangers. Island culture dictated that unless you were born and raised in the same town, among their pigs and olive groves, you were an outsider. Once in America, the Greek immigrants stuck together. When my relatives grabbed jobs washing dishes in their uncle's coffee shop in Highlandtown, they met other Ikarians.
The cab ride from the airport introduced us to the Atheras Mountains, towering peaks covered with ancient growths of oak and pines. With one heart-stopping turn after another, something resonated: I sprang from roots that formed a microculture, a lifestyle built around hardy forebears on a slip of land 30 miles from Turkey.
While Ikarians are proud of their stubbornly independent streak — the 8,000 or so residents are famously Ikarians first, Greeks second — nature has smiled on this unforgiving land. The ruling class in Athens, they say, is too absorbed fending off civil unrest in the streets to worry about what happens on their small island.
But recently Ikaria has been having its close-up. Reporters and scientists have swooped down on this isle that has existed only in the abstract hollows of my mind to find the answer to a question: Why are so many of its residents living to 98, even 103?
'We don't worry'
We booked a room in Armenistis, on the northwest side. The hamlet, particularly in the summer, is a beehive of activity. Like many Ikarian towns, it has at least a handful of intimate bars that cater to weekenders from the mainland.
One of the most popular is the Carte Postal, a cafe-bar with a hip vibe. On a breezy Saturday evening, my cousin, Viviane Kratsa Glarou, was dancing through the busy kitchen, making sure there were enough clean dishes and glasses.
Pausing, the former college professor said, "Life is very small, very short. Life is not stressful. And if it is stressful, then it's in your head." The Ikarian approach in a broken world is one that she embraces: "Having friends, meeting with people of all ages, so it won't make you feel old. I am a proud Ikarian!"
Ask any islander about the longevity issue, and the consensus is that there's something in the soil. Perhaps it is a chemical compound that doesn't appear elsewhere. They'll also emphasize their points by poking your chest with an index finger.
"We walk everywhere," one old man said, balancing himself on a cane. "We don't worry. No one wears a watch." The key to survival, he said, is the premium placed on being with others — a diet of social engagements — not the artifice of social media.
One evening, after a repast of succulent baked goat and soufiko, we visited Kostas Moulas, a cousin. Like Glarou, he's an example of how Ikarians tether themselves to the seasons.
Standing like a giant teddy bear in blue overalls, he stuffed my backpack with lemons and figs. Hopelessly nosy, I asked about his marital status.
"I sent her to the mountains with the goats," he said with a shrug, pointing up. "She's like … my sister."
Festivals and friends
Birthdays, said Sophia Stenos, the manager at our hotel, are ignored in Greece, replaced by Name Days, which commemorate patron saints. In these hill towns, that means if your name is John or Maria, maybe, and it's your saint's turn to be honored, you'll have to brace yourself for an onslaught of visitors.
This begins early in the morning and continues for 24 hours. Hosts set out the appetizers, or mezze. You sip island wine. You gossip. And you know you will meet up again at one of the island's regularly scheduled festivals, called panigiria.
Here, "you don't freak out worrying about the time," Stenos said. "If you say you'll meet at 5 and you end up coming at 5:30, it's only half an hour later. Nothing's going to change in your life."
Then there's Thea Parikos, who runs a cozy inn and restaurant in Nas, on the north shore. We spent an afternoon with her, luxuriating on a bluff overlooking the sea. It would be hard, she confessed, to retreat to her hometown of Detroit.
Under hanging grapes, Parikos said she grew weary of the American way and, after receiving the blessing of her parents, fled to Ikaria. Her husband, Elias, an island-born farmer, grows and supplies all the meat, produce and wine for her customers. Within sight of a pan of fresh figs drying in the afternoon sun, Parikos dished her thoughts on why so many islanders live so long.
"I'm not a scientist," she began. "I think it's a combination of things. Some will tell you it's the fresh air here, because God knows we don't have a lack of wind. When you live here and you go to Athens, the air tastes foul there. We're also isolated; there's not a lot of access to health care. It's survival of the fittest."
The guests at her five-room inn have the option of being kept busy with a menu of activities designed to bring them closer to the rhythms of Ikarian life. They can learn to milk a cow and to make cheese; they can hike and find wild herbs; they can pluck grapes for winemaking and see a close-up demonstration of how the storied strand of island honey is made.
Parikos swoons over Ikaria's signature dish, soufiko. "In the Ikarian dialect, she said, it means "I left you something." That something, she said, includes ingredients like onions, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes and olive oil. "Soufiko is what we have available from the old days, and we continue doing it," she said. "I find what's abundantly in season."
Village of Glaredes
After braving the bus ride across the island on roads protected by knee-high guardrails, we arrived in one piece at the village of Glaredes — "seagull" in Greek, from which my surname evolved. It's a rugged climb from Ikaria's capital, Agios Kyrikos. A low-key affair, Glaredes offers a path that connects to the Chapel of the Prophet Elijah. There's also the Cave of the Novice. I thought about my late uncle, a priest who lived, partied and preached here. Oh, the stories he took with him!
In her car on the way back to our hotel, Parikos said that moving to such an isolated spot near the border separating Europe from Asia was revelatory. There is still no full-service hospital, and the island is in desperate need of a doctor.
"Coming here taught me," Parikos said. "I've learned that I don't need a lot of stuff. I can go without and still be happy."
On our final day, we bid farewell to the newfound friends and relatives and slid into a cab for the hourlong ride to the airport.
"Why are you in such a hurry to leave?" the driver inquired, navigating the roads circling the peaks, one finger on the wheel, with the greatest of ease. It was on the Feast of the Dormition of Our Most Holy Lady. "This is almost as holy as Easter. The whole village will be drinking, eating, dancing all night."
As our plane eased through the Mediterranean sky, I felt a pang of guilt over my departure. But that quickly faded as I meditated on how my visit to this ancient stronghold allowed me the chance to peer inside the misty portals of my family's past. There was no better souvenir.
Tony Glaros is a freelance writer based in Howard County.
If you go
Ikaria is part of the northeastern Aegean Islands and is located 130 miles east of Athens. You can get there from Athens by ferry or plane. The ferries serving Ikaria typically take at least seven hours, depending on the boat, weather, and intermediary ports. It is much faster and easier to fly from Athens International Airport via Olympic Air (35 minutes). In the summer, the flights are daily and the cost is about $200 round trip. Off-season schedules are not as frequent.
Maneuvering a vehicle on the narrow roads and mountain bends can be daunting, but the best way to get around and see Ikaria is to rent a jeep, car or motorbike and drive on the beautiful coastal and mountain roads at your leisure. During the summer season, scheduled daily bus service connects the capital, Agios Kyrikos, with the airport and other villages. For planned excursions, it's best to call to reserve a taxi ahead of time.
Erofili Beach Hotel. One of the prettiest places to stay in Armenistis, with a great location above a huge sweep of white sandy beach. All rooms have balconies with good views and air conditioning. There are plenty of cafes, bars and restaurants within walking distance. Erofili also offers a home-cooked breakfast (included), indoor and outdoor pools, spa and massage therapy. From about $150 per night in summer. Go to erofili.gr.
Thea's Inn. This family-run inn, located in the village of Nas, has five en-suite rooms, each with their own terrace, refrigerator, free Wi-Fi, private bath, TV and a balcony with views of the sea, sunset and a sky full of stars at night. Go to theasinn.com
Hotel Atheras. The friendly and modern Atheras has an almost Cycladic feel, with its bright white decor constrasting with the blue Aegean beyond. There's an outdoor bar by the pool, and the hotel is in the backstreets, 200 yards from the port of Evdilos. Go to http://www.atheras-kerame.gr
Atsachas. The restaurant, part of Atsachas Hotel overlooking a beach in Armenistis, uses fresh, local ingredients for traditional Greek cuisine with an Ikarian touch. It was suggested as one of the 100 Best Places to Eat in the Greek islands by the Alpha Guide. The chef will prepare dishes such as zucchini pie, stuffed tomatoes and onions, mousaka, lamb roasted with potatoes, zucchini or meat balls, and fish soup. Beverages include local Ikarian wine. Go to atsachas.gr.
Anna. A scenic restaurant high above the white pebbly cove at Nas serves fish, grilled meats and oven-cooked dishes, as well as desserts, snacks and local wine.
Thea's Restaurant. Part of Thea's Inn, this restaurant serves organic vegetables and fruits that the owners grow in their garden. Everything — from the meat and fish to the wine — is fresh and local. Tourist and local residents alike come here for both lunch and dinner.
Beaches. The island offers an excellent diversity of beaches, from remote sandy beaches to cosmopolitan resorts that include facilites and amenities. Ikaria's most popular sandy beaches are mostly located on the north side of the island. On the south side there are less crowded sand and rock/pebble beaches.
Panagiria (Feast Days). Ikaria is famous throughout the Greek islands for the traditional feasts that celebrate the saints' name days and other religious holidays. Especially during the summer, people come to Ikaria from far and wide to take part in the celebrations. Panagiria typically start in the early afternoon and go on until the next morning, and the most popular fests can attract more than 1,000 people. Go to island-ikaria.com
Archeological sites. Ikaria's archeological sites are free and open to the public. They cover several periods in Hellenic history, including Byzantine, Roman, Classical, and Hellenistic. Check out the Drakano Fortress, which dates back to the time of Alexander the Great in 4th century B.C. About 30 minutes of hiking is necessary to reach the watchtower from the port village of Faros. An ancient theater, the Byzantine Odeon, is located at the village of Kampos in the northern part of the island. It is on the ancient site of Oenoe, known to be one of the most fertile places on the island and the wealthy ancient capital of Ikaria. Oenoe was a prosperous city known throughout the ancient world for its viticulture. The Byzantine or Roman Odeon, literally translating into "small theatre," was built in the first century.