Although now receiving international visitors due to its Blue Zones rep, the quirky island remains untouched and delightfully individual
In 2012, the year that naysayers (and the Mayans) predicted the world would come to an end, a new chapter began for Ikaria, (known in Greek mythology as the land onto which Icarus landed when he flew too close to the sun), after American scientist Dan Buettner wrote a feature titled âWhere People Forget To Dieâ for The New York Times. In his revelatory piece, Buettner expounded on his findings about the longevity and sturdy health of Ikariaâs inhabitants, naming the island one of the worldâs four Blue Zones, geographical areas where the ordinary health practices of residents led to scientifically provable consequences (Nicoya in Costa Rica, Okinawa in Japan and Sardinia in Italy were the other regions). Since then, Ikaria has hardly changed, but its reputation has reached a global dimension. From Florida pensioners to Beijing physicians, the island is now on the bucket list of health explorers of all varieties who long to drink from the northern Aegean islandâs somewhat elusive fountain of youth. Meanwhile, in very recent years a modern holistic wellness scene has begun to blossom on the island, with yoga, energy therapies and creative workshops drawing a new kind of visitor. Crisis-hit like the rest of Greece but never yet desperate for touristic action, locals react to all the attention with mixed feelings, some actually believing that it has jinxed the island.
Located between Chios and Mykonos and completely different from either on all fronts, Ikaria was known as the âRed Rockâ during the Greek Civil War, when it became home to some 13,000 communist exiles, among them many prodigious writers, composers and thinkers. The political exiles are said to have influenced islanders by generating a substantial degree of creative expression and a profound intellectual outlook, and probably by consequence, from the late â70s on Ikaria became hip among anarchists, bohemians and artists. Although its people are known for their warmth, good humour and generosity, Ikaria has been the kind of island Jackie Oâ would be photographed on âit has never been touristic or obliging to the ways of others to the extent of changing its inherent ways, as it has a very distinct character both in terms of its dramatically rugged, lush landscape, in parts dotted with giant Neolithic-style rocks, and in the very way its inhabitants live, continuing customary rites for generation upon generation.
The Ikarian lifestyle is a simple, unassuming and personally gratifying one, based on daily hard work such as tending the land (the majority of households island-wide have their own organic food garden) and animals, mainly free range (âraskoâ) goats, and maintaining a strong community bond. The islandâs notoriously kefi-drenched Panygiria, festivals dedicated to the village saint, during which locals eat and dance the day or night away and then pragmatically use the proceeds for building, mending or maintaining village infrastructure, take place almost daily from May to October. These events, which are seen as a show of Ikarianâs wild character, actually reflect a meaningful tradition that spans back centuries, chiefly as a means of keeping family and neighbourly ties strong. With the arrival of so many foreign visitors during the last decade especially, some locals protest that their Panygiria have become something of a tourist attraction rather than the intimate event that they were, but they are very welcoming to visitors nonetheless.
Apart from a diet based on pure, organic, high-quality produce â the wine, honey, olive oil, free-range goatâs milk, meat and cheeses, vegetables and fruit, the highly oxygenated air of pine forests and ozonic air of seaside life, the numerous mineral hot springs on the southeast part of the island that are rich in radion and have drawn health fans since antiquity, Ikarians also have their own sense of time and space. They absolutely do not kowtow to the pressured time restraints of the anxiety-ridden, hurried âmodern worldâ and in some villages, like Christos, in Raches, shops open when shop owners have wrapped up their daily chores – in the evening, which is exactly when locals fill up the village square to relax over food, drinks and backgammon and a spot of shopping.
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