My reason for visiting Ikaria was a longing to experience one of its famous panigyria (feast days) after two years of pandemic restrictions, but once I arrived it was the island’s other charms that won me over. The first was the natural beauty, a special combination of wild relief and rampant vegetation, which is unique in Greece. “A small continent” is how the island is described by Angelos Kalokairinos, a member of the Mountaineering Club of Ikaria. He explains the richness and variety of its landscapes with the fact that it sits right on the edge of the Asian tectonic plate, but also to the geological upheaval caused by the eruption of a large volcano on its southern edge, millions of years ago.
You experience this almost exotic beauty when you set your eyes on landscapes like Lefkada beach, a few kilometers west of Aghios Kirikos. The dirt track which descends from the main road gets you to the beach fast – and from then on you just need to balance on the large pebbles. After about a ten-minute walk to the right, steam rises from the sea and there is a smell of sulphur in the air from the natural hot springs which wash into the sea. The couple enjoying a soak stop me from jumping right in, explaining that the water right in front of me is scalding hot. They show me how to slip in, stepping onto a specific rock, and avoiding the limpets and the slippery surfaces. Ikaria’s beauty comes at a price.
I walk carefully, and as I sink gently into the warm water the sea feels like a warm hug. Soaking in the hot springs, I admire the impressive rocky hillcrest and get to know my fellow bathers: a Greek-American, an English woman and two Australians. We get to chatting and the conversation soon turns to the subject of “blue zones” – those special places around the globe known for the longevity of their inhabitants. This is the reason which drew them all to Ikaria.
The ”blue zone” and Pramnian wine
Foreign visitors are inducted into the secretes of the “blue zone” at the Karimalis winery in Pigi, a few kilometers west of Evdilos. Located on a green slope facing the sea, the terraces on which the vines are planted resemble the seating rows in an ancient theatre. In these surrounds, Eleni Karimali offers lessons in Ikarian cooking, using techniques such as slow cooking, the use of sourdough starters, and the addition of olive oil at the end. As I follow her to place the clay pot with the gigantes (giant butter beans) in the wood oven, we pass her daughter Iliana, who is guiding a group of visitors around the winery. We walk together through the vines as the sun prepares to set, and she talks us through the features of local varieties, like Fokiano, Begleri and Kountouro. Fokiano is used to make the famous Pramnian wine, which has been synonymous with Ikaria since Homer’s time.
Our stroll continues to the estate’s stone olive press, which is believed to be close to 1,200 years old, and concludes at the restaurant. Here, overlooking the vineyard and the sea, we taste delicious homemade dishes, such as caramelized gigantes, a pie of seasonal greens and soufiko, a vegetable bake which is the Ikariot twist on a dish known elsewhere as briam. Giorgos, the father of Iliana, explains that the salt on the table is soaked in grape must, which gives it probiotic qualities. It is one of several secrets of longevity shared with the guests on the estate’s retreats.
On the dragon’s back
On Iliana’s advice, we drive towards Mount Koskinas, on whose rugged peak once stood the fort which protected Ikariots from the pirates. Along the way, we marvel at the large granite boulders, but also the way some of them have been converted into monastic cells, farmers’ huts and chapels. Among them is the chapel of Theoskepasti, wedged between two giant rocks a little outside Pigi.
Hiking up towards the castle of Koskinas, the goat bells can be heard across the plain and our view is taken up by gardens and vineyards stretching around the conical peak of Koskinas. As we push open the metal gate on the stone archway a startled flock of goats spills out of the Aghios Georgios chapel, surrendering the castle without fight.
Nature is equally disarming at the beach of Na, on the northwest corner of Ikaria. The river which flows through the Halari gorge meets the sea in a location with such peculiar natural formations that it is not by chance it was chosen thousands of year ago as the site of a temple dedicated to the goddess Artemis. The rugged rocks surrounding the beach resemble the back of a sleeping dragon, dry scrubs brush the ruins of the temple and the silence invites you to listen to the sound of the wind in rushes. Where the temple’s columns once stood, a group of American women are engaging in mediation exercises. Just the sight of their still silhouettes in the surroundings is enough to bring about a sense of calm.
The return of the panigyri
The landscape in the southwest corner of Ikaria is granite and otherworldly. The sparse trees have been shaped by the wind which blows across the area, while the dirt road which descends towards the big blue leads you to the natural terrace where the chapel of Aghios Isidoros is located. The feast of Aghios Isidoros on May 14 marks the traditional starts of the summer panigyria on the island.
While the morning service is in progress, Makis, Stelios, Kostas and Simos shake the giant cauldron on which they are already preparing a goat stew, and fry potatoes for the 2,000 people who await. Makis fills our glasses with red wine of his own making, and Stelios makes arrangements for the collection of some hundreds of kilos of meat which are being roasted in bakeries in the surrounding area. The tables which have been set on the small terrace next to the chapel gradually fill up with people of all ages and nationalities. Among them, the couples we met at Lefkada beach, the American women from Na, Ikariots who have come from Athens for the celebrations, as well as groups of young people from the island. The panigyri is the occasion which unites all the “tribes” of Ikaria.
A group of shepherds invite me to join them at their table, impatient for the live music to begin. As soon as the band strikes up, the dance floor fills with people swirling in concentric circles – more than you think the space would allow. The appetite for celebration has grown to gigantic proportions in the two years that they have been absent, which explains the marathon duration of the Aghios Isidoros feast.
The crowd continues to dance into the morning, to almost everything: from the traditional Ikariot and syrto steps, to the local, light versions of the waltz and the tango. The panigyri would continue to be the main topic of conversation in the village squares in the days that followed – until preparations for the next one began.