Ikaria: The island of longevity

Does this Greek island hold the secret to a long and happy life?

Off the coast of Ikaria, the legendary Icarus attempted to fly to the sun and plunged shortly after to an early death into the inky blue Aegean. He was one of the unlucky few, for islanders here are the most likely to live to the age of 100 in all of Europe.

Community and Culture

The ‘island of longevity’ has long been awarded ‘Blue Zone’ status for its residents with youthful complexions and an unerring zest for life. The reason for the number of centenarians on Ikaria has often been credited to a diet rich in legumes and low on stimulants, like coffee, but a weekend rubbing shoulders with the locals reveals that there might be more to living a longer life than eating lentils.

“On this island of longevity the residents have an unerring zest for life.”

Driving around winding coastal bends, you get a sense of the wild energy of the island.

Rugged mountains jut into romantic wisps of cloud at their peak, and crashing waves powered by the Aegean’s famous northern wind, the meltemi, lap at white sand beaches. Pine-surrounded villages like Raches thrive with activity. Locals play backgammon with gusto for hours under the dappled shade. In verdant valleys, shepherds herd goats, and workers gather the purple bounty of vineyards.

Icaria is an island very much alive, in spite of its reputation for its islanders’ laid-back way of life. By night, wild local festivals (panygiria) see traditional stone villages pulse with the thrum of a drum, the heart-whipping sounds of the violin, and dancing. Endless dancing.

Yes, a healthy diet does help the heart clock another year but the clink of a wine glass, dinners with loved ones, a round of backgammon with a friend – Icarians insist it is these most vital elements of the human experience that keep them going. Conviviality is what the Icaria lifestyle is all about.

At a kafeneion in Vrakades, friends drift in and out over the course of a day, nursing a silty Greek coffee for hours. After feeding the goats, before preparing lunch, they get together. Meeting up with friends here is not a date or an entry in a diary. Like everything else in Icaria, it is something to be savoured, appreciated, valued. They take time simply for the sake of taking time, and life simply goes on.

Ikaria’s peculiar geological and tectonic structure has blessed it with precious geothermal springs. Outdoor natural hydrotherapy is a popular activity in the island, especially with the locals.

Sofia’s [pictured at the top of the page] Magirio, a traditional Ikarian dish with string beans, potatoes, peppers, corn and fresh tomato sauce. All home grown ingredients picked freshly from Sofia’s land that morning and paired with the local red wine. A priceless lunch.

View from the house of Greek painter and sculptor Vangelis Rinas, born in Samos but raised in Ikaria. The gorgeous marble piece in the house’s exterior overlooks Fournoi-archipelago, a cluster of tranquil rocky islands known for fishing.

A quintessentially Greek sight: a table resting under a tree where local food is about to be served, with fresh olive oil aplenty. The taverna of Leonidas in Faros smells of sea salt and pine trees.

Article and photography by Eftihia Stefanidi

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