Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Early evening in Ikaria

For the second year running, we spent 10 days in Ikaria this summer, and loved every minute of it - I can't remember the last time I felt so relaxed. This year we were determined to be more active than last year, intending to visit some of the villages up in the mountains. As it happened, we did nothing, except stay in Therma, following the same routine every day, with the exception of two short visits to Agios Kyrikos, the capital. The only reason I can think of to explain this is that the relaxed live-style of the inhabitants rubbed off on us: time stopped having meaning, and we enjoyed just being.

Ikaria is a very special place. You feel this the minute you get off the boat at Evdilos: the place smells different, you are assaulted by the sweet and pungent smell of the herbs that are to be found all over its ragged mountains - it's ecstatic.

Below, I have copied and pasted what I wrote about the island last year:

'The island's isolation has allowed Ikaria to remain largely untouched by the fast-paced, consumer-driven Western lifestyle with its processed convenience foods, high levels of stress, and chemicals. With no natural harbours and subjected to high winds, Ikaria was excluded by the shipping industry, forcing its residents to become self-sufficient and ultimately immune to the ills of development and industrialisation.

The result? Ikaria is considered a Blue Zone, one of a short list of places throughout the world where people tend to live longer, healthier lives. In fact, people here live on average 10 years longer than those in the rest of Europe and America - around one in three Ikarians lives into their 90s. Not only that, but they also have much lower rates of cancer and heart disease, suffer significantly less depression and dementia, maintain a sex life into old ages, and remain physically active deep into their 90s.

The secret? There are a number of reasons.

First of all, their diet. Everything is grown organically on the island - they don't even put sulphur on the vines, something that vine growers have been doing for centuries. They eat very little meat, no more than once a week: a family will typically slaughter just one animal per year and ration the meat in small portions over several weeks and months. The Ikarian diet is notable for being nearly devoid of processed sugar, white flour and other refined, processed foods. Instead, they eat a lot of beans and organically-grown fruits and vegetables. They also drink a lot of herbal teas: packed with powerful anti-oxidants and health-restorative and protective compounds, these herbal brews add a medicinal component to their already healthy, mostly plant-based diet: for example, many of the herbs have diuretic effects, which may help keep the inhabitants' blood pressure naturally low by excreting excess sodium. Organic wine is another major part of their diet - they drink it with every meal, sometimes even for breakfast.

The people are extremely relaxed and chilled out. Their conception of time is totally different to that of the typical Western lifestyle. 'No-one really sets appointments here', one resident explained. 'It's more like 'see you in the morning, afternoon or evening'. We don't stress'. Even though we did not visit any of the villages up in the mountains, where longevity is at its highest, we saw evidence of this in the two places we stayed in. There were a number of times where the bus we were waiting for did not materialise - Ikaria is well-known for its erratic bus schedules. The same happened with the little boat, caique, that travelled from Saint Kyrikos to Therma and back. We were stranded quite a few times, and had to call a taxi.

A lot of exercise is also part of the secret of the longevity of Ikaria's residents. They walk everywhere: given that Ikaria is all mountains and hills, this is vigorous exercise. Working on the land is another major part of daily life.

The habit of taking afternoon naps may also extend life. One extensive study of Greek adults showed that regular napping reduced the risk of heart disease by almost 40%.

There is also a strong tradition of solidarity amongst Ikarians. During WWII, when the island was occupied by the Italians and Germans an instinct of solidarity was developed. This was reinforced after the war, when thousands of communists and leftists were exiled to the island. The islanders describe their island 'as an us place, not a me place'. Mikis Theodorakis, the composer, was among the leftists exiled on the island in the late 1940s. He later recalled the experience with pleasure. 'How could this be?' he asked. 'The answer is simple: it's the beauty of the island in combination with the warmth of the locals. They risked their lives to be generous to us, something that helped us more than anything to bear the burden of the hardship'.

Finally, at the heart of the island's social scene is a series of 24-hour festivals, known as paniyiri, which all age groups attend. They last through the night and the centrepieces are mass dances in which everyone takes part'. 

A routine evolved while we were in Therma: long swims in the morning, followed by a 20-minute relax in the water cave, followed by a jacuzzi in the spa for me; lunch and a siesta; ouzos at around 7:00 followed by an evening meal, and bed. We loved it.

We chose this cafeneion for our pre-dinner ouzos: it's by the beach, the staff were very friendly, and the only disadvantage is that it got quite busy so that at times we had difficulty finding a table at the front row which affords the best views - this photograph is deceptive as it was taken at their quietest time but the one below paints a more realistic picture.

We were able to enjoy the views afforded by its strategic place, as well as people-watch the late swimmers.

I remembered these two boys from last year and was impressed again about how lovely they were playing together: gentle, totally absorbed, they played for ages and seemed oblivious to everything and everyone else.

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