Details: Ikaria, Greece
My brother-in-law sprang out of his chair, grabbed a map and waggled his finger over a narrow land mass in the eastern Aegean Sea. “It’s remote,” he said.
My mother-in-law threw up her hands. “The beaches aren’t the best,” she exclaimed. ”And their customs are peculiar.”
My father-in-law raised his finger for the final word: “Ah, but once she’s there, she may never want to leave.”
How right he was. This wing-shaped island, named after the mythological Icarus, who famously flew too close to the sun, melted his wings of wax and crashed into the sea, has definitely gotten its hooks into me.
A faraway island
A rugged landscape and lack of natural harbors once isolated Ikaria from the rest of Greece, my father-in-law had told me: “That’s how the people became so resilient and self-sufficient.” On the map, he pointed to the Aetheras mountain range, which traverses the island. “They settled deep in the mountains and hid their homes by constructing them from natural materials to protect themselves from Aegean pirates,” he added. This created an isolated population with a strong sense of community, as well as strong family values and traditions.
Ikaria became part of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century and remained so until July 17, 1912, when residents drove out the Ottomans and established a short-lived independent state. After it joined Greece several months later, the isolated island was used as a dumping ground for political dissidents by successive governments. During the Greek Civil War (1946-49), thousands of communists were exiled to Ikaria. To this day, the island is known for its laid-back leftists and independent spirit.
It’s also known for the unusually long life spans of its natives, a fact that has caught the attention of researchers and is featured in the second edition of National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner’s book “The Blue Zones,” which describes long-lived communities worldwide.
Add to that the fact that it’s said to be the birthplace of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, and has a reputation for still producing some strong red stuff. “Beware of the local wine,” my father-in-law had warned, “or you may lose your head.”
Schedule by oracle
On the flight to Ikaria, armed with a book of basic Greek phrases, I sit next to Loles, a gregarious Spanish woman also headed for the Ikarian Centre Greek language school. We chat in Greek. My grasp of the language is only basic, but I manage to catch that this is Loles’s fourth visit to the school. We hit it off and chatter for the rest of the flight. The Greek gods are at work.