Words by Amy Riolo and Alex Safos
Photos by Alex Safos
DISCOVERING THE WISDOM AND WINE OF IKARIA
Ikaria’s “Blue Zone” status as one of fve geographies around the world exhibiting healthy longevity profles wasn’t realized until the turn of the century, and its lifestyle practices were yet to be analyzed and evangelized. Of course, this island-life romanticism would blossom in time—especially for the traveler-seeker and a select few desiring a dramatic life-change—and the Blue Zone moniker has beckoned more pilgrims.
The remote, basic, streamlined, challenging, agrarian, sunrise-to-sunset existence (*bonus: on a picturesque Greek island, no less) would become an alluring tonic for the overworked, Hyper-Face-booked, jaded capitalists, and generally overwhelmed, desperate for present-moment meaning, catharsis, quiet, and truths.
Ikaria is just one of many such of-track sanctuaries across the globe where the contemporary can be disrobed for the traditional, the familiar for the unfamiliar, the crush of humanity for space and solitude. In a post-Covid era, we imagine there will be many more. Alex frst escorted his yiayiá (Greek for “grandmother”) to Ikaria in 1988 en route to a summer internship in Cairo, and her amazement at the frequency and volume of food on that KLM 747 belied the somber lack, once upon a time, in the village she would soon re-visit.
He remembers getting her to Perdiki for a communion with family before he opted for more compatible environs for a college graduate—Mykonos. The homecoming was warm, efusive, joyful, and tsipouro-flled (Greece’s frewater similar to raki). His yiayia sat outside, happy, under an arbor of grape leaves astride an old outdoor oven. It would be a long day and night of memories and stories punctuated by laughter and astonishment.
After multiple returns to Ikaria in adulthood, refections on Alex’s yiayia’s life both there and in their cozy 2 BR/1 BA ranch home in Houston—with an ample backyard garden (essential!) and patio with picnic bench (a nod to the taverna—also essential!), he now sees which Blue Zone keys she still clutched, far away from the source, until she died at 101 years old. Nowadays while organizing small, custom tours to Ikaria with his Indigo Gazelle Tours, we attempt to pass down the wisdom of Alex’s ancestors and the people of Ikaria at large by highlighting the following tenants:
SLOW THE TEMPO. STRESS NOT.
One of the established keys to longevity on Ikaria is frequently preached elsewhere but infrequently practiced. It is banally unsurprising in its prose but dramatic in its verse. It is adopting a lifestyle of little, if any, stress and slowing down one’s tempo to that of long-forgotten 16 rpm vinyl. On Ikaria, this means no clock-watching. “Appointments” are flexible, fungible, often forgettable.
The same holds for store and office hours. Many dyed-in-the-wool Ikarians don’t wear, less own, a watch. MY GOD, HOW DOES ANYTHING GET DONE?? is a predictable, apoplectic retort from certain quarters. What needs to get done, gets done, in time, with life being enjoyed and relished all the while. The striving for accumulation and consumption—for more and more—is not a preoccupation here. Just enough is perfection.
The slow tempo is enabled by a symphony of the Aegean sea, the taverna, the plateia (the village square), the spell of ancient olive trees swaying in the island’s legendary breezes, and the daily naps in which many Ikarians indulge and are quick to adopt. The therapeutic benefits of living near and looking at a body of water are well-documented, so a sipped glass of wine or frappé with blue in view, a slow, mindful lunch or dinner at a beachfront taverna a leisurely wading in cerulean seas, a doze under the shade of a plane tree, or a very rudimentary homestead with a dazzling seafront perch are all fortifying, pulse-slowing practices of being present. Here, hypertension is easily kept at bay.
THE IKARIAN DIET
A version of The Mediterranean Diet, the healthy properties of which are well- established, the Ikarian Diet is another important facet of its Blue Zone pedigree. Wild greens—the foraging for which is an island ritual—herbs, whole grains, potatoes, beans, local cheeses, vegetables, olive oil, fruits, and seafood predominate with an emphasis on seasonal eating. Meat is eaten infrequently and in small portions.Simple, fresh ingredients deliver a pure satisfaction on the palate and their quantitative and qualitative health benefits have been documented. Ikarian honey is the stuff of myths—so rich in polyphenols and ambrosiaesque—and its viscous heather honey is especially prized; this is the local “a spoonful a day” Rx.
Olive oil also gets elixir status as its daily use lowers cholesterol and controls insulin levels. The island’s herbal teas are rich in antioxidants and act as a diuretic; sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano, chamomile, and other mountain herbs can be found everywhere, infusing the landscape. Boiled Greek coffee is also rich in antioxidants and shown to improve cardiovascular health.Lunch on Ikaria often consists of dolmades, and various seasonal vegetables including stuffed peppers, sautéed greens (usually spinach and Swiss Chard from the garden), and stewed green beans with tomatoes and potatoes. These are the types of traditional Ikarian dishes and aromas that we remember fondly and Chef Amy incorporates into her cooking classes on the island.
DIONYSUS WAS FROM IKARIA
Wine-making on the island is drenched in mythology, history, lore, and health-boosting properties. The zealous 16% proof Ikarian red wine, rich in resveratrol and a typical accompaniment, in moderation (the exception may be at Ikaria’s famous Saint’s Day festivals), to most meals.
The god of the grape harvest, wine making and wine as well as of ritual madness and ecstasy in Greek mythology, Dionysus, was from Ikaria. According to the Discover Ikaria website, “He is the son of Zeus and one of the twelve Gods of Olympus. According to the myth he was born on Mount Pramnos in the island of Ikaria where Zeus released the baby from his thigh. It is said that the strong Pramneios wine of Ikaria is the gift of Dionysus for the people of the island.
This wine is famous for thousands of years and has been mentioned in Odyssey by Homer (Pramneios Oinos). Homer states heroes of the Iliad have been drinking a strong red wine of Ikaria wine with magical powers before they went to battle.” Nowadays one of the best places to sample world-class Ikarian wines is at the Afianes Winery in northern Ikaria.
This popular stop on our Ikaria tour enables travelers to experience many of the island’s highlights in one stop. From the hospitality of the owners, to the history of the grapes, and the unique method in which the wines are aged under water, this winery is as unique as the island of Ikaria itself. Inspired by age-long traditions passed on from one generation to the next, Afianes Wines was founded by Nikos Afianes and his wife Maria almost 20 years ago with one dream in mind, to create a space where wine and life are celebrated.
By preserving ancient techniques of wine making and combining them with modern day practices, Afianes Wines boasts an impressive and internationally renowned selection of wine labels. Committed to organic & biodynamic methods of cultivation and a spirit of creative experimentation, the Afianes Winery has continued growing and promoting the two local, indigenous PGI varieties of grapes known as Fokiano and Begleri.
We like to conclude our tours here, because the “wine tastings” usually consist of large, typical meals with Nikos, Maria, and their children as well as live traditional music, singing, and dancing. Conviviality, community, shared meals, local food and wine, joy, a sense of history, and beautiful surroundings all at the same time creates a film-worthy grand finale for our guests.
The planaria-shaped island of Ikaria covers just under 100 square miles, approximately 21 miles long by 3-5 miles wide. The mountain range of Atheras forms its spine and reaches a height of over 3,400 feet in just a few miles from sea level. This dramatic geography and terrain—and diverse eco-systems consisting of pine and oak forests, boulder fields, fresh water lagoons, canyons, gorges, hot mineral springs, and high altitude plateaus and valleys—provide a natural gymnasium for inhabitants and another of its “secrets” to longevity.
A stair master with sea views is not an idle stair master. Old foot paths, monopatia, carved and bush-whacked by goats, mark the island, and walking naturally, up and down and through this varied topography is the predominant, unconscious exercise. Sure, there are automobiles for long distances between villages and towns, but this activity is second nature and part and parcel of daily life among all age groups (although, truth be told, some of the younger generation of Ikarians may choose the motorbike over a stroll).
Walks to a neighbor’s, the church, the cafe, the store, the garden, the beach, the spring to fetch water, along a path to forage, to the vineyard, to Dionysus’ cave (where the island’s patron god was born, according to legend), to the 4th Century BCE Drakano Tower, and yes, a swim, sail, or row in the Aegean all add up to Ikarians with strong, mobile bodies and aware minds well into their 90s.
COMMUNITY + SOCIALIZATION: FAITH, FAMILY, AND FRIENDS
Cases of dementia on Ikaria are virtually non-existent, and a major reason is due to the multiple, revered social networks among the islanders which cut across multiple generations. A strong sense of community, independence, and self- sustenance was partly engendered due to geography: the island is in a remote part of the northeast Aegean, had no natural harbors, and many of its original villages were camouflaged in the mountains to hide from corsairs on the prowl.
The characteristic, traditional slate, gneiss, and schist dwellings not only provided fortification, but also melded into the landscape’s rocky outcroppings. After World War II, during Greece’s Civil War, over 10,000 communists and socialists were exiled on Ikaria which then earned the moniker, “The Red Rock.” Tendrils of this ideology remain vibrant on the island as it relates to community, and the Greek Communist political party still has many proud and unabashed sympathizers among Ikarians.
So what are the pools of community that bind Ikarians so snugly as to elongate their lives? Family, first and foremost. Multiple generations may share a home or reside close to each other, and seniors are not shunted to their own separate cocoons (i.e. retirement home, assisted living facility, etc.) to finish out their years.
They are revered for their wisdom and fully engaged. Friendships and fellowship are dear too. These expressions play out day-in and day-out at every possible intersection: cafes (where the sounds of backgammon—tavla—are common); tavernas; churches; religious celebrations like Easter, weddings and baptisms; panegyria festivals; under a neighbor’s pergola; at the town plateia; and simply on the street. These interactions are effortless, seamless, and part of the Ikarian fabric. Extended greetings which may spontaneously turn into a more extended shared coffee or ouzo are more frequent and unscheduled than interactions that usually occur in America.
BE FESTIVE, JOYFUL, AND DANCE LIKE DIONYSUS
We’ve alluded to Ikaria’s renowned, Dionysian panegyria, dust’til dawn Saint’s Day festivals which draw hundreds of Ikarians Greeks from other islands and the mainland, and foreign travelers. These spectacular, pagan-rooted celebrations of food, wine, music, dancing, revelry, joy—and community—raise funds for a local paris and municipality.
They are signatures of summer, happen all across the island, and conjure up visions of a life-loving Zorba who’s all in without abandon. Indeed, there are pilgrims who attend these events with a passion of 1970s Deadheads. Search for “Panegyri [singlular] Ikaria” on YouTube and you’ll see dozens of videos where the iconic concentric circles of dancers weave like millipedes to the island’s ear-worm “Ikariotiko” dance tune.
The fiddle gets sinuous and trance-y and dancers young and old cannot resist joining. You can replicate the spirit of these official panegyria anywhere, any time. You just need a musical instrument or two, some wine, and a dance partner or two. You could dance alone, but this solo tradition is more Cretan than Ikarian where joy is best shared. One can understand how these good vibrations and endorphin geysers are, in cumulative moderation, another Blue Zone ingredient.
PURSUE A PURPOSE + EMBRACE A HOBBY
The final element of Ikaria’s Blue Zone achievement is that islanders, as they age, continue to pursue a purpose or embrace a hobby. This is not a sedentary, idle, Boob Tube-watching set of retired seniors staving off or suffering from depression. Minds as well as bodies remain active, attuned. Many Ikarians have their own gardens—a legacy to the island’s self-reliance—so tending these flower, fruit, and vegetable gardens becomes a passion.
Small scale farming, wine-making, foraging, beekeeping, and fishing are common vocations or avocations of locals into their 80s and even 90s. Chefs, cooks, and bakers in Ikaria also remain committed to their talents and are valued no matter their age. And Ikarians adhere to an often elusive equilibrium—their edition of the Aristotelian Golden Mean: pursue a purpose but not to the point of stress. Remarkably easy to posit, so difficult to attain.
Read more from Amy Riolo in The History of Pizza
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Alex Safos is owner and founder of Indigo Gazelle Tours (www.indigogazelle.com) which offers small group and private cultural, culinary, wellness, and discovery tours to Greece and Morocco. Guided culinary tours feature celebrity chef, Mediterranean Diet expert, and cookbook author, Amy Riolo (www.amyriolo.com). Indigo Gazelle’s “Genuine Greece” tour explores Ikaria and reveals these noted Blue Zone practices across the island.