A briefer version of this piece appeared in Taste magazine's November 2015 issue.
Fifty kilometres from the Turkish coast, a craggy rock rises out of the Aegean. Of the Greek islands, Icaria is the one spoken of with the sense of knowing a secret. It is one of five UNESCO-designated Blue Zones; a place where the elderly live to be 100.
Defiantly self sufficient, having won their independence from the Turks, Icaria is an island of exiles and healing, with less than 10,000 residents, and community at its heart.
Next to where the breakwater tumbles into the sea at Therma, the rocks are furry with sulphur.
There, a clutch of people sits in the water under centuries of sediment, folded by history, carved by waves and topped with a twisted olive tree.
A moustache is talking politics. Where the hot springs emerge into the sea, words float.
“A crisis predicted by a latter-day prophet.”
Underfoot there are urchins, tucked amidst the purple lichen and magenta fuzz.
“There will be blood on the streets of Athens.”
The cave exhales: warm, salty breath.
Next door, the rock recedes into a hammam of raw stone with ravioli cutter edges, hemmed in by whitewash and tiled pools of opaque turquoise. Inside the earth, people sit on benches in the steam, flavoured with fresh eucaplytus.
Stern-faced Lemonia is keeping time: 20 minutes. Then a spray with a garden hose. Then 20 more in milky water: 60 degrees Celsius from the earth, mixed with cold tap.
Yiorgos is in black speedos, under the opaque swirl. He’s here five times a week when home for the summer.
I feel like a newborn, he grins.
His friend Dimitris flexes his bicep.
I had a motorbike accident, he shrugs, and my arm, it was like in a zombie movie. Connected only by skin. Then I started coming here and it’s like magic.
They’ve been coming here, in the wake of the ancient doctor Asclepius, for more than 30 centuries.
When we emerge, the sun is gone, leaving a valley full of nestled stars, silver and gold.
They drive us to dinner by the sea, point out the sights - “See, the enormous granite rocks” - under an expansive, messy Milky Way - “Those hot springs are the hottest, and you can only get there by walking” - red Suzuki Samurai revving.
“We come down on the coldest day of winter” - they grin - “and find the place where the sea is warm by the rocks, roll up in sleeping bags and look at the stars.”
The two doctors, friends from birth 44 years ago, talk of free diving and spear-fishing and secret panegyris in the forests, of shadows and fire.
We sit in the breeze and eat lightly vinegared beetroot, cooked with their tops and sip cold tsipouro with a caramelised warmth, the grapeskin spirit made by Poulos, up the road.
At Arodou taverna, they leave the door open for the swallows, who have nested in their light fitting for the last five years.
“We are protective of our Elders,” says Dimitris, when I ask of immortality.
Yiorgos’ grandmother is 102 and still helps out around the house. But three Elders died last winter.
What’s the secret, I ask.
Everything’s natural, from our own gardens, they say. No one wears a watch. There’s no stress. Everything is done at the pace of walking.
The Greek word for cicada is onomatopeoic: tzitztki.
They chorus, in an irreverent buzz from the slopes, slowly merging into unison as you listen and the southeastern walls turn gold.
Bucket-hatted heads are backstroking in the early morning sea, pensioners on their daily swim. The water is rustling by the boulders.
We look east over the ruins of the ancient spa city, amphoras under the silt.
Across the strait, the tiny island of Fournoi darkens into an etching scratched beneath a watercolour. As the lines cut deeper into the dusk, an awkward couple sits unspeaking at the end of the pier on a marigold bench; he with silver hair in his hands.
The beach is full of sand the colour of dirt and salt cedar fronds that burrow into your hair. The breeze catches a pair of white curtains, in a house on the hill, presses them against the shutters.
The cats are waking up.
It is time to whisper kalispera to old man in the white singlet and plastic chair, unmoving on his terrace. Time to sit in a taverna named for the wind and eat fresh barbuni - red mullet - chosen from the kitchen, lightly fried, falling off the bone. The shredded courgette of the kolokithokeftedes is tender and sweet, the grilled green peppers charred with smoke.
Next door, a table sings aloud to schooltime songs, as they do every night, while they eat their fish.
In Agios Kyrikos, under the trellis at Klimataria, the sun is sharpening the edge of grapevine shadows, slowly climbing the form of a painted faceless woman on the wall.
The broad beans are homegrown, buttery, baked with tomato, and served with the best local bread.
It comes from the neighbouring alley, from a fourno that - until five years ago - hadn’t been fired for over a decade.
When will you light it? the villagers used to ask.
“After Easter”, the old man said, every year, “After Easter.”
Now it has a new master. At Artopanigyris, Nikolas has been stoking his wood-fired fourno with since a pre-dawn 3 o’clock. Built in the 19th century with a hearth of Maltese volcanic rock, it was how the Italian army fed their soldiers here, during the Second World War.
It is the heart of an artisanal bakery, the incubator of experiments with Nikolas’ foraged herbs from Chrysostomos: sage and oregano and thyme in his loaves, flecks of mountain in his potato pie. The sourdough double-proofed, made with a culture created and handed down by his grandmother. The wood for the stove, gathered from his uncle’s fields.
Born in Ohio, Nikolas returned to his grandfather’s island nine years ago.
There’s an austerity to the way the previous generation lived, he says. His pappou only ate meat twice a month. They made do.
Nikolas only bakes a small amount a day. When he opened five years ago, the elderly locals of Agios Kyrikos grumbled about how it would always run out. Then they tasted his bread. Now, they just get up earlier to buy it.
Head north. Drive with no windows, and inhale the warmth of sun-scorched granite, the scent of crushed oregano tumbling down the hill.
There is flax in shades of butterscotch as the road curves into to a valley dense with oleander; wild fennel when it emerges from the rock ridges. Reach from your window, run your hand over the fronds, touch your lips and smell anise on your fingertips.
Listen for the church bells at Akamatra. Stop for white cheese folded in phyllo, crisp in a puddle of ouzo and heather honey. Savour forkfuls of pork melted in a clay pot, so tender you don’t need a knife.
Last out of the water at Nas, we float in glass, flowing in molten lumps.
The waft of smoking teens resolves in a silhouette on a mountainside. Camp lights prick the dusk. There is a hairy troll frozen in the cliff.
At Thea’s Inn, a tiny unnamed puppy under the table is looking for a home.
Let me give you what’s on the stove, Thea says, whatever’s good.
There are gently simmered chickpeas with soft onions, her soufiko - a melange of peppers, courgette and aubergine - and kathoura: goat’s cheese, made every day from the milk of her husband Ilias’ Raska goats.
In the birthplace of the wine god Dionysos, I drink red wine with blocks of ice, smoky with old berries.
“Everyone makes their own wine and oil,” Thea says. “We grow our own olives and grapes, but we share the presses. And we only drink when eating, never alone.”
Her kathoura is gentle, like baby mozarella: sweet, supple, crinkled from the net in which they caught the curds. It begins gentle and nutty, and turns a savoury sour, with a glorious nose of mountains, and seasalt, and dirt. Tomorrow it will be harder and more salty; next month, placed in brine, aged in slabs for the winter.
The goats have a view of the sea.
Ilias takes us to his terraced garden, picks tiny strawberries coming into season. He gives us a bucket of grapes that taste of roses.
As dawn rolls down the valley towards the temple of Artemis, a gentle buzzing rises from the reeds. Water-skimmers turn the lagoon into a frenzy, the lagoon is dotted with tiny suspended frogs.
The sun caresses; a morning routine has begun. A naked blonde is pacing in the shallows, back and forth, hands on hips, counting the laps.
Oblivious to beginnings, a young couple lies curled around each other, quotation marks behind their pareo, strung up against the sun.
In the temple slabs, and shards of marble in the dirt, carefully balanced on crumbling foundations, tiny grey geckos climb a cracked shrine, robbed by pirates when the Romans ruled.
In her taverna kitchen - allegedly the best on the island - Popi talks to herself, while cooking. Mid-morning, she is a rapidly moving tornado of activity: whisking, chopping, sifting, stirring, sniffing, so everything is ready before the lunch crowd arrives from the beach.
There are give covered magic pots on the cast iron stove, each containing a different slow-simmered masterpiece.
There is a rooster braising in tomato, a pork leg with mountain sage, another with homemade white wine, and the soufiko, one classically made with tomato - the first thing she ever learned to cook - and another “white” version, with courgette flowers and mint.
I like lighter food, Popi says, modernising traditional recipes with less olive oil, but using ingredients from her childhood.
In the oven, there is more. Aubergines baked in red wine and crumbled with kathoura, a piglet in a clay pot, slow-roasted overnight with the heat from yesterday’s cooking, eggplant papoutsakia, stuffed with mince, a moussaka topped with a goat’s milk béchamel, made with olive oil and milk from Bebeka, the goat she milks each morning. Popi doesn’t believe in butter.
She speaks of Icarian habits that have evolved from necessity, from poverty and wildness. There is the weekly cycle of foods: pulses and vegetables Monday to Saturday, with a meal of fish at least once, but meat only on Sundays or for feasts.
Everything is dependent on the harvest: what you find in the garden goes in a pot. Everything she cooks comes from her family fields, or the terraces behind her vine-covered restaurant, sloping to the sea.
There, she grows her own mountain herbs, foraged and replanted; vegetable bounty gathered as needed, headed straight into pots.
Her day begins with an infusion of camomile, sage and rosemary - her personal blend of mountain tea. It is comfort and tonic - a serendipitous Icarian habit. She picks others too: pennyroyal, ironwort, mint, marjoram and mallow, to dry for the winter.
The only clean food is what you grow yourself, she insists.
The meltemi comes across the sea from the north, unhindered by another islands, they say, churning the surf at Messakti. This evening’s lack of waves are accompanied by soft percussion, a hundred beach bats hitting balls in time. In the new surf school, the sunset slants onto rhythmic bodies clutching crushed ice cocktails in plastic pint glasses.
It is time for ice cream.
Five minutes away, in his sweet shop at Armenistis, proud Leonidas has pasted postcards of his goats on the display glass.
Inspired by a lactose-intolerant Italian customer, he makes goat’s milk ice cream: lighter than cow’s milk, and helps to settle the stomach, he’s convinced.
“If you eat a big meal, and feel sick, then come here to eat ice cream,” he says.
Although only available at certain times of the year - when the goats are cooperative - Leonidas is branching out.
There is the plain, with vanilla and a hint of creme fraiche, thick kaimaki with spicy mastiha resin from Chios, and a new addition, afepsima - mountain tea - a delicate brew of verbena, thyme, sage and pennyroyal.
They have the texture of velvet on the tongue.
At three o’clock in the morning in Christos, there is still no parking. A woman in aquamarine jeans is directing traffic.
In the bar at Treehouse, a baby naps in a corner of the courtyard, as the bartenders pour ginger and mastiha into heavy, delicate, cut glass, filled with smashed local spearmint, hand it to the party crowd.
In the night village that never sleeps, happy-go-lucky engineer Markos has a theory about his island’s longevity.
We have no stress here, no sense of time, he smiles. And we have radium in the rocks. You evolve, your body adapts, it becomes a part of your DNA.
At 5.30, he is dancing.
The lights are still on outside the church, music from six different bars meeting in the square.
The bakery down the hill plays trance, as they produce tyropsoma - cheese buns - and only one type of pizza: green peppers, tomatoes and pancetta. The baker hands me a slice, a gift.
The cockerels are competing across the valley.
It feels as if it’s rained, but the leaves are dry. The undergrowth is intoxicating.
I walk through the damp crush of eucalyptus and valleys and solitude, and for the first time in a month I feel wonderfully, vibrantly cold: alive.
The morning emerges through a plane tree, and I listen.
To find Athanato Nero, the spring of immortality, follow the stone path beyond Xylosirtis towards the sea, past the leafless bougainvillea, down past the lemon tree. Find the figs, sun-dried and splitting, drooping from heavy branches. Put them in your hat, and eat them whole, sugar turned to syrup; so sweet it makes your mouth tingle. Put your hand behind translucent leaves, admire its sun shadow through the green.
Pass the trellis of grape vines, scurry down the path where it turns to dirt. Emerge at the Aegean and follow the graffiti scrawl to a tiny spring in the rocks. Fill a bottle, drink your fill. Gaze east, past the boulders, to where Icarus fell into the sea in a rain of liquid wax.
NEED TO KNOW
GETTING THERE: Icaria is one of Greece’s more remote islands, not far from the Turkish coast, but an 8-hour ferry trip departing most days from the port of Piraeus, 20 minutes from Athens’ city centre. Alternatively, Aegean/Olympic Airlines flies to Icaria every day of the week from the capital, in just over an hour. www.visitikaria.gr has updated travel schedules.
INGREDIENTS TO TAKE HOME WITH YOU: Mountain herbs, dried in the sun, which you can collect yourself from the slopes, including clary sage, oregano, and thyme. You can also pick them up in most supermarkets and grocery stores, often mixed into a mountain tea. The local honey is fragrant with heather, and worth carrying home, but the best olive oil is made in small amounts by individual families for their own consumption.
WHEN TO GO: The summer season in Icaria runs from July to August, with the celebration of the largest panegyri - a religious festival that manifests itself in community feasts and all-night parties in various villages - in mid-August. Icaria never feels crowded, but accommodation and rental cars can be extremely limited over this period, so book in well in advance. Visitors to the island are mainly Greek tourists, or locals bringing friends home. If you’re not heading to Icaria to party, to avoid the worst of the summer heat and high-season prices, go in June or September.
WHERE TO STAY: Icaria has several small hotels - including one next to a yoga retreat (the-egg-greece.com) - mostly on the north coast around Armenistis, where most tourists stay. Basic studios and guesthouses are available in smaller villages, but the island is particularly renowned for its appeal to campers. For a agro-tourism experience, the Karimalis winery (http://www.ikarianwine.gr) in Pigi offers rooms in two traditional stone houses, alongside cooking classes and wine tastings.
VISAS: South Africans require visas to travel to Greece, which is part of the Schengen zone.
CASH: Capital controls still remain in place, so locals are only able to withdraw €420 a week. These limits do not apply to international visitors, who are able to withdraw up to €600 a time from most ATMs. ATMs are available in major towns on Icaria, but bringing cash is recommended.
Oinomagirio tis Popis: +30 22750 31928
Thea’s in Nas (also does cooking classes): theasinn.com
Sta Perix in Akamatra: +30 22750 31056
I Syntages tis Giagias (Grandma’s Recipes) for goat ice cream in Armenistis: +30 22750 71150
Arodou taverna in Xylosyrtis: +30 22750 22700
Klimataria: +30 22750 22686