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From any approach by sea, the island of Ikaria presents a forbidding wall of high mountains, steep slopes and rocky shores which—unprotected by any neighbouring land or island—bear the force of the winds from both north and south. Homer knew well the awful turbulence of the Ikarian Sea, to which he likened the mutability of mood in a crowd stirred by demagogy (iliad II, 145): Horace, too, echoes its fearsome reputation at the very opening of his Odes (I.i.15–6). Once ashore, however, the island itself has a benign humanity: every village is an assemblage of fertile gardens, and its people seem bound by a deep sense of community. Tourism does not disturb here: it exists, but is a small element in a lively economy based primarily on cultivation. The Greeks, and the Ikarians themselves, joke about the island living in its own backwater of time; but the truth is that this very fact has served Ikaria well and made it a more congenial and unaffected island to visit than many.
Nothing quite prepares the visitor for the immense variety of landscapes: the high ridges of the east are densely clad in arbutus, heather and fern, and have the majesty of Scottish glens; some of the valleys and plateaux of the southwest, are wide, sandy and boulder-strewn as though they were parts of Colorado; gorges with water falls and plane trees alternate with upland screes of improbably sculpted rock; there are forests of pine and of dwarf holm-oak; and however steep the gradient, it seems that every pocket that could be cultivated or terraced, has been. This is a volcanic landscape, and the evidence of the raw energy which formed it bubbles to the surface on the south coast where Ikaria’s famous radioactive thermal springs have given both pleasure and therapeutic relief for well over two thousand years. Some of the springs are organised in spa establishments; others rise in the open by the sea.
The island has the remains of three ancient settlements, one of which, Drakanon, has a position and ruins which are superb and unforgettable. At the very opposite end of the island, the ancient port and sanctuary of Artemis Tauropolos at Nas is smaller and more intimate, but no less evocative. At the third, Oenoe, which was probably the island’s largest settlement in Antiquity, a number of interesting buildings from Late Classical and Byzantine times have survived. All are, in different ways, unusual sites.
The unique fascination of Ikaria, though, is its ‘wild west’—the western extremity of the island, into whose protected and beautiful interior the inhabitants retreated from the threat of piracy and invasion for long periods in more recent history. Here can be found the strange troglodyte dwellings—half natural granite boulder, half stone-built house—which were used during these periods of retreat which have come to be known as ‘the disappearances’. Here also are the ‘Raches’ (‘ridges’), the protected network of villages high above, where the life of this part of the island is centred and still follows its own idiosyncratic hours long into the night, as it was wont to do during ‘the disappearances’. This area is, in many ways, the true heart of the island, for neither of the two main coastal towns, Aghios Kirykos and Evdilos, has the feel of an island chora.
Strange rocks, strange landscapes, strange waters, strange habits—at times, strange people—welcoming, unaffected, but idiosyncratic. Largely untrammelled by the less attractive aspects of modernity, Ikaria has pre served a particularly independent Greek identity—and a landscape that is equally rewarding for the naturalist, the rambler, the anthropologist, and the photographer.
Ikaria Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island group