The coast: from Kambos to Armenistís
(Kambos = 0.0km)
After Kambos, the main road runs due west following the line of the shore. Beside the first sharp bend above the western side of the Kambos valley is the minuscule and ancient church of Aghia Sophia (1km), overlooking the sea. Its roof is in local schist tiles, and its low doorway constructed of marble spolia from nearby Oenoe. The coastline beyond offers many amenities for the visitor and holidaymaker: the stretch between Gialiskari and Armenistis, bordering two contiguous and beautiful sandy beaches, constitutes Ikaria’s principal tourist resort. Armenistis (9.5km) has a number of travel services, tavernas, and the widest variety of good hotels on the island. It is an attractive, and still little-developed village. The surrounding landscape has been badly damaged by for est fires in recent years, but is slowly re-foresting in areas.
The interior: From Kambos to Christos Rachon
(Kambos = 0.0km)
From the western side of the Kambos inlet, a beautiful route climbs southwest through the hills to the *Theoktistis Monastery (6km), immersed in trees and heavily scented air (visiting hours 8–1, 4–8). In origin this was a hermitic settlement, out of sight of the world, with a number of caves for dwellings, hollowed out from under the huge natural monoliths that punctuate the landscape in this area. The appearance of these dwellings is remark ably similar to some in Cappadocia, in central Anatolia— an area with which the original hermits here may well have had contact. Today there is only one resident monk.
The catholicon is a small vaulted building, heavily buttressed at its western end. It is remarkable for the 17th century cycle of wall-paintings in its interior which, though over-cleaned in the past, is almost complete and reveals an unusually sophisticated style. Of particular interest are: the Baptism of Christ in a River Jordan teeming with fish—one particularly large one by his foot—playing on the Christological symbolism of fish (south side of ceiling); the panels depicting the dominating presence of the Archangels, and of St George with the Dragon; and a dramatic Christ and the Harrowing of Hell and the raising of Adam, Eve and good pagan souls from Limbo. The style is sophisticated and confident, full of vigour and clarity of design, indicating that this painter was no local, vernacular artist.
Directly behind the outside of the east end of the church is a cramped, rock-cut hermit’s sleeping cell; another is at the foot of the steps to the south of the monastery area; and the largest—and most dramatically troglodytic of all—at the top of the flight of steps, sandwiched below a projecting granite boulder of preposterous dimensions. The hermit’s ‘lair’ has been walled in and converted into a simple chapel, embellished with a pleasingly painted wooden screen. In icons and in Early Christian thinking, a cave symbolises man’s ignorant and unenlightened con dition in this world, as he waits upon the illumination of the Divine: in the daily cycle of hermitic life, the hermit returns each night into its darkness, so as to be able newly to rejoice in the redeeming light of the following dawn— the symbol of divine enlightenment.
In the village of Pigi (6.5km) just above the monastery are two stone-roofed churches side by side, typical of so many in the area—simple, unpainted, vaulted spaces, with occasionally some ancient or Byzantine spolia incorporated into the fabric, as is the case here in the lower of the two churches, dedicated to Aghios Ioannis Theologos. From Maratho (7.5km) to the monastery of the Annunciation (‘Moni Mounte’) (12.3 km) the road winds through woods of pine and ilex, chestnut and oak, interspersed with rock boulders on the sandy floor. The monastery feels institutional after the spontaneity of Theoktistis; its more modern buildings (19th century) are the immaculate home of a small community of nuns. There is great tranquility in its shaded setting and its courtyard where it is possible to have refreshments. Shortly beyond, the road passes across a small and picturesque artificial lake, created for water conservation and now home to a variety of resident and migrating birds.
Spread across a wide hollow between rugged hills, Raches (‘ridges’) is in effect a collection of several contiguous villages; its principal centre, ‘Christos Rachon’ (16.5km), is an unexpected pleasure to come upon, however—lush, peaceful, hidden away and difficult to perceive as a whole, because its seemingly endless tissue of tiny houses immersed each in its own garden is soon lost in the dense vegetation. Bustling with life, especially when the young emerge from school into its tiny centre of stone-paved streets shaded by pergolas or trees and lined with cafes and tavernas, Christos has long been the commercial centre of this part of the island, in particular during the periods of the ‘disappearances’. It is still the heart of the west of the island today—a large and relaxed community of prospering villagers who, being used to managing their own affairs for long periods, have acquired an eccentric independence of language, manners and time and a pleasing insouciance towards the rest of the world. The ‘outside’ world seems unusually far away here.
Raches is the heart of an area which is well-suited for walking: information and maps for suggested routes are available in Christos Rachon, in the photography and stationery shops.
*Detour to Aghios Isidoros, Langada and Kalamos
(For distances, Kambos = 0.0 km)
It is beyond Raches to the south that the unforgettable character of western Ikaria is most to be felt. There is a good, but un-metalled, road which passes through Karydies (17.5km), climbs onto the plateau of Stravokountoura, passes Pezi (23.5km), Aghios Isidoros (27km), descends to Langada (30.5km), and eventually finishes on the south coast at Karkinagri (40km). *It is one of the more varied and memorable and dramatic stretches of road in the Aegean. (The return can be made to Armenistis by the coast road, as per the last section below in reverse order.)
From Raches the road heads due south through the walnut groves of Karydies. 1.5km west of Karydies, the asphalt ends at a junction (19km): from here the left branch climbs steeply south through pine-woods onto a plateau where the road runs beside an artificial water reservoir. The wide, shallow valley to the south of the reservoir, is at first fertile and green, but bordered by ridges of pure rock; by the time you reach the signposted junction for Aghios Isidoros (25.5km), the landscape has al ready become a sandy, boulder-strewn desert. The short detour (1.3km) from here to Aghios Isidoros leads over the watershed and drops down on the southern face of the ridge, through woods of miniature ilex trees to the solitary church and spring of Aghios Isidoros (once a hermitage), looking out at immense height over a balcony of improbably shaped rocks to the sea. There is a taverna here—surely one of the boldest places imaginable to have a taverna: it opens only in the summer, and bursts into life naturally at the feast of Aghios Isidoros on 14 May, when this remote spot is transformed by crowds of local pilgrims. After returning again to the junction, the road climbs over a barren rocky plateau to the watershed; just beyond, it bursts upon the densely green and watered valley of *Langada (27km). This wide and beautiful upland valley is completely cut off and invisible from the sea—hence its choice as the principal retreat during the ‘disappearances’ of the 15th to 18th centuries, when the local inhabitants withdrew from proximity to the coast to avoid pirate raids, and established self-governing and undisturbed communities in places such as this. Langada was the principal among these, and was the seat of the islanders’ self-appointed council and chief: the abandoned municipal buildings from this period are still to be seen at the northeastern end of the valley. Some sense of Langada’s importance as a capital is given by the impressive church of the Panaghitsa, at the base of the valley amidst a grove of immense and ancient plane-trees. The numerous ranks of stone tables and seats below these giant planes scarcely accommodate all the visitors who come here for the interminable eating, drinking and dancing during the island’s greatest panegyri for the Feast of the Virgin (14–16 August). The feast’s importance—and the significance of this almost deserted place of Langada—is still deeply felt by the islanders.
After Langada, the road climbs once more, now in sight of the sea, traverses a ridge of massive boulders and descends sharply, passing the picturesque and abandoned stone farmhouses of Kalamos (34km). These scattered buildings, hidden and shaded by pines, which blend perfectly with the rocky cliff face are amongst the best ex mples of the island’s vernacular architecture—well-pro portioned, securely built and, in materials and design, at one with the landscape. Below Kalamos the road joins the coastal route from Armenistis to Karkinagri — subject of the next section.
Ikaria Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island group
The coast: From Kambos to Armesistis.