Thank you to our friends and families for following our journey from afar.
Thank you to the beautiful people of Ikaria for opening your hearts and homes to us.
May we meet again someday!
Thank you to our friends and families for following our journey from afar.
Thank you to the beautiful people of Ikaria for opening your hearts and homes to us.
May we meet again someday!
After two months in Magganitis, it is almost time for us to leave Ikaria from the port town of Evdilos.
This is where the Nissos Mykonos ferry between Ikaria and Piraeus (Athens area) docks several times a week in the winter.
This ferry is leaving on a Sunday afternoon for Piraeus, a port outside Athens. We will be taking the same ferry on Tuesday, very early in the morning.
This is one of the only times traffic jams occur on Ikaria!
Despite their relaxed attitude about many other things, the Greeks run a punctual and efficient transportation system.
Note #1: When you are waiting for the ferry on a Greek island, do not set your luggage down in the port area unattended. It may not get stolen, but there is a strong possibility a stray dog will pee on it.
Note #2: When you get on the ferry, do not set your luggage down on the floor next to any other luggage. Greek islanders like to transport freshly caught fish, olive oil, and other products that are leaky and messy. You may find, like me, that when you go to get your bag off the floor of the luggage hold at the end of an eight hour ferry ride, that it, and all the contents, are completely soaked with fish juice.
Narcissi have been prized since ancient times for their fragrance. According to Greek mythology, Narcissus was a handsome man who fell in love with his own reflection. He pined away for this unattainable reflection of himself so long that he eventually withered away from longing. A patch of these flowers were found by the water in the place where he died, and ever since have been called Narcissus.
There are several ways of spearfishing – with a non-mechanical spear, or with a harpoon gun. The spearfisher pictured above is using a harpoon gun.
Commercial Western Santa Clauses such as pictured above are becoming more common around Greece, but the Greeks actually have their own version of Santa Claus that is called “Agios Vassilis,” or “Saint Basil.” He is tall and thin, and brings presents for January 1st instead of the 25th of December.
The story of St. Basil is much the same as of St. Nick – he was generous and kind, and helped many poor and needy people throughout his lifetime. He died on the 1st of January, which is why he is celebrated on that day every year.
In Greece, as in much of Europe, Christmas is a much more quiet and subdued affair than Easter, which is the biggest religious holiday of the year.
Greek Christmas starts on December 25th, and continues until its culmination with “Epiphany” on January 6th – a total of twelve days.
On several days during the 12 days of Christmas (Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and Epiphany Eve), children in Greece go door to door carol singing and wishing people prosperity. The carols are accompanied by simple triangles or sometimes drums. Children are often given small amounts of money or other treats in return. This tradition has been alive since ancient Greece, and many kalanda verses today are comparable to their ancient counterparts.
A vegetable and bean soup such as this was prepared in ancient Greece as well. It was used as food, but also as a sacrifice to the god Apollo, who was one of the most widely revered gods in ancient Greece and Rome. But be aware that if you order soup or stew in Greece, it may seem more like drinking olive oil – with a few morsels of food added for flavor!
There is a plethora of traditional Greek stringed instruments. Bouzoukis are the most common instrument featured on television for holiday performances, but violins, guitars, lyra, and laoto can also be heard from time to time.
Going to visit someone’s house around Christmastime is inevitably accompanied by two things: a display of family photos and … finikia.
Finikia appear in massive numbers around the holidays. It is almost certain that you will be force-fed finikia if you go to anyone’s house during Christmas and around the New Year. The cookies are always oval-shaped, dairy-free, and made with very few ingredients – flour, olive oil, baking powder, orange juice, and a little sugar. They have slight variations from house to house; sometimes they are prepared with nuts, or rolled in powdered sugar, but their general flavor is always the same. The Greeks seem to eat finikia not so much with enthusiasm, as with devotion and stamina.
In Greece, “oula” is often added to the end of female names as a diminutive. For example, if a woman’s name is “Kiriaki,” Greek for ‘Sunday,’ she may then be nicknamed “Koula,” using the last consonant of ‘k’ at the end of her name. At some point, her nickname may be tampered with further, using the feminine dimunitive suffix “litsa.” Thus her name may morph into “Koulitsa,” and then even get shortened to “Litsa,” which in no way resembles the original name of “Kiriaki,” or “Koula.” The town is full of various “Oulas,” and we have trouble remembering whether they are “Koula,” or “Roula,” or “Shula,” and so on. It is even more confusing given that they are all approximately the same age, and most likely related, as everyone here is cousins.
If you are wondering if there is an equivalent for male names, the answer is yes. It is “akis.” A name such as “Panagiotis” may turn into “Panagiotakis” and then into “Takis.”
We are invited to Nikki’s house for New Year’s Eve dinner. People keep accumulating throughout the evening. Everyone who walks in the door gets a plate of food put down in front of them. Nikki has prepared an enormous amount of food – a habit leftover from years of feeding five children daily. There are various salads, beef, pork, homemade bread, homemade wine, and finikia!
After the New Year countdown, everyone circles around the room, kissing or shaking hands. Nikki sends us home with a loaf of Vassilopita – New Year’s coin bread.
We spend the day sitting outside at BouBoukakia, as BouBou and Kostas have invited us over for New Year’s dinner. Matthew takes a guess on which of the most precariously perched boulders on the ridge will be the next to fall.
BouBou swears that a fork works better than a knife for removing scales from fish.
Epiphany, which means “manifestation” or Theophany, “manifestation of God,” marks the culmination of the twelve days of Christmas. Orthodox Christians worldwide also know it as Blessings of the Waters Day. The villagers gather at the church for a ceremony.
The celebration of Epiphany is celebrated every year on January 6th, and commemorates the revelation of the Holy Trinity and Christ’s manifestation as Son of God through his baptism by John the Baptist.
After the ceremony in the church, the priest takes a cross down to the port at Magganitis for the Blessing of the Sea. Swimmers from the village dive in to compete for its retrieval, which is said to bring good fortune upon them for the entire year.
Traditionally, diving for the cross on Epiphany has been done by men only. In recent years, that has started to change. This year, Magganitis has a total of three people who are participating, with one of them a villager named Olga.
Retrieving the Epiphany cross is a great honor. It is especially meaningful for 62-year-old Olga, as she survived a recent accident in which her car overturned and went into the sea at the port of Evdilos. Luckily, there was a single bystander, who dove in and pulled her out of the water. Olga was unconscious in the hospital for some time, but eventually made a full recovery, and is now back to her usual strong and vibrant self.
In honor of the baptism of Christ, the church’s water is blessed. People fill up cups and bottles with this blessed water to take home with them to drink and to sprinkle on their livestock and their homes. The herbs on the table are also used by the priest and villagers to dip in the sanctified water and sprinkle on themselves and loved ones.
BouBoukakia, like Cafe Pantepoleion, has an assortment of groceries, food and drink. However, it is a more informal environment, and can be endlessly entertaining due to its charismatic owners, Roula (BouBou) and Kostas.
Kostas and BouBou have been happily together for 23 years. For 17 of those years, in the summertime, they have taken their boat to Seychelles beach, close to Magganitis, in order to sell drinks, sandwiches and snacks to islanders and travellers alike. This is one of the ways that they get to know people from all over!
BouBou and Kostas love growing plants and flowers, and have a patio that is made for spending all day outside.
Fran and Sander are two of our favorite people in the village. They come from Albania, which to Albanians is actually known as Shqiperia, “Land of Eagles.”
Not only does BouBou love cats, she also loves dogs. This is unusual in Ikaria, where dogs are even more unpopular than cats. Including Goofy, BouBou has a small collection of dogs which bark faithfully and loudly every time someone arrives. Given that she’s running a popular cafe and grocery, the cacophony is an all-day affair!
A number of Greeks chain-smoke in the cafes and tavernas. Though there are technically laws against this now, they are virtually never enforced by business owners. One of the reasons we love BouBoukakia is that it is the only place in Magganitis that we can go that is 100% smoke free. BouBou will kick you out if you light up in here.
In addition to the normal assortment of updates on car accidents, murders and riots, Greek television has lengthy reports on things such as specific olive oil prices across the country.
People filter in and out of BouBoukakia all day. Residents come to take breaks from work, buy groceries, drink beer, wine or coffee, eat small plates of food, watch TV and catch up on gossip.
Amongst the topics of conversation at BouBoukakia: how many olives you’ve picked so far, how much olive oil you got, which oil press you went to, whose goat got into whose garden and what to do about it, and how big an octopus someone just reeled in from the sea.
About once a week, a woman brings mail to our village. Because there are no addresses here, she takes the mail sequentially to each of the two cafes in town. She goes through the mail at each place, announcing the recipients’ names. The people at each cafe will take a handful of mail to deliver to their own friends and relatives. The unclaimed mail eventually goes into a box at the second cafe.
The woman pictured above is the only person assigned to deliver mail to Magganitis. If she is sick, the mail doesn’t come. This happened one week while we were here, and it caused quite a fuss amongst the townsfolk, many of whom depend on regular pension money that comes via the weekly mailperson.
Kostas used to be a ship’s cook. He does most of the cooking for himself, BouBou, and all the visitors to BouBoukakia.
Octopus is one of the favorite meals here in the village. It is normally served with a vinegar and herb dressing.
Kostas makes some of the best wine and liquor in town. This is a nice glass of homemade spiced liquor that has honey, cloves and other spices added.
Most of the vegetables in our meal, such as the lettuce and celery, come from their garden down the hill.
Our snail hitchhiker has lost his lettuce home, but we relocate him to a pot of other greens, where hopefully he will be just as happy.
While BouBou sticks around BouBoukakia to make sure she can serve customers, Kostas takes care of more of the outdoor work such as vegetable gardening and picking olives. Pictured above is a portion of Kostas’s olive harvest for the year.
Unfortunately, Kostas had two full sacks of olives stolen from him this year, a discouraging fact considering how few people live in Magganitis.
Though BouBou has decorated every surface with a busy array of objects, she is meticulous about cleaning everything daily, and fixes anything that doesn’t work just right.
This talisman is one of many that BouBou has hung in various places around the inside of BouBoukakia. It is meant to help protect against the curse of the evil eye, or “kako mati.” The Greeks, who are very superstitious, believe that a curse can be cast on someone through a glance that harbors negative intentions such as envy, malice, or even misplaced admiration. Signs someone may be affected by an evil eye curse include headaches, dizziness or a string of bad luck. Strangers, old women, or blue-eyed people are thought to cause the curse of the evil eye most frequently. This may be why most protective talismans in Greece are blue. According to Greek folklore, the talismans help bend the gaze of the evil eye back to the sorcerer.
References to the evil eye can be found in ancient texts, including the Bible. In Greece, references appear as far back as classical Greece, when people believed the eyes could be a source for rays of evil. This superstition was spread by Alexander the Great as he moved east. The concept is still going strong in many parts of the world; in Europe it is most prevalent in the Aegean and Mediterranean areas.
In fact, someone has now even developed an app for android phones that allows a user to log on to chat with a digital Greek grandma who guides the user through the steps necessary in order to rid yourself of the evil eye curse.
When I counted talismans hanging in BouBoukakia, I found at least ten.
It is widely believed in Magganitis that BouBou’s rabbit died as a result of an evil eye curse.
BouBou used to sell the smaller painted rocks at Seychelles Beach in the summertime for 5 Euros apiece, which is now about 6 dollars. Since the economic crisis in Greece, she cannot bring herself to charge more than a few Euros to people, and also has not raised prices at her cafe for some time.
For a reason we never discovered, many toilet seats in Greek bathrooms are either missing or stored separately from the toilet itself.
We’re pretty sure that somewhere in town, there is a nicer bathroom they reserve just for German tourists.
Don’t be fooled. This is actually a decorative piece of art in the shape of a toilet.
Pictured on the right is the tiny receptacle for disposing of all waste paper. A good deal of Greek plumbing problems are caused by tourists who forget about this and clog up the pipes.
Pine needles are not as easy to pee on as you might think.
Thank you, Old Forest, for humbly accepting our donation.
We wish we had this view from our bathroom at home…
A little church called Agios Taxiyarchis is nestled in the hills south of Magganitis.
Many trailheads in Ikaria are difficult to track down, and without actually travelling with a local, it can take a little while to find the right path.
After looking for this trailhead unsuccessfully for weeks, I discover it by accident while out walking one day.
This canyon of boulders is also riddled with streams and pools. The red dots are extremely difficult to locate in this area, and the boulders are wet and slippery.
I finally cross the boulder canyon, and find the red dots again. But then I realize that the church I’m trying to get to is on the side of the ravine I just came from! It is visible from a distance, but where is the path?
I go back to investigate. Sure enough, there is a tall fence separating me from the church.
I retrace my steps back through the gate I opened over an hour ago when I was so confidently following red dots. As it turns out, there is a short path to Agios Taxiyarchis on the other side. Within five minutes, and close to sundown, I am standing at my destination.
Saint Taxiyarchis is one of the patron saints of the Aegean islands. “Taxiyarchis” is translated literally as ‘commander,’ but the more commonly known English translation is ‘Archangel.’ More specifically, Taxiyarchis is often equated with Archangel Michael, leader and most powerful of all angels.
In less than an hour by foot, it is possible to reach the small church of Agios Nektarios from the center of Magganitis.
The church of Agios Nektarios is located west of our village, on the very rough road to Karkinagri, the westernmost settlement of Ikaria.
This path is so desolate that aside from the occasional car, all one can hear is the distant clinking of bells as the goats jump over the boulders in the mountains.
We have been in Ikaria for weeks, and though pork seems to make its way into every meal people try to feed us here, we never saw a single pig anywhere – until today! Most Ikarians do not have the luxury or habit of keeping animals as pets, and are mainly inclined to keep animals that serve a purpose, such as for meat, milk or eggs. This pig is surely destined to become a meal at some point, but since we will be leaving the island within a few weeks, we will probably not be around to partake in its demise.
Despite its bleakness, this path is an excellent place to witness some geology in action.
Southwestern Ikaria got its boulders through a process called “spheroidal weathering.” In places where this occurs, granite starts out by fracturing along joints in the subsurface, which splits the rocks into cubes. When water seeps into these cracks, chemical decay transforms the exposed areas into a type of granite sand called “grus.” The corners of the granite cubes have the most joint intersections, thus are the most susceptible to breaking down. This is why the boulders are rounded instead of angular. The process of spheroidal weathering all takes place underground, and the boulders are eventually exposed through the process of erosion.
Nektarios was born in the 1800s in an area that is now occupied by Turkey. He started as a shop assistant, then took a teaching job on the island of Chios. There he entered the local monastery and eventually was appointed deacon. As deacon, he was much admired for his writings and teachings, as well as his love and patience toward his flock. He was eventually ordained bishop in an Egyptian diocese. His popularity stirred envy in higher church officials, and he was eventually removed from his role.
He returned to Greece, continued to write and teach, and was inspired to found a monastery for women in Aegina. The monastery thrived, and Nektarios spent the rest of his days serving as a spiritual guide there. He was also visited by people from distant lands who sought advice and healing.
After his death, several miracles were attributed to him. Some years later, in 1961, the Orthodox Church declared him a saint. His feast day is celebrated on November 9th every year.
The church is locked. I look around for a key, but it is nowhere to be found.
After walking past the church, I come to what looks like a giant puddle, but is actually a stream that is flowing over the entire road.
Various sycamores grow all over the world. This variety, with lacier leaves, grows in Asia and Southern Europe. Sycamores prefer wet areas, and they are found predictably in Ikaria around streams and river canyons. They are some of the largest trees growing on the island.
This road leads to the west coast of Ikaria, and would take the better part of a day to walk there. Most cars don’t even come this far.
No matter which direction you walk from Magganitis, you will eventually reach a small church. This hike starts a short distance past Apostolis Restaurant, beginning with a staircase leading up from the easternmost houses of the village.
Alongside pine and olives, oak stands dominate the landscape here. In ancient times, the word for “oak” in Greek – “dris” – was also the word for ‘tree.’
Kermes oak varieties are much more tolerant of drought conditions than Holm oaks, and will take over areas where Holm oaks struggle to grow. They can easily thrive on sea cliffs and windy environments such as the area around Magganitis, but only at lower elevations, and not too far inland.
Ikaria remains remote, rugged, and undeveloped, with very little effort put toward tourist infrastructure. With this comes several frustrations, but also the very large reward of Ikaria’s largely untouched wilds – a walker’s paradise. Especially in the winter, it is possible to wander all day and see very few people and almost nothing man-made.
This little church lies in an area so isolated that a crime could occur in broad daylight and there wouldn’t be a single witness.
It may seem perplexing to outsiders why the Greeks have gone to such an effort to construct so many little churches in inaccessible places.
Throughout Greece, some of these churches are built on sites where miracles are thought to have occurred. But especially on islands, where people depended on the dangerous sea for their living, many churches were built in dedication to revered teachers or saints whom villagers believed would offer protection for their families.
This little church, Profitis Ilias, is dedicated to the prophet Elijah. According to Greek folklore, Profitis Ilias, who suffered much in his seafaring life, eventually left his quiet fishing village in order to find a place where people knew nothing of the sea or ships, and where he could do good beyond his known reality. He carried an oar with him for days as he traveled inland, seeking a place where his oar was not recognized as an oar, but instead as a simple stick. And he asked people as he traveled “Do you know what this is?” to which people kept answering “An oar.” Finally he came to a place far from the sea, high up on a mountaintop, where the oar was not recognized, and there he settled and built a church.
For this reason, chapels dedicated to Profitis Ilias are often built on the sides or tops of mountains, inland and away from the sea.
Near the church, ruins of stone shelters are scattered over the hillside. They are all in various stages of dilapidation.
Ikaria has a mild climate, and the winters are generally short. Because the village of Magganitis is on the south side of the island, it can be as much as ten degrees warmer in winter than the villages on the other side of the mountain.
Winter is also when Magganitis receives most of its rain. However, it tends to rain in small bursts and not constantly. There are also sporadic lightning storms and high winds. The warmer winds, “Notyas,” originate in Africa, while the colder winds and storms, “Voryas,” come from Northern Europe. There is also occasional hail, which can occur during otherwise pleasant weather.
We lose power and/or internet about once a week. If the lights don’t come back on by nightfall, we light a candle and go to bed early.
The winter weather in Magganitis is extremely changeable, which makes it imperative to seize the moment when there is a period of warmth and sunshine.
On every good weather day in December, the villagers continue busily harvesting olives. Mikalis is sorting through the last of his crop in order to separate the good and bad olives. It is later in the season and many of the olives have tiny holes where olive maggots have made their homes. The bad olives can still go to the olive press for oil, but cannot be preserved whole because they will rot.
We are out walking one day, and stop to help one of the villagers, Nikki, load her olive sacks into her vehicle.
Nikki and her sister Mersina are on their way to the oil press today. Nikki is a widow, and her five children all live in the United States or Canada. Like many others here, she calls her home in Ikaria “paradise,” but is also lonely for her family. She tries to stay busy here in the village.
On any given day, there is a very smoky fire going somewhere in the village or in the surrounding areas. But strangely enough, there never seems to be more than one at a time, which keeps the air in the village somewhat breathable.
The importance of these gardens should not be underestimated. Most Greeks who live in the city do not have access to their own fresh food and must buy everything. Here in Ikaria, people are able to gather vegetables and fruit from their garden year-round, so they are always guaranteed to have a plate of food on their table, even when money gets tight.
In past years, when Magganitis was even more isolated and received no imports, families had to gather and produce everything they needed. This is changing now, as imports and infrastructure increase.
We have a bit of trouble getting greens, due to the fact that we don’t have our own garden here. Ironically, since most people have vegetables and fruits at their homes, the cafes don’t even bother to stock them.
The cafe brought in a crate of lemons to sell, but they went moldy because no one was buying them. Everyone has too many lemons of their own!
Just taking a short walk in Magganitis can easily result in several dinner invitations. Tonight, Kostas invites us over to BouBoukakia for a fish meal.
The next night, at Cafe Pantepoleion, a fisherman named Giorgos very generously sends us home with two kilos of raw squid.
In the United States, when buying seafood such as squid, there is usually a certain amount of processing that has occurred before the consumer takes the product home. This is not the case in rural Greek villages.
Being novices to the cooking of squid, preparing the kalamari consumed the better part of a day. I should say that most of the day was actually spent staring at the leaking 2-kilo bag of squid, wondering what to do. And in the end, it was definitely one of the more time-consuming meals we’ve ever prepared.
We finally tackle it, but it is a two-person job.
The innards of the squid must be removed, including the rigid pen.
The sheath of speckled exterior flesh must be peeled off carefully and discarded. Otherwise the kalamari becomes tough while cooking.
Squid is extremely slippery, and we drop it multiple times while attempting to process it.
The “wings” and the ink sacs can be optionally retained for cooking, but since these are large squid, we choose not to use the wings, which can be tougher to prepare. And we accidentally puncture the ink sacs while pulling the entrails out. In the end, we have a good number of squid trimmings -the heads, eyes, hard pieces, beak, skin, and other inedible bits – which the cats are more than happy to eat for us.
What is left after our laborious effort: the smooth white ring-like exterior of the squid.
Our kitchen is covered in squid juice. We can’t get the smell off our hands, and we feel like we may never be clean again.
But…some onions, red wine, tomatoes, lemon and parsley…and a few hours later…
We have a delicious dinner! Thank you Giorgo!
Kalamari will always be a bit chewy, but if is cooked either very fast under high heat, or long and slow, it will eventually become quite tender as well. Anything in between these two cooking methods will result in a rubbery texture.
We get up early on the shortest day of the year and watch the sun come up over the sea.
This period of winter gets very quiet in the village, as many people head back to Athens until Easter. Nightlife is centered around the few cafes that are open for the locals. There are almost no tourists here at this time of year. The cozy and warm Cafe Doriforos is reliably open every evening – with drinks, small plates of food, and sometimes live music.
“Doriforos” means ‘satellite’ in English. The name of the cafe is used infrequently – instead, the locals say they are going to “Christina” – the name of the woman who runs the small taverna.
Christina is from the United States, born to a Greek family. She speaks fluent Greek and English. Now she lives here in Magganitis and runs the cafe.
Panagiotis has played the violin for years and seems to know an infinite number of songs. His repertoire includes traditional songs from the Aegean area and Greek islands: wedding songs, dances such as zeibetiko, rembetiko music, and even the occasional tango.
Panagiotis is playing the concert with a friend from Evdilos. Cafe Pantepoleion welcomes visitors from all over the island, who crowd in to hear good music, eat special food, and drink until all hours.
When the Greeks say the music goes all night, they aren’t kidding. Mid-morning, it is time to get a ride home with several other people. As it turns out, they are not going home to bed yet! Instead, they are going over to drink coffee at Vasso’s house.
Vasso sends cookies home with us. It is almost time for the sun to come up!