There are very few indoor cats in Magganitis. People throw food to feral cats for part of the year, but when many of the Ikarians leave the village for the winter, the cats must fend for themselves.
We met these two sisters when they were tiny kittens, only about a month old. They were malnourished, as was their mother. All are infected with parasites, get ticks regularly, and have bouts of diarrhea frequently. We have been feeding these cats for about two months, and they are well on their way to adolescence.
This kitten, who is a little smaller than her two sisters, was the first to contract cat flu as a baby, and may have had her growth stunted. Cat flu is rampant in feral cat populations, and can be serious in kittens.
This cat is about to sneak into the kitchen of this taverna to look for food. When it gets kicked out, it comes begging to us. When that doesn’t work, it contents itself with eating a fly.
This enormous cat, named Mustafa, hangs out at BouBoukakia. He can look big and sometimes intimidating, and clearly gets into a fair number of brawls, but he’s perfectly friendly toward humans.
This cat, though also sizable himself, is smaller than Mustafa and is considered lower on the dominance chain. He spends most of his time hanging about BouBoukakia meowing for attention and provoking Mustafa.
BouBou is the only person we know of here who not only feeds the feral cats, but also gives them worm medicine every few months and removes their ticks.
BouBou claims to have once owned 44 cats. Though she now feeds several feral cats, the only cat she allows inside is this large orange cat named FriFriko.
Every cat has its spot in the village. This cat hangs out at Cafe Pantepoleion and is affectionate with absolutely everything, whether it is alive or not.
We call this kitten “Little White Kitty.” He is an exceptionally tiny cat and does not appear to be growing much at all. He is the most affectionate cat we’ve met here, and purrs non-stop. When we feed him, he is more interested in being petted than eating food. Sometimes we have to stand out of sight while he eats so he doesn’t see us and lose interest in the kibble. When we leave home, he frequently trots after us happily, following us to wherever we are going and waiting outside the door until we’re done – not because he’s hungry, but because he likes our company. This has gotten him into trouble with some of the bigger cats who “own” the territory he wanders into when he follows us. He doesn’t seem cut out to be a feral cat, and we hope he survives after we leave next month. We love you, Little White Kitty!
It’s another entrance into the Old Forest, or “Ranti Forest!”
The first part of the trail follows the plateau along the top of the Atheras ridge.
Decaying olive pits look almost exactly like goat dung. Apparently these beetles are sometimes duped too, because we noticed one rolling an olive pit up a slope for a few seconds before realizing its mistake.
Holm Oak is also known as ‘Holly Oak’ (Holm is an ancient word for ‘holly’). Indeed, younger leaves or leaves on younger oak trees have holly-like leaves, with spines around the edge.
If you look closely, you can see the whitish down that coats the surfaces of the young leaves. As the leaves age, they will acquire a glossier texture, visible below.
Older leaves or leaves on an older tree are smoother without toothed edges.
In ancient Greece, acorns were a fertility symbol, and the acorn motif was popular on jewelry and other adornments.
Acorns from Holm Oak are sweeter than the acorns from most other species, and, once leached of their tannins, can be toasted or used as flour. In fact, many older generations of Ikarians remember their parents making acorn flour during the scarce times after the war.
Holm Oaks, native to the Mediterranean, are one of the most popular trees chosen for the cultivation of truffle orchards, due to the fact that their roots develop a symbiotic relationship with the fungus, attracting them to the bases of trees.
The oldest Holm Oaks in Europe are between 500 and 1000 years old.
Holm Oaks are slow growers, but can eventually reach an average height of 82 feet, with a spread of 68 feet.
Oaks were held in high regard in ancient Greece. It is believed that the Holm Oak was the oak species that was used early on in the oracle at Dodona, where Zeus foretold the future by speaking through the rustling leaves.
The shrine at Dodona is the oldest Greek oracle, dating back to the second millenium B.C.
After Dodona stopped functioning as a pagan site, the sacred oak at Dodona was eventually cut down. Following the invasion by the Slavs in the 6th century, the site was completely abandoned, and later replaced by the famous oracle at Delphi.
Just outside the village, there is a renowned freshwater spring called “Athanatou Nero” or “Water of Immortality,” which flows out from amongst granite rocks. The water is drinkable and said to have therapeutic properties.
In the 19th century, the area around Xylosirtis was filled with cypress trees. They were eventually felled in order to build masts for sailboats.
When you’re on a remote island for several months, a clear view of neighboring islands makes for an exciting day.
There is no charge to visit these hot springs. In true Greek fashion, there are also no safety signs. If you want to go scald all the skin off your body, you are free to do so without any interference from anyone at all. If you do go for a soak, the trick is to find a spot that is a good mix of cooler sea water and heated water from the springs.
This hot spring at Lefkada belongs to a cluster of radon-rich sodium-chloride hot springs on Ikaria’s southeast coast. Ikaria’s geothermal springs rank amongst the most radioactive in the world. At Therma, just east of Agios Kirykos, there are organized spa facilities utilizing five of the known springs. These hot springs have been treasured for therapeutic purposes since the 4th century B.C. Remnants of the ancient spas such as marble bathtubs and aqueducts still exist, though most of ancient Thermae was probably destroyed by an earthquake in 205 B.C.
Not only is much of Ikaria protected under the EU Natura 2000 program, it is also classified as an Important Bird Area. The island’s habitat is ideal for several kinds of raptor and also serves as a critical migratory passage and breeding area for many other types of birds, including rare and endangered species.
We are in the village of Faros looking for the road to Drakano Tower. The island becomes so narrow at its eastern tip, that from a hill here in Faros looking north, we can easily see Ikaria’s small airport.
Drakano Tower, constructed in 330 B.C. during the reign of Alexander the Great, was an important military outpost due to its location at the eastern tip of Ikaria and its proximity to the island of Samos (seen in the photograph above). Ships sailing between Ikaria and Samos could be easily monitored from this vantage point, which affords a view of the Aegean Sea in almost every direction.
According to legend, the area around Drakano was the birthplace of Dionysos – god of wine, madness, and ecstasy. It is believed that a cave at the nearby beach of Iero was used by ancients as a temple of worship for the god. But watch out for the Satyrs and Mainades who still roam these areas looking for unsuspecting tourists to lure into a drunken orgy.
In 1827, Drakano Tower was damaged when the Greek navy used it for target practice. The tower has since been restored, and is currently one of the best-preserved watchtowers of the Hellenistic Age.
Female Amergilla bees build nests, which they also sleep in. But male Amergilla bees, which are nest-less, often settle down overnight on a choice grass blade in a sheltered spot. During dusk, a group of male bees may be seen buzzing about the area as they congregate to choose a grass stalk for the night, groom themselves, and eventually quiet down for some rest. One grass blade often hosts multiple bees.
Chaste Tree berry has a peppery perfumy flavor that is reminiscent of coriander and clove, and is used throughout the Middle East in culinary spice blends.
The medicinal use of chaste tree dates back several thousand years, and it is still one of the most popular herbs in America and Western Europe for treating gynecological conditions. The origin of the name lies in the old belief that the herb would help reduce “urges of the flesh.” Monks often chewed both the leaves and berries, and chaste tree berry syrup was given to nuns to repress sexual desire.
Carob is an evergreen plant, suited well for unimproved soil and able to produce a reliable and versatile food source even during poor conditions. Its tap root can extend over 100 feet down, enabling it to survive long droughts.
Every part of the fruit (produced only by female carob trees in the wild) is edible. The pod is roasted and then ground up to be used as a ‘chocolate substitute.’ The seeds are used to make locust bean gum – an emulsifier and thickener that is used in food applications such as confection, but also in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.
Carob seeds, which tend to be very consistently sized, are thought to have been the original measurement for the ‘carat,’ used by jewelers.
Mastic is an evergreen plant in the pistachio family. Ikaria has mastic trees like the one pictured above, which are utilized by Ikarians as medicine. However, the most well-known kind of mastic is the variety that grows in Chios, Greece, which weeps resin when cut. These “tears of Chios” or ‘mastic gum’ are harvested in summer by locals in the traditional way, then dried and marketed throughout the world. The name of the plant may originate from the Greek word “masso,” ‘to chew,’ or may also come from the ancient Greek verb “mastix,” ‘to whip,’ due to the old practice of whipping (instead of the modern practice of cutting) the mastic bark in order to produce the resin.
Mastic gum has a strong resinous flavor. It has been used since ancient times for gastrointestinal issues, and it is still marketed today as a natural treatment for conditions such as ulcers.
We eventually locate some plain potato-chips, which are labeled as “Salt-flavored.”
Given the amount of feta most Greeks eat in one sitting, this container will likely yield only four or five servings!
The area next to the port, which is visible in the photograph above, is usually full of vehicles. Due to the high winds and water, they have almost all been moved away in order to prevent damage.
Many of the feral cats in Greece are Aegean cats, a breed that has developed naturally, without selective breeding by humans, and is therefore resistant to many usual genetic diseases. Aegean cats originate from the Cyclades – a group of islands that lies directly to the southwest of Ikaria. The cats are usually bi-colored or tri-colored, with white being the most dominant color.
The large letters on the side of the wall spell out “Welcome to the island of Ikaria” in Greek.
According to Greek mythology, Icarus – son of Daedalus – carelessly flew too close to the sun, melted his wax wings, and plunged into the sea just off the southern coast of Ikaria.
This rock can be reached by boat from our village, but most people have taken their boats out of the dock for the winter, so we are unlikely to go on any excursions.
Lambros’s sister, Athina, will be staying in Athens until next year. He doesn’t miss her nagging him to put on extra sweaters all the time, but he does miss her cooking. He’s finally solved the food issue by paying one of the women in the village to cook him a daily meal for 150 Euros a month, which equals about $180. He spends the rest of his time feeding stray cats, watching television, taking walks, watering plants, and enjoying general peace and quiet.
The winding narrow road that goes from the southern coast near Magganitis over the top of the Atheras ridge becomes dangerous in weather like this. We have gotten used to checking visibility daily.
This photo represents our drive over the top of the mountain. Shortly after the photo was taken, we almost collided with a car that was driving down the middle of the road with no headlights on. I wish I could say this is unusual – but in Greece, most drivers seem to have a death wish.
These two vehicles are stopped in the middle of the road while the drivers have a nice leisurely conversation. This is an extremely common sight in Ikaria, where no one is ever worried about time.
We see this blue pickup almost every day we take our car out. This particular day, it is transporting a fresh goat skin and a barrel of wine.
This reservoir is located at an altitude of 1600 feet in a natural depression created by the mountaintops surrounding Raches. Because the location was naturally efficient for the collection of rainwater flowing off the mountain peaks, Ikarians constructed a small dam here, on the river Myrsonas, that captures the water that would otherwise go to waste.
In times of heavy rainfall, the excess water flows into the sea as it would naturally. No project to harness this excess water has yet been finalized, though over the years, there have been murmurings of a project for a hydroelectric plant.
Unfortunately, due to our off-season visit, not a single building was open.
There is one monk who tends to the monastery today. He gives tours and holds occasional services.
Nas is as far west as we can come on the main road from Evdilos. If we continue down the west part of the island on the dirt road toward Karkinagri, we will no longer be covered under our rental car agreement.
Nas, beloved by Ikarians, is believed to be the very first settlement on the island, and was an important port for ships seeking harbor on the way to Asia Minor.
The word “Nas” is thought to be derived from the Greek work for temple, “Naos,” or a modification of the ancient name”Ma,” used for the goddess Artemis throughout Asia Minor.
According to historical records, the temple’s statue of Artemis, which was originally housed in the temple, was hidden in the nearby river. The giant columns of the temple are visible underwater if snorkeling off the coast.
In order to access the trailhead, which is difficult to find and obscured on the side of the road, we start from the main road through Nas and continue toward Karkinagri. Just past Nas, the road curves and there is a small overpass that crosses over the canyon. We park at this point, next to the small pool pictured above, and locate a red marker for the trail on the east side of the overpass, climbing along the side of the hill.
The trail, which climbs along the steep slope of the Chalaris Canyon, promises to shred shoes and weaken knees, and is not recommended for those who are scared of heights.
In 2005, a native Ikarian advocated for the development of hiking paths throughout this area, in an effort not only to bring awareness to the natural beauty of the gorge, but also to promote future protection of Chalaris Canyon in the face of environmental concerns such as overgrazing.
A network of trails was subsequently etched into the landscape here – a labor of love on the part of local volunteers from groups such as SCI Hellas volunteers and the Citizens’ Movement of Raches.
Tragically, in the fall of 2010, torrential rainstorms caused a massive landslide on the overgrazed, fragile slopes of Lower Chalaris Canyon, which leveled the earth and destroyed most of the trees, waterfalls, caves and pools along the river. A huge amount of debris was strewn throughout the canyon – mostly broken plastic irrigation tubing – and required a massive clean-up during the following spring.
The Upper Chalaris Canyon is preserved in its previous state, and is considered to be an even more challenging hike that allows access to a waterfall and pool network within the Raches area. However, the only entrance to the trail that we could locate, near Profitas Elias just past Christos Raches, does not appear to be upkept, and is inaccessible from the road.
The inner western section of Ikaria was historically very isolated. Up until several decades ago, the trails that were created by locals over hundreds of years served mainly Ikarians themselves. They were intended for pedestrians and animals who were transporting various goods from one village to another.
Since 1995, an eco-tourism effort has been underway, with the support of local organizations, to maintain and extend this network of trails so that all visitors may enjoy the rugged beauty of the island’s interior.
The trail markers for the Round of Raches are clearly marked, with various colors and shapes denoting which trails to follow. This happens to be the trail that is marked with a yellow-bordered red dot, which means that at some point, this trail will split into a red-marked trail and a separate yellow-marked trail.
The hike from Nas to Raches and back takes about five-six hours.
In summer, Armenistis is the most popular village in Ikaria, due to its proximity to the more desirable sandy beaches as well as the hiking trails of Raches. In winter, it is a ghost town.
“Philoxenia,” or friendship to strangers, is an ancient concept that developed when Greeks believed that gods, disguised as strangers, walked amongst them. The ritual of this reciprocal hospitality seems to persist today, and is a point of pride for many Ikarians.
Grocery shopping for two items may last for several hours because the shopkeeper wants to pour us wine, feed us homemade food, and socialize.
We’ve lost count of how many times we’ve gone to pay for our drinks at the end of a night in the village cafe, only to find out that one of our Greek friends has already covered the tab.
We also get frequent invitations to people’s houses. Because it is a small village, there are no addresses here. People give directions using landmarks instead.
Today we are going to visit Mikalis, an acquaintance who lives outside Magganitis. Our only instructions are to walk west a few miles out of town and look for his house near a small church called Agios Nektarios.
Mikalis lives in an area that was once a fertile and desirable place for villagers to have their gardens. Now it is mostly barren – with rocks, small trees, and the occasional goat.
Luckily, his house is easy to find because it is incongruous with traditional Ikarian architecture: he has built a North American-style cabin using large cedar logs that his son transported from Chillawack, British Columbia.
Not all bathrooms in Greece have shower stalls, and even fewer have bathtubs. For instance, after we take showers in our apartment bathroom (the whole room is the shower stall), we squeegee the water down the drain with a dustpan and wipe down the floor with a towel.
Almost no toilet in Greece can accommodate toilet paper. There are small bins in all bathrooms where waste paper must be disposed of.
The wine pictured in the carafe is homemade, like much of the wine encountered in Ikaria. It is all within a year old – and at the rate Ikarians drink it, does not last into the second year anyway. The flavor of each family’s wine is unique, and most do not resemble the commercially distributed wine we are familiar with – but instead have varying degrees of dry earthiness, sweetness, or band-aid like aroma (high Brettanomyces yeast concentration) that take some time to get used to. Nonetheless, the local wine tastes clean on the palate and pairs well with most of the simple food here.
Visiting Ikarians is an open-ended endeavor that could potentially last all day. People are profoundly generous and are often inexhaustible hosts.
And of course, all Greek households have an infinite supply of bread, feta, wine, and stories, thereby giving guests no excuse at all to ever leave.
Both men and women may be named after patron Saint Nikolaos. For instance, we know multiple men named “Nikos,” and several women called “Nikki.”
Like the majority of churches in Ikaria, Agios Nikolaos follows the Greek Orthodox tradition. The Greek Orthodox Church has been an integral part of maintaining identity and culture in Greece, especially while Greeks lived under Ottoman control for hundreds of years. Most important holidays are connected with the Church.
During the two hour church service, people filter in when they are able. The ritual of entering the church involves crossing oneself, and kissing one or more of these icons.
It is also customary to take beeswax candles to light, as a prayer either for oneself or a loved one in need. Candles are an important symbol of faith in the Church, and are displayed prominently.
The first time I attended a church service here, I did not realize that there was a “men’s” side, and a “women’s” side, and I went to stand in the first spot I saw, which happened to be on the “men’s” side. Immediately, a lady from across the aisle smiled and motioned to me to come sit down next to her. I thought she was just happy to see me! It was only later that I realized I was just getting put in the “proper spot.”
The bread loaves are all slightly different, but they are all made with wheat and are slightly sweet, often containing seeds such as fennel or sesame.
There would normally be live music performed for a nameday celebration like this. However, due to the recent death of a musician from Magganitis, a period of respect is observed in which other musicians refrain from playing during events.
Going to the cafe to drink, eat and talk after church service helps bind everyone in the village together socially.
After the nameday celebration at Agios Nikolaos, people continue celebrating for the rest of the day in their homes. Little parties happen all over Magganitis, and people may go from one house to another – to drink, eat, and enjoy good company for hours on end.
BouBoukakia is an eclectic and colorful space: groceries are shelved amongst knick-knacks of all sorts – beach stones in bottles, shells, ceramic figurines, family photos, and plants. Bou-Bou also serves food here, but the grocery/cafe keeps informal hours in the winter, so it’s best to call ahead.
We are told by a local that during this time of year, olive tree injuries in Greek hospitals increase exponentially.