By Marianna Hunt, journalist
Feature in I News on October 26, 2023.
In the Eastern Aegean, this large island has a curious history and family-run accommodation with rooms for less than £60 a night.
“Just follow the music”, Rania, my guide, had said. We stumbled along the forest path in the pitch-black. It felt like we were going in circles. The sound of folk violins and strumming seemed to be getting quieter. Had we gone wrong?
Suddenly we burst out into a bright clearing festooned with fairy lights. On a carpet of pine needles, 20 picnic tables were spread out and crowded with Greek families.
Gnawed carcasses of roasted goat, tureens of feta salad and one-litre plastic bottles of home-made wine covered the tables.
A tiny Orthodox church was stooped underneath the pines. In front, a seven-person band meddled out folk tunes as people hopped and twisted slowly, then faster and faster, in concentric circles. The band had been playing for hours and would continue until the sun rose the next day.
We had arrived at the panigiri – a kind of Greek village festival that has taken place on various saints’ feast days for hundreds of years. They are celebrated all over the Greek archipelagos and parts of the mainland but Ikaria, the island where I was staying, is particularly well known for them.
There had been whisperings that one would happen down in the fisherman’s village of Armenistis, but no one seemed to be able to say for sure where or when. “Just drive into the mountains at sunset, look for where all the cars are parked, and follow the music on foot from there,” I was told.
We queued for pork skewers (whole goats were sold out) and grabbed some of the “moonshine” wine (so acidic it was almost undrinkable, unless watered down).
At about 1am, four bonfires were lit and youths ran at the flames, leaping over one, then another.
An American consultant who I’d met at my hotel, and had come with me to the festival, grabbed my hand and we jumped too, flames grasping fruitlessly for our ankles. It was exactly the experience I’d wanted from my visit to Ikaria, an island which some describe as the last bastion of real Greece.
Located a 55-minute flight (or via a ferry of around eight-hours) from Athens, Ikaria is just east of glitzy Mykonos. Culturally, though, the two islands feel poles apart.
As we zipped along the craggy roads to Armenistis, Rania explained how Ikaria had, for centuries, been cut off from the rest of the world by its rough tides, lack of natural ports and attacks by the pirates that inhabited the neighbouring island of Fourni. Still today, she said, it receives far fewer visitors than better-known islands.
“My great-grandfather was executed as one of the last pirates at the end of the 19th century,” she added matter-of-factly. “It’s always been a place for non-conformists and political exiles.”
After the Second World War, around 10,000 Communists were exiled to Ikaria (more than doubling the existing population). Many stayed and, according to Rania, this enhanced the island’s already strong communal spirit. Just as she said it we drove past hunks of rock graffitied with red hammers and sickles.
Perhaps because of that communist legacy, Ikaria is also uncommercial. On my first day, we drove to another seaside town, Therma, where hot thermal springs bubble up under an open cave just by the shore. Expecting to be charged some kind of entry fee, I found I could just dive in and splash about in the warm water for as long as I liked.
The next day, I walked 50 minutes from Armenistis to the Temple of Artemis, which sits on a beach in the village of Nas. It was just me, the sunset and the crumbled remains of the shrine, which dates back around 8,000 years.
Entry to the panigiri was also free and the food and wine are cheap (one litre of wine, one litre of water and two plates of food cost about €20/£17). Any profits are spent on necessary works in the host village, such as repairing roads or signs.
The only accommodation seemed to be family-run hotels or guest houses, which are well-priced for a Greek island. I based myself at the Erofili Beach Hotel (which shuts for winter).
For €68 a night, you get a plain but comfortable double room with your own seaview terrace, a large outdoor pool and generous home-cooked breakfasts of fresh fruit and sweet and savoury filo pastries. A room at a similar hotel on Kalymnos during the same period would start from around €116–€160 on Kefalonia, according to Sunvil Holidays, a travel agent.
The nearby beaches were clean and uncrowded – although locals did warn me not to swim out too far because of the strong tides.
As for the food, don’t expect white table cloths (or quick service), but do prepare for home-cooked meals. At Platanos, a restaurant in the cobbled mountain village of Agios Dimitrios, I dug into rich, umami dishes of beetroot and smoked swordfish and an earthy orzo of local mushrooms (mains from about £9).
On my last day, I wondered how long Ikaria’s deliciously uncommercialised atmosphere could last. While the hammer-and-sickle graffiti hasn’t been scrubbed off the mountains yet, posters advertising reflexology and Thai massages have started to appear in the main towns.
“We’ve tried to focus on quality of visitors rather than quantity,” Rania said. “We don’t want to lose what makes us special.”
Booking it for spring 2024
Sunvil Holidays offers eight nights’ b&b, including one night in Athens, for £1,143, including flights and transfers, based on two sharing.