It is my last day here in Ikaria, a beautiful Greek island in the northern Aegean, named after Icarus from mythology, who fell into the surrounding sea when his wax wings melted in the sun. Ikaria is a nature lover’s paradise with its crystal blue waters, and lush hiking trails that lead to quaint, mountainous villages nestled on the coast.
Ilias and his wife Thea are the owners of the inn I am staying at. Over my morning coffee, I ask Ilias the question he has been asked many times over:
“What do you think is the secret to longevity?” He answers simply: “Mary, here in Ikaria, we do not try to add years to our life. Instead we add life to our years… we make the most of every day.”
While I came here to learn about their food, joy, peacefulness and longevity, I have learned so much more.
Ikaria is one of the Blue Zones, a term that was coined by Dr Michel Poulain. It is an anthropological concept that describes the lifestyles and environments characteristic of the world’s longest-lived people. Together with Dr Gianni Pes and Dan Buettner, they have been studying the planet, identifying these Blue Zones, with Ikaria being one of five: the others being Sardinia, Okinawa in Japan, Loma Linda in California, and Costa Rica’s isolated Nicoya Peninsula.
After speaking with many of the locals, what I learned was of most importance was the use of olive oil and fresh vegetables. Olive oil is an integral ingredient and the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet – an ‘everyday food’. Here in Ikaria, they slow cook their vegetables in olive oil, and since the nutrients in vegetables are fat-soluble, the benefits of these nutrients are enhanced – and not to mention also delicious. The people of Ikaria enjoy a Greek Mediterranean diet, which is rich in olive oil, whole grains, fruit, and fish. Vegetable and bean dishes are often the main meal, rather than served as a side. Salads are a part of every meal, and fruit always follows the main.
Meal times are not only a time to eat, but to spend time together, and to create a strong bond between family and friends, young and old. I notice this bond not just at meal times but during everyday moments: driving along the road and stopping if you see someone you know; winding down the window and asking how the family is, and if they need anything.
Chatting with Thea as we drive, she tells me that they take the time needed, the time required. It left me thinking how lovely this is; there is a genuine concern for the welfare of others on the island. They live a simple life but in so many ways it is a richer life.
The people of the Blue Zones practice healthy lifestyle habits that help them live longer, healthier and happier lives. These are the habits I noticed in Ikaria:
· Moving naturally – this can be as simple as walking to work, the local cafe or working in the garden.
· Purpose – having something to live for, a reason to wake up every morning.
· Reducing stress – simply by taking a nap or having a rest each day and not watching the time constantly.
· Eating honest, fresh seasonal produce, and only until you are almost full, never overeating.
· Plant-based diet, including a small amount of meat.
· Wine – one or two glasses with a meal.
· Right tribe and community – creating real connections; social circles are so important to a healthy life.
· Loved ones first – people of the Blue Zones put family first, they invest in their children with time and love, and children care for their elders.
The food eaten is, of course important, but equally, if not even more important, are the social connections. The highlight of my stay is attending a paniyiri (festival), the essence to their longevity and happiness… the genuine caring for each other.
Trestle tables and chairs are set up in the village square, the band is on the stage. Everyone feasts on roasted goat, salad, and the best of the local organic wine (which is drunk diluted with water). It is simply perfect.
Young and old, all generations enjoying the night together. The music begins and everyone is singing and dancing to traditional Ikarian songs… soulful music which transports me away… a feeling so hard to describe. We dance all night, tired but at the same time rejuvenated.
Leaving Ikaria I take away with me the lessons of eating honestly, taking the time and living in the moment… it will be hard to leave this paradise, but I will return next year.