In the midst of one of the worst financial crises the European Union has ever seen, young Greeks are finding freedom on the storied island of Ikaria. Athens-based journalist Alex King visits this new ‘hippie’ haven in search of the young people refusing the hand they’ve been dealt.
Time takes on an altogether different meaning on the Greek island of Ikaria. You can be three hours late to meet a complete stranger and arrive in the dead of night—and you’ll still be greeted like an old friend, presented with a bottle of ouzo, and held in rapturous conversation into the early hours.
Or so it goes when we trek up into the mountains in search of Angelos Kalokairinos, a man who’s perhaps the greatest authority on the rich history of this rugged and fiercely independent island in the Aegean Sea. “[People] search for freedom and dream of a different world, somewhere things can be different,” says Angelos, when we finally find him. “And here, they are different.”
It comes as little surprise to learn that Ikaria is one of the five famous ‘Blue Zones’—areas of exceptional life expectancy—where islanders regularly make it into their nineties and beyond. But it’s not just the rules of clocks and ageing that go ignored. A host of other rules don’t apply either; a fact that’s lured young, independently-minded travelers here since the 1970s.
Peter, 20, delights in stretching time; a form of alchemy—possible on Ikaria—that turns a handful of Euros into weeks of paradise, unforgettable adventures, and a sense of togetherness that other young Europeans can only dream about. We meet him and his friends on the island’s wild western fringe, free-camping among giant boulders beneath a waterfall, determined to stay until their money runs out. “Look around,” Peter says. “I don’t see any other people on earth responding to a national crisis like this.”
When the Greek debt crisis erupted in 2008, it nearly brought the Eurozone down with it. Unemployment for under-25s is still nearly 50 per cent, leaving most with just two choices: Emigrate or give up on your dreams. But young Greeks have refused to let the worst economic crisis in the European Union’s history stop them from enjoying their birthright.
Follow the stream that runs outside Peter’s tent and you’ll pass a string of improvised shacks, hammocks and tented enclaves, before arriving at the lunar-like landscape of Nas Beach, a place of tempestuous waters, ancient ruins and imposing cliffs.
Today’s hippies may look different to their 1970s predecessors, but Angelos says that same yearning for escape draws young Greeks to Ikaria.
While high-rise hotels and tacky restaurants may have spoiled the coastline on many other Greek islands, here, the virgin sands have become a sanctuary to a transitory tie-dyed family, who swim and tan under a seemingly endless sun, uniting around campfire music jams after dark.
These young alternative Greeks have picked up the fraying threads of Greece’s hippie trail, cobbling together their last few Euros for the long boat journey and weaving a new technicolour patchwork quilt of escapism: Free-camping, hitchhiking, and scavenging to survive on next-to-no money. As they come together night after night at the panigiria, the traditional Greek village festivals celebrating the patron saint, this new generation is slowly adding its own chapter to Ikaria’s storied history.
We’re sitting on Angelos’ porch, looking out over the darkness of the valley below Agios Polykarpos. His warm eyes twinkle as he lights the cigarette protruding from his fluffy white beard. After he pours a round of ouzo, it’s time for our education to begin.
Today’s hippies may look different to their 1970s predecessors, but Angelos says that same yearning for escape draws young Greeks to Ikaria. “The spirit of adventure is very important to young people who embrace what we call ‘free culture’,” he explains. “It’s not for everybody, but this kind of culture fits the island. It fits with the nature, the landscape, and the character of the people. Everybody is looking to find release in the rough, tough terrain, the high mountains and the thick forests.”
The roots of free culture were planted in 1971, explains Angelo, when a group of German Navy Scouts unloaded their amphibious camper vans in the dead of night and landed on Livadi Beach on Ikaria’s north coast. The locals, who preferred to swim and dive from the rocks, ignored the beaches and this strange camp of foreigners. But when the Germans returned home, word reached a group of anti-fascists in Frankfurt, who were determined not to let these ‘Nazi scouts’ make the beach their annual getaway spot.
The following summer, the secluded beach witnessed an intense power struggle, with the victorious Leftists establishing Livadi as a hippie haven—smoking weed, swimming naked in the crystal blue waters, and introducing a laidback, beach culture to Ikaria.
Angelos was one of the first Greeks to join the scruffy foreigners on the beach and indulge in their hedonistic delights. These were years of military dictatorship, when wearing long hair on the street was enough to get you hauled in by the secret police. But Ikaria has always danced to its own tune: Strong winds, rough seas and a lack of natural harbors have isolated the island, forcing residents to be self-sufficient. It was Ikaria’s distance from political power that provided the cover for Greece’s embryonic hippie trail to emerge.
The call of the wild seduces those with an adventurous spirit to return year after year, like 25-year-old Athens-based photographer Elena. The mass tourism that flourishes on the neighboring island of Samos, just 15 kilometers (nine miles) away, holds no attraction for her; instead, she lives as a ‘princess of free culture’ for three months of the year here, funded by working at a beach bar in Livadi. “Life in Athens is tough,” she says. “It’s a real struggle, but you can come here and feel totally free. For a short time, at least.”
Around midnight, the grouvaloi—as the locals call Peter and Elena’s penniless tribe— emerge from their tents, scattered across the island, to make a pilgrimage to the panigiria. Each coastal town or tiny village high in the mountains organises its own feast and dance and while they’re free to attend, volunteers sell alcohol and locally-prepared food, with profits going towards community improvements. Taking place in far-flung corners of the island, the only way is to hitchhike—and each journey is an opportunity to make new friends.
Tonight’s panigiri is in the port of Evdilos, where hundreds of people have joined hands and are swaying back and forth as one, moving in ever-tighter concentric circles. Before long, all the children and elders have gone home, leaving a bubbling throng of people united by the rhythms of centuries-old traditional music.
For someone raised in London, on a diet of pre-recorded electronic music, it seems surreal to see my contemporaries dancing their hearts out to folk drums, violins, and Greek lutes—but soon I’m hypnotised too, locking arms with the crowd and swept along by the music.
Later, Peter dips a piece of bread into a long-abandoned bowl of oily tomato salad, and we talk more. He speaks with a knowledge beyond his years and an occasional Scottish twang, acquired while studying in Glasgow. “Maybe previous generations did the same things we’re doing, but not because they had to,” he says. “If I don’t eat here, I’m going to starve until my boat home, because I literally have no money left. Now, it’s not just a lifestyle, it’s actually a way of living. Eating for free at the panigiri is one way to extend my summer, which is what it’s all about.”
Later, the band strikes up one of the Ikariotikos; this is a dance and song unique to this island and come with their own fiendishly difficult dance steps. Energy levels rise even higher, with claps and hollers rippling around the crowd. Each night, the festival comes to an end with piperi, an ancient Greek folk custom that symbolizes chasing away the devil with ground pepper, cleansing earth and soul.
On Ikaria, the custom takes on a uniquely egalitarian character. Anyone who’s still standing by the end of the night has to use whichever body part, tongue or even genital the singer instructs and to grind it against the dancefloor. ‘Inspectors’ playfully lash anyone who doesn’t obey with a belt, to show that nobody is superior.
When the first rays of early morning sun break through the darkness, I look around and see only ear-to-ear smiles. Where else in Europe could a crowd party until 10 in the morning without the need for chemical stimulants? With the exception of a few plastic bottles of end-of-the-barrel wine and some island-grown herb, this is all-natural ecstasy—it purifies and unites.
As I’m lying on the sun-baked ground alongside scores of laughing young Greeks, the realization strikes me that far too soon we must return to schedules, stress and the struggles of surviving in crisis.
But somehow that all seems more bearable now, knowing that on Ikaria we felt freedom—for a moment—and got thoroughly lost together in the timeless music of the Aegean.
Alex King is a British freelance journalist based between Athens and London. Before moving to Athens, he was staff writer at Huck Magazine. He now contributes regularly to Huck, Vice, Noisey, Dazed & Confused, VolteFace, If You Leave, Bikevibe Journal & more.