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Magical Ikaria

Daily Mail
Sunday, January 13, 2013

Honey for breakfast, anti-ageing salad and lots of red wine.

JAN MOIR meets the villagers who've discovered how to hit 100 and enjoy it.

The island of Ikaria is almost as far east as Greece gets. Here, where the mountains crash into the sea, where the herbs grow wild and the hills are peppered with brightly painted beehives and mottled goats, life is so good — and the living is so healthy — that centenarians are commonplace.

Here, where the salty wind blows and the local wine flows, the people live longer and better than almost anywhere else on the planet.

People like Grigoris Tsahas, who has just celebrated his 99th birthday, which almost makes him a minor by Ikarian standards.

A headstone in the cemetery near his hill village of Madria marks the grave of a woman who was 116 when she died, which Grigoris thinks might be a record, but he is not sure.

From his house, twice a day he walks the half-mile or so uphill to his local coffee shop (and back), where he likes to talk with friends, drink small cups of Greek coffee and smoke cigarettes. He has, in fact, smoked for more than 70 years.

"I don't think cigarettes are as damaging as they say," he tells me, and sparks up another.

Then there's Christina Tsantiri, who will be 101 in June. She drinks a glass of red wine every lunchtime and likes to sit by her balcony window overlooking the port of Evdilos, doing her crochet and enjoying the sea view.

Every chair and sofa in her home has a crochet cover, as do six cushions. She has soft white hair and the sweetest of smiles. She loves it when her grandchildren come to visit.

"If someone has a life to live, they will live," she says.

In more recent times, Ikaria has caught the attention of American longevity expert, Dan Buettner. For more than ten years, with support from the National Geographic Society, he has named the places in the world that have come closest to cracking the secret of eternal life.

At almost 100 square miles, the mountainous island is 30 miles off the coast of Turkey.

Ikarians have tamed the landscape by growing vegetables, grains and grapes in their gardens and on terraces cut into the hillsides. This is important, as locals and experts agree that the most important keys to Ikarian longevity and good health are diet, exercise and wine.

"The wine is very important," insists everyone on the island. Made from a mixture of red and white grapes, it does not contains any additives or sulphites, but has a very high alcohol content of 16 per cent and sometimes even 18 per cent —more potent than sherry! However, it's usually drunk in small but convivial measures, and never without food.

Meanwhile, the news about magical Ikaria is spreading. The New York Times, BBC and CNN have all been here to report on the island. Of course, not all the centenarians want to speak to the media while others, like Grigoris, just love the attention.

George Kassiotis would agree. At the age of 103, he lives with his second wife Voula in Agios Kirykos.

On the sofa behind him are thick files stuffed with all his current projects. He has just written to the prime minister to lobby for Greek flags to be flown on all ships returning to port. A former officer in the cavalry, he saw action in Albania and worked as a financier.

George believes that his generation is special. The ones that came before didn't have enough olive oil, the ones that came after had too many bad things. By contrast, his hardy lot are preserved in the organic aspic of a special age, with stoic attitudes.

"Since I was a child, my breakfast has been orange juice, a raw egg, spoonful of honey and tahini. Then I have a cup of coffee. I don't smoke. I drink wine, but not in the morning.

"I don't feel old, I don't feel young, I just feel good. My mind is terrific, my legs not so good, but you have to keep going on."

Perhaps that is the key. The vegetables and the fresh air help, of course, as does never being able to get anywhere on the island without climbing a steep hill. The flesh has to be willing, but in the end it is the spirit that counts.

That, and the ability to live a simple life and live it well.