Paradise regained

Shunned by the tourist guides, the island of Icaria is a slice of bygone Greece

You should ignore suspicions that there is no real connection between the myth of Icarus and the island of Icaria, at least until you get home. Icarus is the local hero and the islanders are very possessive about him. Flying from Knossos, Daedalus and Icarus could easily have come this way, following the roundabout route of early sailors who stayed close to land. Those sailors would proceed in a series of short hops from Crete to Karpathos in the Dodecanese and on to Icaria and the Cyclades. Early sailors would have been heading for Nas on the north-west coast of Icaria, the last safe haven before Delos. This was always a treacherous stretch of water and Homer used it as a metaphor for wildness, the crowd surging "to and fro like the waves of the Icarian sea".

Nas flourished for 500 years, then when ships became larger and sailors more confident it became redundant. When piracy made the Aegean inhospitable, the islanders retreated to the hills for more than a thousand years, living in houses hidden away in the forest and speaking a dialect closer to classical Greek than any found elsewhere. Nas was abandoned until the 20th century, when its small beach and green valley made it a suitable spot for tourism.

The beach is protected on either side by ancient granite rocks, wrinkled like elephant hide, the kind of bay where Andromeda nearly came to a bad end. It looks like a film set of mythological Greece, with a Ray Harryhausen monster about to lumber jerkily round the headland. There are no beach umbrellas or sun loungers. No one comes out each morning to clear away the litter, but the waves and currents seem to wash up a better class of flotsam, jetsam and driftwood than on most Mediterranean beaches. Behind it, in the narrow valley, a clear green stream runs slowly through groves of fig and maple. In recent decades a few houses have been built on the hillside, painted white with standard Aegean blue woodwork and terracotta ridge tiles.

Where the stream meets the beach, it forms a small lagoon, circled by swallows, deep enough for diving and safe for swimming even when the sea is rough. On one side is an old jetty and behind it the ruins of a small temple and sanctuary of Artemis dating from the 6th century BC. The Greeks liked to build their temples in beautiful places and this is certainly a beautiful place, particularly at sunset.

Daedalus and Icarus were inventor-craftsmen in a time when the link between technology and magic had not been broken. Secrets weren't shared, but passed down only from father to son, often lost entirely if the son died young. In 560BC, a pair of real-life craftsmen-magicians, Chersiphron and his son Metagenes, came by on their way from Knossos to build the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Perhaps they built this one as well. It used the same techniques and had a similar design, although on a much smaller scale.

For obscure geological reasons, the island is not prone to earthquakes, and the temple stood pretty much intact until 1859, when most of the stones were taken away to build the church up the hill in the village of Christos Raches, and its statues were smashed in a rare display of Orthodox fundamentalism. Their eyes were said to follow you about - not a difficult trick when you know how to do it but unsettling and possibly devilish if you don't.

It is not difficult to picture the temple as it would have been. But you can also picture the large hotels in the hills behind and the gift shops selling plastic and plaster-of-Paris copies of the Artemis of Icaria, the barriers and the men in uniform blowing whistles when the crowds walk in the wrong place. Only the granite foundations remain, littered with marble chippings from the broken statues. Yet, in its ruined state, you can have the place to yourself. Exploring the stream, you discover the capital of one of the columns in a stepping-stone bridge.

Even without the temple, Nas is an unlikely survivor. Icaria must be the only island in Greece that gets fewer foreign tourists than it did ten years ago. Not that it ever got many; until recently, even the better guidebooks often ignored it completely. And the Greek government has never been keen to promote Icaria as a tourist destination - it has always been too independent a place, the Red Island, the Cuba of the Aegean. After the country's civil war and under the colonels it was used as a dumping ground for unwanted left-wing intellectuals. On a wall near Campos is a large mural of Che Guevara; elsewhere you will find peace signs and political graffiti, sometimes with helpful English subtitles ("Fuck the police!"). Icaria has also been protected from overdevelopment by its remoteness (a full day's journey from England) and by the wildness of its sea.

Except in times of flat calm, dangerous currents and undertows lurk off even the safest-looking beaches. It is no place for expensive, delicate boats, and the yachties who pioneered the eastern Mediterranean islands as tourist destinations gave the Icarian Sea a wide berth. This has remained the Greece that is so attractive to people who love the place and infuriating to those who don't; where nothing quite works as it should and nothing ever happens on time. Shops can be closed all day then be open for business at 2am, selling everything apart from the one thing you wanted. You go to the pharmacy for something to settle your stomach and the chemist gives you a large glass of his mother's home- distilled spirit and refuses payment.

Even when the beaches are slightly more crowded, you can find waterfalls in the hills for swimming, entirely deserted. And every week there seems to be a village festival where you can eat roast goat flavoured with fennel and oregano, drink local wine, listen to real Greek music and join unselfconsciously in real Greek dancing, or not. Just like it always was.

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it