Think of Greece and what springs to mind? Whitewashed buildings, golden beaches and fresh seafood eaten on the harborside, washed down with a cold glass of Retsina.
Yes, the Parthenon may be omnipresent on postcards, but it’s the plenteous sun-soaked Greek islands that holidaymakers escape to for the summer season, in search of the authentic Hellenic experience.
So strap on your sandals, leave your stress in the departure lounge and allow us to introduce you the tiny but entrancing island of Astypalea, known as the “butterfly of the Aegean”.
Like any self-respecting Greek island, Astypalea has left its mark on history. In ancient times, it signed a bilateral agreement with Imperial Rome to protect one another’s interests. During World War II, a Greek destroyer helped sank a Nazi convoy off its coast. And in 2018, the island – which gained its nickname from its butterfly shape when seen from above – decided to go smoke-free.
Now that the summer season has drawn to a close, the people of Astypalea don’t need to worry about picking up cigarette butts left by tourists on their white pebble-strewn beaches anymore. Instead, they will have more time to focus on the sun, the sea, the sand and – if the fancy takes them – the Mastika.
“This decision has a great symbolic meaning,” Astypalea’s mayor, Nikos Komineas says. “We are going smoke-free because we want to give tourists and islanders clean water, clean air, clean beaches.”
Whoever wants to light one up near the seafront cafés, ouzeri and tavernas, will have to think again.
“Smoking indoors is prohibited, and near our iconic windmills it will not be allowed either. But we understand that some people won’t quit, so we will inform them of the alternatives available,” the mayor says.
Astypalea’s local council is bringing back an idea as old as Greece itself: the agora, the public square where philosophers and commoners met to think and talk. As Nikos adds, “We’d like to start a conversation with our residents, with tourists, with business owners, on what it means to go smoke-free, on what we can do to transform ourselves and the island.”
The sun loungers have been packed away for the night, the fishing boats are now moored up to the harbor wall, and the fishermen have put their catch on ice and are busy chatting with Maroula Kasoulini, the owner of Agoni Grammi, one of the best gourmet restaurants on the island.
A modern-day odyssey
Hidden between an olive tree and the picturesque windmills, Maroula opened the eatery – which sits on the cool slopes beneath Astypalea’s castle – after having proved her mettle working on cargo ships sailing off the coasts of South-East Asia.
“I was a sailor, that’s right,” Maroula says, beaming with pride. “And I was the only woman aboard. I had to cook for our team, and after you can put together a meal while fighting the highest waves in the world, you can manage a restaurant alright,” she says with a smirk.
Her signature dish is a fish magiritsa, a creamy, rich traditional soup served on Sundays. And when it’s on the menu, the whole town can be heard at her restaurant, chatting and clinking ouzo-filled glasses.
“You can invent and reinvent Greek cuisine as you like,” Maroula says. “You can put fish where Greeks put veal, you can substitute red meat with lentils and chickpeas, but there’s one thing that doesn’t go well with the Greek diet: smoke”. She’s one of the now-many owners who has decided to offer a better dining experience to locals and tourists alike by making her restaurant smoke-free.
“As I’m experimenting in my kitchen, we’re trying to transform the island, to change the way we deal with our everyday objects, with our routines. I’m not afraid to say that, in a way, we are changing the way we see the world,” says Maroula.
So from next summer, while eating your lunch on the seafront, you will be able to enjoy the sound of the waves, the salty breeze, the gentle hum of fishing boats heading out of the harbor – and, hopefully, hear not one lighter click.