When asked how long it takes him to pick up cigarette butts from the seashore each day, Dimitri Kontaratos, the owner of Steno, Astypalea’s most popular beach bar, frowns and looks around, confused.
“What cigarette butts?”
The Greek island of Astypalea is many things: ‘the undiscovered gem”, “the butterfly of the Aegean” or just “the new Santorini”.
And yet, comparing this speck of land in the Dodecanese archipelago to anywhere else is doing it a disservice.
But what’s pushed Astypalea from being special to unique is its commitment to go smoke-free.
In the summer of 2018, the Astypalea local council wanted the island to become a role model for Greece, which has one of the highest rates of cigarette consumption in Europe.
The tipping point, Astypalea’s former deputy mayor, Maria Kampouri says, was when she walked up to the tourist information desk in Chora, the island’s city center, and couldn’t make out the clerk through the thick fog of cigarette smoke.
“It was a conversation-starter,” Maria recalls. “We wanted to see how the locals would take it, so we just mentioned to people in passing that we were thinking about going smoke-free,” she says over a Greek freddo espresso as she sits on the balcony of her hotel, her shoulders silhouetted against the backdrop of sugar-cube houses clinging to the hilltop.
Soon, all the locals were talking about it.
Even island-hopping sailors, as they moored up in the old port with a cigarette hanging from the side of their mouths, enquired from the bow of their boats: “Is this the smoke-free island?”
The smoke-free journey
But how do you help an entire island to go smoke-free? That was the question facing both the former and incumbent local administration.
“Impose a smoke-free project on Greeks? Our DNA would have automatically rejected the idea as an imposition,” Maria explains.
So, the council focused on offering a better experience to locals and tourists. “We are, by nature, a very welcoming population. So, we want tourists to come here and enjoy the local cuisine,” namely the chlori (a mild local cheese), the rose jam, the kakavia (fish soup) and the local pougia (cheese pie).
“Can you do all this while people are smoking around you?” she asks rhetorically.
The newly elected mayor, Nikos Komineas, took a slightly different approach.
A clean Astypalea
The mayor’s office is in Chora’s liveliest area, between the walls of the kastro (the Venetian fort), and the white windmills which stand like sentries along a ridge looking down to the harbor.
On his way to work, Nikos spends a good quarter of an hour handshaking, backslapping and fondly teasing a group of islanders. Their relationship is as if they were his family members, rather than tax-paying citizens.
After congratulating a local taverna owner on the freshly caught fish hanging in his window, the mayor points at a meaty octopus.
“Somebody will eat that fish, you see?” Nikos says. “And we want to offer people from Astypalea – or tourists who come here on vacation – something that is pure.”
The smoke-free project is part of a broader political platform that has sustainability at its core.
“We want a clean Astypalea,” the mayor explains. “Clean water, a clean seabed, clean beaches, the minimum carbon footprint. These are our goals, and we can achieve all of them if we start going smoke-free, don’t you think?”
The taverna-goers nursing their espressos nod sagely. It’s precisely this dialed-down scale of relationships that gives Astypalea much of its charm.
The local council involved the hotel association and the regional tourism office in the smoke-free initiative from the get-go.
And now, the majority of cafes and restaurants in the central piazza are smoke-free, most of them certified. They joined the project in early 2019, replacing ashtrays with pots of geraniums.
In the central part of Chora - from the iconic windmills up to the fort, where the town tumbles vertically into the blue - smoking outdoors is not banned, per se, but expect disapproving looks if you light up.
The first restaurant to embrace the smoke-free project was Agoni Grammi.
Food for thought
Maroula Kasoulini’s gourmet restaurant is a magnet for arty Athenians in the know, who come here to escape the camera-toting crowds of other islands and to enjoy her freshly-prepared home-made pasta and the fish magirista, her signature dish.
Maroula personally welcomes her guests as they sit in the lantern-lined patio overlooking the windmills.
“Nobody ever smoked in my house, so it was easy for me to adapt – and to ask others to join,” she says while cracking eggs into a bowl of flour.
To her, “the smoke-free project is a personal thing. Would you light up a cigarette in some else’s home? I don’t think so. That’s why it’s so successful, and why everybody is keen to transition,” she explains.
In the short span of our conversation, she whips us up a dish of saffron ravioli, locally known as lasagna, which resembles a kind of Greek dim-sum.
“I take recipes that date back to the Carians, the Minoans, the Venetians, the Turks, and the Italians, and I give them a spin, combining tradition with modernity. The smoke-free project is part of that modern imprint that I want to give to my restaurant, and it’s helping me attract customers, both locals and those from abroad,” Maroula says.
The gift of time
On the way back to Dimitri’s Steno beach bar, along the lazy path across Astypalea’s citrus grove, the only traffic visible before sunset is two goats clip-clopping down the single-lane road.
It’s time for Dimitri to close the parasols on the beach. After a quick inspection under the sun loungers, he removes his T-shirt and slowly walks into the crystalline waters. Then, he drops his shoulders and swims out into the little bay.
“Since I don’t have to pick up cigarette butts from the beach anymore, the greatest gift the smoke-free project gave me is time,” Dimitri says as he walks back onto the beach a few minutes later and towels himself dry.
More time to appreciate the local cuisine, complex on the taste buds yet simple in its preparation. More time to spend in the bucolic countryside and on the pristine coastline; more time to enjoy this corner of paradise.