Like a Butterfly: A Guide to Astypalea

Where to visit, swim and eat, and how to get the most out of this gorgeous, butterfly-shaped island with arguably the prettiest Hora in the Aegean.


EXPLORE

A WALK IN HORA: What’s striking about this area is the blend of Dodecanesian and Cycladic architecture, a marriage of traditions evident in other aspects of Astypalea’s character as well. It’s a near replica of the settlement inside the castle that was inhabited until the 1940s, when the residents tore down the fortified town and used the materials to build a new one outside the castle walls. Houses tend to be tall and narrow, a bit like towers, with three or four stories, each accommodating a different family. Dodecanesian features such as pastel hues, large windows and a tendency for ornamentation are mixed in with Cycladic elements such as rectangular lines, the use of white and smaller structural openings.

ENTER THE GATE: At the Venetian Castle, built by the Querini family in the 13th c., you’ll walk among the ruins of the old settlement, see the well-preserved churches of Aghios Georgios and of the Panaghia (from the 18th and 19th c., respectively) and take in amazing views of Hora on one side and the vast blue sea on the other. 

Info

  • Area: 97 sq. km.
  • Population: 1,330 (2011 census)
  • Distance: 169 (sea miles from Piraeus)
  • Highest Peak: 482m (Mt Vardia)

NECROPOLIS: An ancient burial site dedicated exclusively to infants is located here, and it is the only one of its kind ever found worldwide. Their remains were placed in clay pots; it’s estimated that there are around 3,000 of these. The site itself is closed, but you can find out more at the Archaeological Museum of Astypalea in Pera Gialos (Tue-Sun 08:00-20:00).

THE FOLK MUSEUM: A lovely institution showcasing what a traditional home looked like (Tel (+30) 22430.612.67).

SOMETHING TO READ? One of Hora’s trademark sights is its windmills – many have been restored, and the third one as you approach from the main square holds a lovely little surprise. There, Stella Papadopoulou, an English teacher, has created a lending library with books by Greek writers and poets translated into several languages (Tel (+30) 694.981.9261). 

EXPerience

PHOTO-OP: Wake up early and grab a good spot in Hora to watch the rising sun light up the sky, the sea and the sleeping town in an explosion of color. 

BEACHES & GREAT SWIMS: Don’t be daunted by the dirt road and the 40-minute hike: at the island’s most gorgeous beach, Ai-Yiannis, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy the light blue waters and fine pebbles, in near-solitude. 

One of the top Astypalea experiences, despite the crowds, is a swim at Kaminakia on the southwestern coast. Apart from the clean waters and some lovely rock formations, it also has one of the best tavernas on the island, named after its incredible cook, Linda. Most of the ingredients she uses – meat, fish, cheese, vegetables, eggs, bread and wine – are are produced by her family in what is a great example of self-sufficiency.

Also on the southwest coast, Vatses Beach, at the mouth of a gorge, has coarse sand and pebbles as well as clean, deep waters. It also has a certain special vibe, a nice beach bar and no cellphone signal whatsoever. Tzanaki, on the southeastern coast, is a great spot for a swim, especially if you are a nudist. It has lovely round pebbles, deep waters and a view of Hora, much like Livadi, which is further north, though without the latter’s crowds and businesses. Steno, the beach right in the middle of the island, is perfect for kids with its shallow waters and natural shade. It boasts a great food stand, too: Ilias Kalis and his family have a great setup here, serving delicious local goat and other meats, cheeses and pasta right on the sand. Last but not least, the tiny Ble Limanaki beach, right beside Maltezana, is very pleasant if you get there early and secure a nice spot. It’s also sheltered from the summer winds.

BOAT ACCESS ONLY: The uninhabited islets of Kounoupa and Koutsomitis can be reached by excursion boats out of Pera Gialos. Stretches of white sand, clean waters in every shade of blue and the fun of diving off the boat will make you feel like you’ve been shipwrecked in heaven.

THE OTHER SIDE: A worthwhile excursion is to Vathy, on Exo Nisi, as the island’s northern part is known. The drive through the dramatic landscape leads to a sheltered cove. It‘s not great for swimming, but the Galini taverna is ample reason to visit: Stavroula cooks as if she’s in her home and invites her guests into the kitchen to fetch their plates.

HIKING: You should explore the island on foot to really get in touch with its special energy. The trail network hasn’t been fully organized, so it’s best to seek tips and advice from Pardalo Katsiki, a trekking company run by Tasos Kontaratos (Tel. (+30) 698.120.0312). Ask how to reach the caves in Vathy and Vatses, which feature beautiful stalactite formations.

FEELING ROMANTIC? Making the most of the full moon is an absolute must in Astypalea, especially watching it pop up from behind the castle. To enjoy the moment in all its glory, secure a table at Archipelago Café, which also has very nice desserts.

TASTE

LOCAL PRODUCTS: The island’s cheeses are produced by local shepherds from some 15,000-20,000 animals living in sheds out in the countryside or in closed units. Treat yourself to some hlori (a soft local cheese), anthotyro (dried hlori), tiraki (a hard cheese that’s perfect when fried in batter) and kopanisti (a spicy, creamy cheese). Tsakalos (Tel. (+30) 697.363.1870) in Maltezana is the island’s only modern dairy. You can also buy honey, jams, liqueurs, body and face creams made with honeycomb, and other local products from Keranthos in Hora. To stock up on koulouri bread, rusks and breadsticks made with local ingredients such as thyme, oregano, saffron, honey and even cheese, go to Iliana Bakery.

THE HERBS: The whole island smells of thyme and sage, while saffron also grows on its craggy slopes. Every local housewife has her favorite spot for collecting this precious spice and keeps it secret, even from her own family. They like to joke that they’ll only give it up on their deathbeds. Every November, however, the local women get together in a mini-ritual to pluck the saffron threads.

A GREAT START: Have a breakfast of Greek coffee and eggs or a meze any time of day at the historic Kafeneio tou Moungou in Hora, watching elderly islanders catch up and play cards. It will give you a flavor of old Greece. Meltemi Café makes delicious pougia (small pies with fresh cheese, honey and cinnamon) and other lovely breakfast dishes. Amazing desserts are also made at Glykia Astropalia, while you can find cheesecake made with hlori at Kolokytha

HUNGRY? Maroula Kasoulini’s food is fabled; you can find it at the Agoni Grammi restaurant in Hora. Her homemade makarounes – traditional pasta typically served with fresh cheese or a garlic sauce, among others – just might be one of those dishes you remember all your life. You should also try the goat roasted with vine twigs or the saffron rice with seafood. For lobster pasta, a local specialty, opt for a table by the sea: Almyra and Astakoukos in Maltezana are just the places.

FOR DRINKS: At Kastro, right below the castle walls in the charming neighborhood of Karai, you’ll enjoy lovely cocktails, good music and a very friendly vibe. Bear in mind that Astypalea’s bohemian camping site is famous across Greece for its friendly atmosphere and its parties, both organized and impromptu, so keep your ears open. For a surreal experience that will likely include dancing on tables, try your luck at Kouros, the island’s only nightclub playing Greek music. 


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