Greek Travel after the Pandemic, Part 6: Yiorgos Stergiou, Owner, Kafeteria Lefkos Pyrgos, Samothraki

How has the COVID-19 crisis affected Greek tourism, and what are local tourism providers doing to recover from it? This series of exclusive interviews with specific Greek tourism entities gets to the heart of the key issues, as of mid-summer 2020.

By Chris Deliso

August 11, 2020

What would you do if you were the owner of an almost 70-year-old iconic island café, and had to choose whether to open for the summer season during government lockdowns, with no assurances that the tourists would ever actually come?

This was the question that Samothraki native Yiorgos Stergiou, owner of the beloved Lefkos Pyrgos café/sweets shop faced earlier this year. The following interview tells the inspirational tale of how Stergiou was rewarded for making the brave decision to reopen for business as usual in 2020, while introducing readers to one of the very best sweets shops anywhere in Greece.

A Celebrated Café

Named after the famous White Tower in Thessaloniki far to the west, Lefkos Pyrgos was opened by Stergiou’s father and brothers in 1951, shortly after the end of WWII, as “a typical Greek kafeneion” recalls Stergiou. “The café boasts an ideal location in the mountainside village of Hora, Samothraki’s capital, and offers fantastic views of the sea from its patio.

In 1995, Yiorgos Stergiou took over the family business and refined its concept from that of an average island coffee-shop to one specializing in unique, hand-crafted drinks, cakes, ice cream and other delicacies. It was a concept more befitting a touristic hotspot like Santorini than a sleepy backwater like Samothraki, isolated in Greece’s far northeast, accessible only from Alexandroupoli on daily ferries.

Nevertheless, the concept caught on, and Lefkos Pyrgos would become Samothraki’s most celebrated eatery for those exploring the lush island, one full of jungle, waterfalls, ancient sites and beaches.

I first discovered Lefkos Pyrgos in 2007, and wrote about it in the Lonely Planet Greece guide that came out the following year. The Guardian, Fox, and other international media have also covered Lefkos Pyrgos, which was most recently awarded by Trip Advisor with its Traveler’s Choice distinction for 2020. (See the over 170 reviews of Lefkos Pyrgos on TripAdvisotr’s website here).

Through his willingness to give the old café “a modern twist” after 1995, Stergiou says, “it ended up giving a modern twist to the village itself.”

Today, he adds, “we are nationally known for our famous ‘Pissa kai poupoula,’ a divine chocolate specialty topped with homemade vanilla ice cream, candied almonds and chocolate ganache.”

Lefkos Pyrgos is also known around Greece “for our homemade ice cream, our fresh lemonade, and our rum collection, just to mention a few of our highlights,” the confectioner contends.

Daily Life on Samothraki during the Crisis- the Advantage of Isolation

Like everywhere else in Greece, daily life on the island was affected during the COVID19 crisis, especially during the lockdown period in spring when only local residents were allowed to enter. However, as Stergiou recalls, the small and tight-knit nature of the island’s 2,800 residents helped it manage the crisis with relative ease. Interestingly, locals also tended to follow regulations imposed, despite being relatively isolated geographically.

“Despite the small number of inhabitants, the locals have largely respected the lockdown,” Stergiou recalls. “Living in small villages makes things easier- the local people are used to living in rather isolated, small spaces.”

At the same time, he also notes that “nature is never far away” on the largely forested island, one that is “so wild, so luxurious, so magical- like from a fairy tale.”

The Lefkos Pyrgos owner credits the prior lockdown measures as “having prevented the virus from reaching the island. Everybody was safe in the end. So, isolation has some serious advantages on this case.”

The Big Decision: Opening for the 2020 Summer Season

While the island was unaffected by the virus crisis in terms of health, the decision to open Lefkos Pyrgos for the summer 2020 season was fraught with peril, for the simple reason that no one really knew if the tourists would come back, despite the government’s strong efforts to reopen Greece after June 1. The quality and quantity of perishable goods that needed to be imported by the high-end café made it a financial risk, either way. And there were other risks, too.

“It was a very difficult decision,” recalls Stergiou. “I seriously considered the possibility of not opening at all. The strict social distancing measures, the lack of big health facilities on the island and the fear amongst people made me think that the tourists wouldn’t be willing to travel a lot this year.”

On the other hand, he notes that Samothraki “is a relatively isolated island, and the journey to get here is long.” This means that “one has to be motivated to come here, even in normal circumstances, let alone during a pandemic!”

Another risk factor was that a sizeable core of the island’s traditional tourist market – the neighboring Balkan states – was cut off completely by EU-regulated border restrictions due to the pandemic. “The combination of all these factors made the decision about reopening difficult to make,” Stergiou concludes.

All in All, a Pretty Good Season on a Great Island

Nevertheless, Yiorgos Stergiou did indeed choose to reopen Lefkos Pyrgos for its 69th season, and has been pleasantly surprised by the results.

“My predictions were somehow mistaken, fortunately,” he quips, when explaining that the tourists have indeed made the effort come. The reason why Samothraki has received visitors during the pandemic when many more famous Greek islands have not is a very interesting one, too.

“People seem reassured by the fact that Samothraki is a small and rather isolated island,” Stergiou notes. “I do find that the number of tourists is less important but not catastrophically diminished.”

He adds that “there were few visitors until the 20th of July. I couldn’t anticipate a more or less normal season. After that date, things have changed. We have mostly Greeks coming, who admitted that the island wasn’t their first choice but they came anyway- they believed that Samothraki would be safer than traveling to more popular or bigger islands.”

This fortuitous side-effect of the pandemic, which we have encountered previously in this series when it comes to off-the-beaten-track destinations in general, is bound to have longer-term benefits as tourists – Greek and foreign alike – develop new affinities for local Samothraki businesses like Lefkos Pyrgos. As such, the current crisis could have an effect on future tourism trends in Greece and increase the chances of new repeat visitors to Samothraki in future.

Operating Challenges during the Crisis: Logistics and Supplies

The relatively successful 2020 summer season has not come without its challenges for Lefkos Pyrgos, however. Noting that “the situation was already difficult” even before the pandemic, Stergiou explains that logistical difficulties have hampered operations.

“There is only one shipping route connecting us with the mainland, roughly one or two crossings a day,” he explains. “Given the fact that I have chosen to work with very fine quality products, there are things arriving from all parts of Greece and some even from abroad. Organizing the logistic part of the provisioning is a nightmare.”

This has only been exacerbated by new governmental restrictions and checks caused by COVID19 measures. “The sanitary restrictions made things worse, as there are shortages of certain goods,” Stergiou adds.

All of this makes working with perishables in an import-dependent business, catering to an unpredictable number of customers very challenging.

In 2020, “the flow of visitors is not the same, the goods take twice as much time to arrive, and the transportation cost has more than doubled,” the Lefkos Pyrgos owner attests. “I’m trying to cope with that on a day to day basis.”

Expectations for the Rest of the 2020 Season and 2021

Despite these challenges, Yiorgos Stergiou is confident that Greek tourism in the long term will re-emerge. Further, unlike some, he does not believe the country needs to do anything to prove itself as a safe destination to today’s risk-averse international tourists.

“Greece doesn’t need to regain the trust of visitors; we’ve never lost it,” he says.

“We’ve only had 210 deaths from the virus since the beginning of the pandemic. The thing is that all the countries tried to dissuade people from traveling abroad.”

Stergiou does admit that “the fear of a second lockdown exists… Unfortunately, the measures that we’ve heard of, include local or regional lockdowns, restrictions on opening hours or closure of bars and restaurants. That would be a total disaster.”

As far as 2021 is concerned, Stergiou is uncertain, as he believes it depends on what the greater world situation will bring. “We can only hope that in the meantime, scientists will find a vaccine and that life will return to some form of normality.”

Regardless of what the future holds, the summer of 2020 will be remembered, not just for the pandemic and its forced closure of so many seasonal tourism businesses- but for the brave decisions of those who, like Yiorgos Stergiou, took a risk by staying open and keeping tradition alive- thus making this Greek summer a little bit sweeter in the process.

Lefkos Pyrgos is located in the center of Hora, Samothraki’s inland, mountainside capital village.

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