In the depth of August, when the cicadas sing and the sun burns bright, Archilochos cultural centre on Paros is not usually a hive of activity. If anything, that is reserved for the bars and beaches of a Cycladic isle increasingly drawing le beau monde.
But last week, as Greece’s great summer exodus peaked, the Archilochos was alive to the sound of debate. And, as in weeks gone past, it was a debate ignited by the state of play on the beaches that have become synonymous with pricey sunbeds and greedy entrepreneurs.
“Ours is a battle against lawlessness – lawlessness on our shores,” says Christos Georgousis, a founding member of the Save Paros Beaches movement.
At 78, Georgousis might ordinarily be enjoying retirement. Instead, the bespectacled former headmaster, a respected figure on the island, has found himself leading the battle to ensure that beaches are free for all.
“The state, with its police force and coastguard, should be solving this because, after all, our seashore belongs to the public,” he adds. “But since it has proved to be ineffective in dealing even with sunbeds, we are handling it ourselves.”
From its inception, the protest movement has had a single aim: to reclaim beaches from private rental outfits hogging prime coastal areas with exorbitantly-priced sun loungers and shadings. The takeover, which has seen enterprises charge as much as €120 (£102) for sunbeds on Paros, has been described as unconstitutional in a country where the protection of the natural and cultural environment is enshrined in law as “a duty of the state and a right of every person.”
Often, campaigners contend, there is no space to spread out a towel or beach mat because of the paraphernalia deposited on beaches by business interests, with those who dare to complain being shooed away. For many, the root of the problem lies in murky concession agreements that allow local authorities to lease shoreline to hoteliers and bar and restaurant owners provided, in theory, they exploit only 50% of the allocated space.
“In practice, there is often not an inch of sand left,” says Nicholas Stephanou, a longtime Paros resident, lamenting a situation that has made it increasingly impossible for locals to enjoy what has always been taken for granted: free access to the beach. “We’re talking about public space that is almost 100% covered by [rented] sunbeds and umbrellas…”