A Greek Odyssey
BY Dana Rogers
Last year I saw a tiny blurb in a travel magazine about the Greek island of Skopelos. It was recommended as a green relatively undiscovered alternative to the touristy islands of Santorini and Mykonos. I immediately started researching it online and came across the Web site of a British woman who had settled there 20 years earlier and now leads walking tours of the island. Before I knew it she had offered me a place to stay for the summer in exchange for taking care of her house and cats Ginger and Mr. Robinson. I boarded a plane in June 2007 left my home on the Cape Fear coast behind and my adventure began.
Getting to Skopelos is a feat in itself. After an overnight 10-hour Delta flight from Atlanta Georgia to Athens Greece I took a bus into central Athens (one-hour trip) and spent a hot afternoon waiting for an overland bus (two-hour trip) to the port town of Agios Konstantinos. Once there I waited five hours for the ferry (three-hour trip) to Skopelos and arrived at 11 p.m. (or 7 a.m. the next day U.S time) exhausted. My British hostess Heather Parsons met me at the ferry terminal and I collapsed into bed in a second-floor room without air conditioning. Just my luck Greece was experiencing record heat and it was almost 100 degrees when I awoke the first morning. We spent the next day or two at the refreshing Alkistis Hotel pool until the heat subsided a little.
The town of Skopelos is as picturesque as a postcard situated on a steep hill surrounding the harbor below. There are whitewashed and natural stone houses with slate or red tile roofs and the steps that wind through the village make most areas impassible to cars. Colorful bougainvillea spills over balconies everywhere. My accommodations were in a very old traditional Greek stone house with beamed ceilings wooden floors narrow interior stairs a fireplace and a small galley kitchen with half-size appliances. Wooden shutters kept out the hot midday sun but allowed breezes to come in. There was also a rooftop deck with a harbor view. Technology is arriving slowly on the island and I was fortunate to have Internet access to keep me connected.
Shortly after I arrived I joined Heather and some of her friends from Great Britain and Copenhagen Denmark for dinner one night. Course after course tsipouro a clear liquor served in small bottles was served to us with small plates of mezedes or hearty tapas-like snacks. Calamari fish olives cheeses and other finger foods were freshly prepared and delicious. A few days later Heather left for England and I was on my own.
My first days were spent exploring the island and learning my way around the maze of steep staircases. Bread crumbs would have come in handy as I often got lost at first. I learned that I could follow small hand-painted directional signs that said “Anna’s” to find my way to the restaurant of the same name that was conveniently located in the local square near my house.
Every evening after the heat subsided I trudged down the stairs into town and walked along the harbor. The curved waterfront is lined with open-air cafés that boast fresh Greek food refreshing iced coffee desserts and large comfortable wicker chairs. They start to fill up around 8 p.m. and by midnight things are just getting lively. There are horse-drawn carriages street vendors henna tattoo artists musicians people selling jewelry portraits grilled corn and more. Stray cats seem to be everywhere but are fed by tourists locals and volunteers from ScanSkopelos.org a local animal welfare organization.
Skopelos is one of the few islands where you can hear Rembetika a sort of Greek version of American blues unique to the island. Many clubs don’t even open their doors until midnight and music drifts across the harbor until the wee hours of the morning. Tourists are often Greek or British but many languages can be heard on the island. During my stay I saw a number of huge transatlantic yachts many with the Cayman Islands as a hailing port docked in the harbor for the night. Almost all the waiters and shopkeepers spoke English and I felt very welcome as an American. On more than one occasion a waiter went the extra mile to help me out give me a complimentary dessert take a photograph or give me suggestions on what to see during my visit. Many knew me by name by the end of my trip. The locals are very friendly and polite.
One evening I was invited to visit the Skopelos Foundation for the Arts a nonprofit visual arts center specializing in ceramics painting printmaking and screen-printing. Founded in 1999 by Gloria Carr of Washington D.C. the foundation hosts students and groups for workshops at its state-of-the-art facility that sits high atop a hill overlooking the sea. I joined them for pizza and an artist’s slideshow while a group from George Mason University was visiting. The next day I was invited to join them for a visit to the model shipbuilder’s workshop. It was one of the highlights of my trip.
The shipbuilder told us that the island’s shipyards disappeared a few decades ago because they took up valuable coastal property that could be better used for tourism. He also explained that he became very sentimental about it and loved building ships so he began building exact replicas on a tiny scale. All the moving parts actually move including the oars in their holes the cannons and the rigging. He starts from drawings and hand-makes everything. His son is his only apprentice and is now the main craftsman while the father is the brains and designer behind each model. They use no glue whatsoever only tiny copper nails that are then hidden with putty so the nail heads don’t show. They make all the metal parts from sheets of aluminum. Every last detail down to the interior benches that the rowers would sit on is recreated in these model ships. The detail is amazing the ships are made entirely of walnut and the price tag can approach $20 000. We were told that George Bush Sr. received one of these ships as a gift from a Greek friend.
Food was also one of the highlights of my trip. Restaurant cuisine on Skopelos is simple but fresh delicious very Greek and reasonably priced. Groceries on the other hand were not a great option unless I went to the small pricey village markets or hiked three miles round trip in the heat to the large grocery store. Once was enough. Next time I’ll rent a scooter. My daily meals from local eateries were a treat and I enjoyed gyros with lamb and tsatsiki sauce stuffed grape leaves fresh breads olives giant beans in tomato sauce Greek salads with fresh feta cheese moussaka (a baked eggplant dish) fresh fish and calamari real Greek coffee flaky spinach and cheese pies spectacular pastries like ekmek and even pizza. I ate lamb with rice lamb in tomato sauce and stuffed lamb. Lemon juice and olive oil were present in a lot of dishes. The pastry shop Ambrosia the restaurant Platanos and a pizza place called Impasto were my favorite stops for a quick bite. Tavernas or small outdoor eateries were located everywhere on the island and the waiters at Aktaion were some of the friendliest in town.
With all the good Greek food hiking and swimming were de rigueur. Most days I hiked approximately two miles round trip over a steep hill to the nearby town beach Glyfoneri. The beach was rocky and surrounded by mountains and a dip in the Aegean Sea was essential to stay cool during the heat wave. Normally Meltemi or cooling breezes from the north bring low humidity and relief from the summer heat but were absent while I was there! Skopelos is 13-miles long by five-miles wide and mountainous with a population of about 6 000 and because I didn’t have a car I made the most of the calderimi or old donkey trails that crisscross the hills around town. There are more than 300 churches on the island as well as a number of monasteries some still occupied. There is a Greek saying: “If time hangs heavy why not build a church?” Apparently time hangs very heavily on Skopelos.
Visitors to the island can also take day trips by boat to nearby islands and a marine park but I chose to avoid these floating tourist traps and stay on Skopelos exploring on foot instead. There is a very informative folklore museum in town. One evening I hiked six miles to the Monastery of Evangelistra. After hiking around the harbor and straight uphill along dusty switchbacks for almost two hours I eventually reached the top and rang the bell. A tiny elderly nun who didn’t speak English hobbled to the door and led me to the church inside the courtyard. The ornate gold altar icons and elaborate tile mosaic floor were beautiful. She then led me to a small room overlooking the valley below and displayed her wares sold to help support the monastery. Lace icons prayer books crosses and more were available for purchase. I felt like I’d stepped back in time and the altitude and feeling of seclusion left me wondering how the nuns got food water and necessities in centuries past.
Another evening a five-mile hike took me to a beach called Stafilos. I hiked along the donkey paths to avoid traffic passing springs olive groves tiny churches kalivis (country cottages) and farm animals along the way. A Sunday morning hike took me into the hills overlooking the harbor. After yet another steep climb up I wound through olive groves and farms only to descend on the other side of town along a vertical winding path where I passed a beautiful old cemetery and more churches. I ended up in town during the worship service at the Greek Orthodox Church. I couldn’t understand a word but stood outside as the melodious chanting and music floated out of the open windows and doors. It was beautiful. Church bells rang on the island every hour of the day and became a quaint reminder of the village life I was living.
On Skopelos old Greek women walk into town each morning to buy bread and vendors sell fresh fish and produce from their trucks in local squares announcing their arrival with a megaphone. A man with mules collects trash in the village each morning maneuvering the narrow steps and going where no garbage truck ever could. One of my favorite sights on the island were the old Greek men. They showed up on the waterfront early in the morning sitting in rigid wooden chairs around small square tables. They played cards threw dice drank coffee smoked cigarettes and clicked their worry beads. They stayed late into the evening and occasionally an old lady appeared and sat unobtrusively next to her husband. I guess boys will be boys even in Greece.
In addition to the usual tourist shops with coffee mugs T-shirts and cheap souvenirs Skopelos has some modern galleries and upscale shops offering pottery artwork designer clothing and jewelry. I didn’t find many bargains during my trip and there didn’t seem to be many made-on-the-island souvenirs either.
Accommodations seemed to be reasonably priced well-maintained and not overly fancy … no Ritz-Carltons here. Skopelos is an ideal destination for hiking eating sunning and getting away from it all. Plan on staying at least a week or two if you’re going to make the long trip. There is some nightlife but the island isn’t nearly as touristy and chaotic as other Greek islands. The heat in July and August can be stifling so I would recommend visiting in the spring or fall. In September 2007 the musical Mamma Mia! began filming on Skopelos. Scheduled for release in July 2008 the film features actors including Meryl Streep Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth so the island may soon become more mainstream.
Skopelos by numbers
13 & 5 Number of miles long and wide the Greek island of Skopelos is from tip to tip.
6 000 Number of residents on Skopelos — one of 24 islands in the Sporades archipelago. Only four are inhabited.
120 Number of churches in Skopelos town.
360 Number of churches chapels and monasteries on the island of Skopelos.
Ready to plan your trip to Skopelos? Here are some helpful Web sites to help you on your Odyssey.
Heather Parsons’ hikes on the island www.skopelos-walks.com
Ferry schedules www.hellenicseaways.gr
Skopelos Foundation for the Arts www.skopart.org