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When the directions to our villa included"pass a chicken coop and some turkeys on your right" and "watch out for goats round the following bend", I knew we were back in Greece!
The first of two Greek holidays this year was a fortnight's stay on the island of Skopelos. To get there we took a three and a half hour flight from Manchester to the neighbouring island of Skiathos. Depending on arrival time, the next part of the journey is by ferry or catamaran. We struck lucky and ten minutes after collecting our luggage we were on board the faster option, the catamaran. The ferry also docks at Alonissos and Volos on the mainland. After thirty minutes,first stop Skopleos and the approach by sea was the perfect introduction to the Sporades.
Skopelos is known locally as "the island of reefs", so called because of its many offshore islets and rocks. Its spectacular craggy coastline hides secluded bays, narrow inlets and beaches, fringed by pine forests that are one of Skopelos's defining features. Unfortunately major fires swept through the south of the island in March and destroyed large areas. Driving along the roads here, the sight of blackened trees takes on a sad and eerie atmosphere. Where the pine forests end, the olive groves and the orchards begin. Apparently every fruit tree can be found on Skopelos, but plums are the island's speciality.
The island's eponymous capital, Skopelos Town is a busy small port and harbour on the south and has a spectacular bay. This place has lots of character. The hustle and bustle of restaurants and cafes along the front are shaded by huge mulberry trees, behind these, narrow flower filled cobbled streets with classy boutiques and shops selling handmade jewellery. Add to that the wonderful pottery and local craft shops and galleries, it's a haven for shoppers. Unfortunately some of the shops do sell tat and statues of Greek Gods with erections abound everywhere. In complete contrast, there are over 120 Byzantine churches to explore. These can be mainly found in the old town which is a designated preservation area. White washed houses with trailing bougainvillea, pots of geraniums and sleeping cats make for an obvious camera shot.
Just beyond the town, Mount Poaliki is home to the Church of Evangelista, which clings to a rocky hillside. It boasts a huge, impressive gold plated altar originating from 14th century Constantinople. The island of Skopelos has over 360 churches and monasteries, nearly enough for one every day of the year, but this one is definitely worth a visit. Most of the relics from other churches have been stolen, are locked away or housed in museums in Athens. This monastery still houses all its original artefacts which are on show under the watchful eyes of two ninety year old nuns. Ninety they might be, but they gave us the hard sell. They make various items included Greek Delight, coasters and jewellery. The Greek Delight was delicious and we purchased a large bag. The monastery enjoys magnificent views over Skopelos Town. We were lucky enough to share the view as our house was on the same mountain.
Glossa is Skopelos's second town. It is the northernmost village on the island and sits proudly on a stunning position high over the sea. Ruins here date back to 400 BC alongside more recent remains. It has a selection of tavernas, a couple of churches, a bakery and a couple of shops. Glossa is a complete contrast to Skopelos Town; it doesn't have the hustle and bustle and is therefore ideal for those wanting a quieter base. It is completely unspoilt (no tat here), a picturesque village that simply oozes charm. Glossa is linked to the coast by the small harbour of Loutraki, five minutes away. This is a great place to stop for lunch. Here we enjoyed a Greek salad at Flisvos restaurant where the tables were only inches away from the sea.
Nearby Agios Taxiarchon is also well worth a visit as is the amazing Gourouni Cape at the most northern tip of the island. It is home to a very handsome lighthouse. Feeling a little hot in temperatures in the mid thirties we stopped for a dip at the beautiful and natural beach at Perivola. We were the only people on it.
The coastal drive from Skopelos Town to Glossa is a wonderful journey. The road is good and takes you through many little villages including Panormos which has one of the most beautiful beaches on the island, a peaceful village with waterside tavernas. , Agnondas too, with its beautiful bay and excellent fish restaurants.
***An Unwanted visitor***
There is an abundance of wildlife on Skopelos including three different types of lizard, stick insects, preying mantis and pine martens. I always made sure that our car was secure wherever we parked. On a second visit to Glossa, the air conditioning on our little Hyundai was hardly effective on a day that saw temperatures rise to 36 degrees. Hubby against my wishes decided that it was safe to leave the car windows open - there is little or no crime on the island. Returning to the car after lunch, I went to throw my bag on the back seat. Curled up underneath and sheltering from the mid day heat was a rather large snake. What to do now? It was sleeping, but not for long if we disturbed it. Sitting close by was an old man. I had noticed him when we parked up; he was drinking coffee and playing with his rosary beads. In broken English, he told us how he had seen the snake crawl into the car and had not seen it leave. He told us that it was a whip snake and that it was harmless. Carefully, with the use of a stick, he picked it up. With the snake still sleeping he placed it onto a grass verge. We couldn't thank the old man enough; he however had found the whole situation very amusing. Did he place the snake there I wonder? Needless to say the windows remained closed for the rest of the holiday - one to the wife!
***Walking on Skopelos***
Skopelos is a walker's paradise. There are many marked trails and routes. With its varied landscapes, it provides a perfect walking environment. The island is criss-crossed with mule tracks, some cobbled, goat tracks and dirt roads. You can spend hours without seeing a car. Guided tours are available and there is plenty of information in shops and information centres. We spent a couple of hours rambling through the abundance of olive groves and plum orchards that are strewn all over Skopelos's fertile land. The fruits are fundamental to the economy. Whilst idling away a pleasant afternoon, we came across some handsome old farmhouses known as "kaliva" We were given plums, figs and apricots by the locals. We also watched as they dried out plums to make prunes and were given a prune liqueur to help us on our way. Even if you haven't made a packed lunch you won't go hungry with all there is on offer. There are fresh water springs all over the place to fill up empty bottles so you won't go thirsty either.
A short drive from Glossa on the east coast brings you to the picture postcard monastery of Agios Ioannis. Perched high on rocks that jut out into the Aegean Sea, there are over one hundred steps to the church which overlooks a delightful small cove. This is the church used for the wedding in the film Mamma Mia. Skopelos was the main island featured in the film; other scenes were shot on Skiathos. The natural beach of Kastani also features a lot. A jetty was built to accommodate scenes for song and dance routine "Dancing Queen" To look at either locations; you wouldn't know that anyone had been there. Indeed at Agios, we were the only two people there. A lot of the locals were used as extras and are looking forward to its release next week.I subscribe to a Greek magazine and when I returned home the August edition featured Mamma Mia and Skopelos. I was surprised to read that three of my favourite restaurants, Annas, The Garden and Perivoli had all been frequented by Pierce Brosnan and Meryl Streep. During our two week stay we became very friendly with the proprietors at all three and never once did they mention their famous guests. This is typical of the Greeks; they enjoy the moment and then get back to normal. There were no photographs on display and no signs.
Skopelos was my first visit to the Sporades and did not disappoint. Ithaca, last year set a bench mark for Greek islands. Although not as beautiful as Kefalonia or idyllic as Ithaca, it is a very pretty island and it is very green. The vast pine forests were something that I had not encountered before on Greek islands. Although you could get a Greek Salad in all the restaurants, not all served moussaka or souvlaki. There was a more cosmopolitan theme to the food. Plums and other fruit featured greatly. Pork and chicken both stuffed with prunes and apricots or plums served with yoghurt for breakfast or pudding. The usual complimentary ouzo was replaced by free puddings. Never have I eaten so well in Greece. Accommodation ranges from rooms to small hotels. Everything is low key and there are no high rise buildings.
Because the runway is so short, the aircraft can only carry a little fuel. This means that a stop on the main land to refuel is required. Because we needed further clearance, this added another hour to our journey.
It might have taken a three and a half hour flight plus a ferry crossing but it was well worth it. I'm already looking at other islands in the Sporades for the future but I already have the next couple planned.
Next stop Santorini!