#24 ~ sirens’ call … skiathos, skopelos and alonissos
Many people find their ‘place’ much closer to home than I do; A mountain lake, the local river, a small village in Mexico, the shores of the Pacific, woods close to home or their own backyard … but mine continues to be that small and elegant place nestled in the Greek archipelago, the island of Skiathos, from which I’ve just returned.
As I’ve said before, it is where I easily – and sometimes not so easily – find my way most deeply into my self, into presence and into a clearer creativity, all which linger as long as I remember to put them into practice. This place is the manifestation of the bounty I reap for tending to my inner garden, and where the stresses of daily life get cleared away by the winds, washed by the sea, and importantly for me, where the words just seem to grow on trees.
By the end of my month there I am rendered almost speechless, not in a bad way but by being stripped down to my essentials, the spoken word almost make no sense to me anymore. A smile or a gesture can say it all. Gently coaxed to feed on what is left to me, I am embraced by grace; the sun coloring the day with its rising, the gulls and falcons that circle above me, the ethereal light that can only be found in Greece, and of course, the sometimes sapphire, sometimes turquoise, sometimes cerulean sea.
As I age, it seems that just getting to Skiathos is like reliving labor. Only I am the one being birthed. The preparation is monumental in itself––being certain that all is in order with the animals here on the farmlet so that Paul, or whoever may be tending to all of the living things won’t have to deal with any surprises, is something I don’t take lightly. Quite picky about the care of the dogs, cats and horses I am adamant that their lives do not shift or change while I am away. This is their sanctuary. However, packing, after lessons from traveling abroad for almost 30 years, is like breathing. No problem, toss stuff in the bag and go! I do need to be careful of weight though as I also cart along many medicines for the animals of the island, the street cats and the dogs at the shelter, as well as heavy copies of my book, ‘All The Little Graces’ I take for the dog and cat shelters sell it to benefit the animals.
Then, there begins that epic journey that used to be so much more straight forward, but now can take up to 29 hours, flying from here to there and then there and there and on to timbuctoo before actually setting foot on Greek soil––all while crammed into an seat fit more for the Inquisition than for long haul flights.
If I have planned well, it can be yet another 1 to 5 hour wait in Athens for the once daily ‘hopper’ up to the island, the 26 seater prop jet that can offer a harrowing experience if the weather is not in one’s favor! (in Greece, ‘the weather’ usually means ‘the winds’) But then, I am there! Otherwise, it’s a night spent in the city of Athens before rising with the sun to catch the local bus that winds up through farmlands to the port of Volos––a 4 hour journey ––and then, the 3 hour ferry from Volos to Skiathos, the first of the islands in the chain of the islands known as the Sporades.
Ah, the Sporades. The gates of the wind. The catchers of dreamers’ souls and the poet’s’ dance. Being one that has long been captured by the serenity that flows through and around this group of islands, I will now attempt a (writer, musician, seeker of all things quiet) layman’s very biased and not very knowledgable guide to these beautiful Aegean gems…
The Sporades are a group of lushly wooded islands scattered in the NW Aegean Sea. They all have have played an important role in the lives of mariners through the ages, as they sit at the crossroads of ancient trade routes that flowed from the Black to the Mediterranean Seas. Not only did this make them an important migration route from prehistoric times onward, but also left them wide open for invasion by the Venetians and Turks, and to pillaging by roaming bands of pirates, most notable of all the wild pirate Barbarossa, or ‘Red Beard’. True to Greek spirit these islands and their people have again and again arisen from the dust and ash and now, though the sea trade is still an important part of the islands’ existence, the only migration and invasion occurring in the Sporades, as is in all of the Greek islands, is that of tourism.
Skiathos is known to mean ‘Shade of Athos’, though it is in no means close enough to Mt. Athos to be in its shade, and I must say that only once in almost 30 years have I chanced upon sighting that great mountain in the distance from the island’s’ shores! It is her sisters, Skopelos, Alonissos and Skyros that are more readily seen – the 4 siblings embody the inhabited islands in the 24 island Sporades chain, each sister having her own decidedly different aura and personality.
Skiathos is the most social sister of the 4, both elegantly earthy and painted-ladyish. She gets up early and walks barefoot along the beach in a rosy sunrise, and stays up late drinking mojitos and gin and dances all night, her witching hour not even arriving until midnight. The island has a year-round sea-culture, her fishermen plying the sea from dawn to sometimes late at night, depending on the cycles of Selene, goddess of the moon. It has a lively old harbor and a village with quiet neighborhoods, real and lived in year-round by many generations of Skiathitis that can delight a walker for hours treading its narrow, cobbled alleys.
The harbor does suffer a bit from multiple personality disorder – on one end is the old harbor where the small, colorful fishing boats are moored to the quay, fishermen mend their nets and the fish market does a lively morning business…around the corner, the new harbor hosts the visiting ferries and is filled with sailing yachts and motor yachts ten times bigger than my own house. In between the two the seasonal tour boats, small traditional caiques and some larger craft, tout their business to the migratory visitors. At night, it all comes alive, the locals and visitors alike taking their restorative ‘volta’, walking waterside along the harbor promenade until the sun goes dark, teens flirting, lovers hand in hand, the old captains keeping up appearances and tourists mingling in with the flow. I love the dichotomy, the ‘circus’, the color and craziness and can easily escape it all in the snap of a finger with a short walk ‘home’, or a boat or scooter ride away.
Skiathos town is earthy, tatty and elegant all at once, with shops ranging from the useful and local, the traditional ouzeries and tavernas and those that offer astronomically delightful contemporary Greek fare. From shops that serve the local communities needs and are open year ’round, to beautiful local art shops and also the requisite ‘tat’ shops that are laden with the ‘stuff’ found “anywhere-Greece” for the tourists to take home, and that close down with the first peep of season’s end. Lush and wooded and surrounded by a pristine sea, Skiathos is filled with wildflowers in spring and the invasion of humans in the throes of summer, host to quiet early season travelers as well as summer’s package tourists, artists and writers, the many wives of the Sheikh of Qatar, film celebrities––and ex-pats who either have fallen in love with the island and its culture and honor it greatly, making efforts to learn the language and a living to support their families…or those who are running from something, anything, themselves, the law or a rotten past, and spend the days and nights drinking life away.
The island offers at least 60 beautiful beaches; some done up with sun-beds and shade umbrellas and beach bars with unnecessarily loud music, some quiet and remote with a true Greek beach taverna lovingly fashioned of stone and wood where one can eat wonderful, fresh food while staring at the sea with feet on the sand, and some with nothing at all but the sand, sun and a tree or two, and sounds that only the Gods and Goddesses themselves intended.
Most beaches are a fine golden sand backed by shading pines, some are pebbled, and one is a stretch of smooth, rounded white marble and granite stone that gives the sea the most magnificent background upon which show herself at her most otherworldly. The light is extraordinary. While Skiathos boasts the fine beaches accessible along the one main road, one can also walk for hours through groves of fine olives and herds of free ranging goats, past farms rich with with beautiful produce, and visit a beautifully ruined Kastro, the island’s old fortress city built on a rock in the 14th century, better to protect the population from pirates and invaders than the harbor city proved to be …
… on to tiny old churches and the Monasteries of Evangelistria and Panagia Kounistria, to empty coves and beaches and the other beauties that can be found in its the north and inland, all out of reach reach other than by foot, small boat, scooter or jeep. The island also boasts the inexpensive package tours from the UK and Scandinavia that bring a rush of bodies in for the summer months, (including large men who have breasts 10 times bigger than my own who parade about in the cafes and on the quay with no shirt on in a stupor. I always wonder–– do they do this at home? Do they not realize this is someone’s home?) and loud, pulsating nightlife for the folk that come to drink all night and sleep away most of the day, and most of what is ‘Greek’ about the island. That all said, Skiathos cleans up well and is an enjoyable mix of all worlds with something for almost everybody to love.
Since prehistoric times the island has been a magnetizing agent for migrations and wars, but some of her most notable modern history includes a very important shipbuilding center in the 19th century––its fleet dominated the Mediterranean at that time––and the fact that the first flag of Greece was created and flown there in 1807. Skiathos’ myth and mystery has been well documented by her own Alexandros Papadiamantis, one of Greece’s most celebrated writers, a Skiathiti himself, whose house stands as a museum for any visitor to see how the people lived in the 19th century.
And then there is the story about my friends’ aunt, the mighty Kalyarina, who harbored allied soldiers waiting transport to Turkey during WWII, who eventually was caught and imprisoned by the Italians. My friend, Captain Yiorgo says that she was a great captain herself, and could easily navigate the seas around the Sporades at night in heavy weather. He feels, as do I, that she deserves a statue in the town, but she is rarely spoken of anymore. She eventually was honored for her bravery by Queen Elizabeth, but ended her years on Skiathos envied by most and therefore ignored.
Skopelos is Skiathos’ proper, well-dressed, more statuesque sister. Fit and trim, well coiffed and bejeweled, she hopes to be the most sophisticated of the sibling clan. The island is fairly untouched, not yet overrun (yet is the operative word) by mass tourism, its main town and harbor filled with elegant yachts and quaint tour boats, European fashion and art galleries, some of which feature the gorgeous and renowned Skopelos pottery––and waterfront cafes that feature the equally renowned Skopelitian tiropita, cheese pie…Above the harbor, its countless old churches and village houses fill the labyrinthine, whitewashed neighborhood––home to generations of Skopelitis as well as more modern transplants––built on alleys set on steep hills that are quietly pedestrian-only, beautifully cleaned and done up for the season.
You’ll often see the jovial old ladies in the open squares embroidering and gossiping their mornings away…you can hear their laughter ringing through the narrow alleys and I can only imagine that they’re chortling about the tourists that are constantly getting lost in the maze. Skopelos, also despoiled by invaders throughout her considerable history, has its ruins of sorts, old roman baths, remains of what once was a temple to Athena, and a citadel of the Dorian Greeks of Selinous, all proof that antiquity indeed existed here. Like Skiathos, it is also a lushly wooded island, but with an air more suited to those who like civilized exclusivity. Skopelos has beautiful, mostly pebbled beaches, accessible only by infrequent bus or if you have a boat to explore with, or vehicle to comb the long main road––great for those of us who love the quiet. There are a few other villages on the island, most notably the more remote Glossa on its SW shore which sits on a hill looking towards sunset, and Skiathos and Evia, with its own lovely port, Loutraki, hugging the coastline below. Skopelos’ is a beautiful island, but I have found her to be cool and aloof with a bit of an impenetrable soul.
Alonissos is the most free-spirited, the dreadlocked, barefooted sister with sprigs of oregano in her hair and dirt between her toes. Organic and remote, Alonissos is beloved of European and American backpackers, and home of the International Academy of Classical Homeopathy, the only institution in the world dedicated exclusively to the teaching of Homeopathic Medicine…and where the mythical Cyclops were thought to have lived! The island is home of the National Marine Park of Alonissos and the Northern Sporades, where the endangered Mediterranean monk seal is protected and nurtured and pods of dolphins almost always accompany the boats that move gently through the areas they are allowed. The island must have been a beloved of Dionysus, for it once was well known for its wines, but tragically, the old vines were devastated in the late ‘60s by disease. Alonissos’ port town, Patitiri, brims with waterfront tavernas that line the small, picturesque harbor, and boasts some fine shops, though none that are decidedly Greek. It bustles at night, cars and trucks rushing along its small main road through the harbor, which to me is unsettling. Half of the vast island is marked only by wealthy Europeans’ 2nd homes, goats, farmers who harvest wheat and olives, and the wild herbs that proliferate on its sunny hillsides. There are some beautiful pebbled beaches embracing the sea on this stretch of the island.
But Alonissos also has a beautiful chora, the old, original village built on a hill just above Patitiri––destroyed in the ‘60s by earthquake and then deserted, the old town has since been restored by ex-pats and a few Greeks who not only see good income from seasonal rentals but who loved re-creating the old traditional stone buildings and did so with much care. Beautiful, no cars allowed on its streets, the chora doesn’t really awaken until June when the town begins to overflow with its particular brand of quiet tourist. I enjoyed my quiet perch there, far above the sea with a view as if from the heavens themselves, but given it was still May, I also felt that I was staying on an unfinished, empty Hollywood film set, the predominate inhabitants, exquisitely tiny hedgehogs that came out at night and wobbled about and along the cobbled roads. I need a bit more bustle, and I need the sea and the culture of the sea, an accessible sea…Skiathos has that for me. (But Skiathos with hedgehogs would be even more perfect!)
Skyros I know very little about, as I’ve never visited. The largest sister, she sits southernmost of the Sporades, almost in the middle of the Aegean and is impossible to reach from any of its siblings unless one has a boat in which to set sail. Rocky and more barren, she looks nothing like the others in her gene pool …she is the adopted one, or the runaway that wanted to be different from her family, the one that wears Free People Clothing––or nothing at all––and probably spends her holidays in Thailand and Bali while her sisters slave their winters away at home…she is more interested in protecting the natural beauty around her than enticing holidaymakers (something I wish Skiathos would focus more attention on), but shares agriculture equally with well organized tourism. Skyros is the New Age capital of the archipelago, host to yoga, wellness, dance and writing retreats. Her Cycladian architecture with whitewashed sugar cube buildings is more reminiscent of the islands of Santorini or Mykonos than of a northern island and also sets her apart from her sisters. A few important archaeological sites have been discovered here, as it is home to one of the most important Neolithic settlements in the Aegean. Its chora sits atop the hill that the mythological Theseus is said to have been hurled to his death from. And for the poets in search of some etheric connection to the island, the English poet Rupert Brooke is buried here, having died on a ship just off the Skyrian coast. While the Hellenic Air Force has a base on the rock, it is also home to the Skyros pony––a small, hardy pony that more resembles a horse in looks that has survived from ancient times, and still roams the open spaces on the island while being looked after by a horse welfare society, ensuring the rare breed remains protected. I would love the opportunity to take a week and set sail to visit Skyros, to find what she secrets behind her mysterious veil.
After that bit of a tour of the Sporades, I’ll be getting back to my visit to Skiathos in my next post. But before that, to sum up my preference, I love ‘my’ island just for what I’ve written of time and time again. I find it easy to pursue my elegantly earthy muse there, her preternatural beauty and the culture and all of the elements coming together just perfectly so give me an extraordinary experience that I’ve not found in any other ‘place’, whether in my youth or in my more recent years.
And––when I am there in the quieter seasons I rarely hear American English! Ah, I love it.
Part II, soon.
all photographs on this page and in this blog are ©Eleanore MacDonald – unless otherwise noted . All Rights Reserved.