Something we will always agree on is deciding to visit Greece, especially the Greek Islands. Each has her own character and innate charms, their own version of a Greek salad, their own local cheeses and wines and their own view on the world. They are all united in their love of family and food, sharing a smile and wanting you to enjoy yourself, a laid-back attitude, great beaches and quaint tavernas.
The Sporades Islands, in the northwest Aegean Sea are heavily wooded which was a change for me after visiting the seemingly barren Cyclades previously. We stayed in Trulos on Skiathos Island, the close neighbour of Skopelos Island – both famous for their use as locations in the film Mamma Mia. Something unique to Skiathos is the airport. it begins and ends over the water, has a hump in the middle and you can get VERY close to it. What a rush!
We even got behind a take off…click here to check it out and turn up your speakers!
We hired a soft top mini 4WD which I dubbed the Green Machine and unpacked into our self-contained apartment before heading out to a waterside taverna to watch fish swim up to the edge looking for stray bread crumbs. I’ll be damned if that first meal of tzatziki, bread, chicken souvlaki and greek salad, washed down with Mythos beer wasn’t worthy of anyone’s requested last supper. It ALWAYS tastes better in the warm sunshine by the water doesn’t it?
During our week we fell into a routine of visiting the Skiathos Dog Welfare Association shelter high up on the hills to take their charges out for walks before the sun really started to bite. Gorgeous pointer dogs used for hunting are left behind by farmers, and puppies dumped by bins are lucky if they’re found in time to be brought to the shelter. The attitude of not wanting pets and extra mouths to feed means the work of the shelter is ongoing and tireless. Many dogs are adopted and shipped to new homes all over Europe, living out their days in front of warm fireplaces and with space to roam in green fields. Since we couldn’t take any home we relished the opportunity to cuddle the little ones and walk as many as we could, working up our own appetites for lunch later. A payoff was also the views from the gravel road used for the walking track that descended down to the beach after giving stunning views of the clear blue water and clear sunny skies. After our last visit to the shelter I couldn’t contain my tears and sobbed all the way down to the beach. This is the kind of place I would happily volunteer at every day if I didn’t have to earn a living.
We would usually end up at Megalos Aselinos Beach whose large taverna with tables on the beach and good food drew us back each day for lunch and a cold Mythos beer before we would set up the half tent on the sand to work hard on our tanning, book-reading and in Julie’s case, it was really hard work to stay awake all day. The occasional refreshing dip in the still-frigid-from-winter water helped to keep away the feeling sunstroke was about to take hold. Later in the afternoons a herd of goats with their tinkling collar bells would wander across the grass behind the beach to climb the rocky and steep hill on the far side of the beach. They seemed to enjoy the low bushes for dinner.
As the sun went down and the wind picked up we would pack up back to the apartment, swap sunscreen for after-sun aloe vera gel and insect repellent to head out to dinner, driving into the main town with her gorgeous old buildings, harbour views and bustling atmosphere. We tried a few different restaurants during our time, and each time we had an audience with soft fur and whiskers. Stray dogs have a shelter however the cats will not be contained, so the good hearted locals leave a trail of biscuits and wet food along a low wall we passed each time walking from the car park into town. The cats don’t starve, even if they’re not all together healthy. Compared with other places where the strays let you pet them, these didn’t seem to make me want to run for the hand sanitiser. They seemed to be everyone’s pets. Free-range pets. And as the animal lover I am, I always had a little something left over to accidentally-on-purpose drop on the floor.
Each evening as we strolled the harbour after dinner, and picked up a can of cat food for our feline visitors at the apartment, we would enjoy the cool breeze while watching the sailing yachts bob and sway with the waves in the port. Several were ready to take you out for a day, sailing the deep blue waters, island hopping and working on your tan between dips in the still-quite-bracing-for-early-summer water. We’d heard about a few on TripAdvisor, but due to their popularity couldn’t make a booking. As luck would have it, we crossed paths with Captain Christos Papidis who was bringing dinner for one of the fully-booked captains. With an assurance that his boat was just as good as the well-reviewed ones, we boarded Carpe Diem to talk about the trip sights before deciding to sleep on it overnight. I know I personally feel a tad ashamed that we didn’t book our spots there and then. With the benefit of hindsight, an understanding of port politics and knowledge of the tough business of tourism, we had struck gold in finding Captain Christos. We returned the next evening to book our day out on Carpe Diem and had a chance to chat more to Christos. It’s a long story but I offered to build Christos a website and would use our trip to take the photos for it and some gangway banners. I’d hazard a guess that this offer is what convinced him to set sail even though it was only us two passenger that day. He needs four just to pay for the diesel.
Gliding out of the harbour we saw Skiathos Town from the water and the start of the runway as we set off towards Skopelos. The water was a mill pond all day so we didn’t get to feel so much the wind in our hair as we listened to the motors running most of the time. The next day apparently it was perfect sailing weather so the wind gods weren’t shining on us this time it seems.
We made our own fun spinning donuts as much as one can in a yacht to grab the attention of one of the other skippers Christos is none too fond of. This had the desired effect of making him turn his boat around and back towards us to see the dolphins we were gleefully pretending to point out. Once the other boat had made its way over, we gave them the slip to reach Dassia Island first. Port politics at its best I daresay.
Dassia Island is a small uninhabited island, covered in trees and known for its cave that you can swim into, keeping in mind to stay clear of the sea urchins. It was still a little cool for us to go jumping into the frigid water so we were content to see it from the bow.
Turning around we headed to Kastani Beach on Skopelos Island – the famed Mamma Mia beach. Here they built the now-vanished pier they all danced on and much of the rest of the movie was filmed on both Skiathos and Skopelos Islands. It must have been a terrible hardship being forced to spend the working days in this paradise. Kastani Beach is only accessible by boat as the hillside rises sharply above it. While we swam ashore and bathed in the now-slightly-warmer water we saw how the other half lives – the forward party arrived on the beach and set up table and chairs, food and drink before the obviously well-heeled family arrived for lunch on the beach. Must be tough huh?
Setting off once again we travelled further south along the coast of Skopelos to Panormos Bay, a deep bay, fringed with pine forest and a resort town with beaches favoured by nudists. I put my camera away so I can only recall pictures I took with my eyes – or was it more a case of “what has been seen cannot be unseen”. I know we definitely copped an eyeful before moving along further to drop anchor for another swim and scramble over rocks to the pebbled beach.
By now we could have eaten for England and headed back up the coastline to Elios, a tiny port town on Skopelos. From here you could take a taxi to the other side of the island to the tiny church used in Mamma Mia – if you fancy the frankly unappealing hike up 300 rocky steps to the top. We settled for lunch at Oasis, a family business, with homemade wine, mamma’s moussaka, stuffed squid, homegrown olives and tzatziki. Absolutely delicious. Except I couldn’t tell you about the squid, you’ll have to ask Julie. I wasn’t going near it. Ew.
Over lunch we found out a lot more about Captain Christos as he challenged us to guess his previous profession. We could have been there for 100 years and wouldn’t have got it right. Never in that time would I suspect he was a professional ballet dancer. We heard stories about his travels with various operas and his time with the South African Ballet. His long stint in Scheherazade and the time he whisked Dame Margot Fonteyne away from a reception in her honour on the back of a motorbike to a little diner as she wanted to escape the limelight. You can just imagine our faces listening to him reminisce. If he’d not backed it all up with vintage album after album of grainy photographs once we were back on board I still wouldn’t be sure I could believe it. And yet, here we were, sharing lunch and a day exclusively with a magnificent talent. Un. Real. You can find him on Facebook where he’s posted many of his ballet days in photos. I’m seriously not making this up. And neither, as it turns out, was Christos.
The wind picked up a little as the day progressed through the afternoon and we managed a slow and gentle sail back to pass by and marvel at goats living on the rocky hillsides of Arkos Island.
We then lost a race we were probably never really in with a massive ferry to get back to Skiathos Port. Small vessels scurried like mice out of its way – it was not slowing down and the blaring horn was warning enough. It created waves as it practically ran aground into the port and performed a quick turnaround and back out to deeper waters by the time we were meandering past the end of the airport runway. We parked up next to an absolute monstrosity of a boat, large enough to house an entire football team AND the pitch, called Khaleesi. The other skippers weren’t happy to see it taking up several berths, but more than that, it was rumoured to belong to a former board member for the Olympic committee from the 2004 Games who had made enough money for a boat like that, while the common man was being throttled by the long years of austerity.
We tied up, told Christos we would see him again and went home to shower and scrub the salt air off. He was going to be busy putting everything in order and cleaning out. He loves his yacht, and another also at dock, Bluebird. They are stunningly immaculate 51ft sailing yachts and are like family for Christos. If you would be so kind as to visit his website – Carpe Diem Sailing – and share with friends who may be visiting Skiathos, we’ll all be eternally grateful.
We changed rooms during our stay at Villa Zaharo in Trulos and the second room was a massive two-bed apartment, a far cry from our little studio with kitchenette. The view didn’t change much but the resident cat didn’t seem to notice we had moved and so we didn’t get the chance to keep feeding her and her kittens. It’s a large complex that tumbles down the hillside from the main road, ends with the shaded restaurant veranda and then a path leads you down to a perfect little sheltered beach with waves that lap gently, soft light sand, plenty of sunshine and cool water when you need to refresh. After the wind picked up at Megalos Aselinos beach, we stuck close to home and enjoyed Trulos Beach for our last few days.
Usually our favourite parts of all our trips to Greece are the beaches, people and the food – in that order. We gaze wishfully into real estate agent windows, converting Euro to Pounds, wondering how different it would be to live full-time in paradise and if that would ever become a hardship. I’d sure like the chance to see. I wonder if they offer study grants for that? Kalimera!