Skiathos (pop. 6,000) is the westernmost island in the Sporades, and only 4 km from the Greek mainland, although Volos, where the ferries originate is considerably further away. Boats sailing south out of Volos have to come around the southern tip of the Pelion peninsula, which, Cape Cod-like, hooks around to the west, enclosing the Pagasitikos Gulf. Volos is at the northern end of the Gulf, making the total distance to Skiathos something like 60 km. When the boat gets to the island, it has to circumnavigate to the southeast coast.
Southeast and southwest Skiathos are less mountainous than the northeast and northwest, with the island's high point being the 433-meter Mt. Karafitzanaka. Skiathos, the capital, on the SE coast, is home to 5,000 of the 6,000-strong population of the island. The island's airport is just outside the capital, as well as a lagoon that serves as a wildlife refuge.
By virtue of her nearness to the mainland and her airport, Skiathos is the busiest of the Sporades. The island has preserved her charms despite the heavy increase in tourist traffic over the last few decades. The island, like the nearby Pelion peninsula, is heavily wooded. It has some 60 named beaches, some of them firmly in the world-class category. During the winter months many islanders migrate to the mainland to work.
The name “Skiathos” dates all the way back to the island’s first inhabitants, the Pelasgians, a proto-Greek tribe. Unlike many Greek islands, the name has stayed unchanged over the millennia. The speculation is that the Pelasgians, influenced by the thick forests of the island, and the shade (“skia”) they threw, named the island accordingly. Dionysus, god of wine, was the patron deity of the island.
The Pelasgians were displaced by the Minoan Cretans, and, after a few centuries and the decline of the Minoan civilization, the Mycenaeans took over. Because the island was a gateway to the Pagasitikos Gulf, and the region of Mt. Pelion, home of Jason and many of the Argonauts, it was a strategic location which attracted many invaders.
During the 7th-6th centuries the island was colonized by the city-state of Chalkis, Evia (60 km north of Athens), along with the other Sporades. They built the first fortified town. In 480 BC, during the Second Persian invasion of Greece in the Persian Wars, the fleet of Xerxes, sailing towards Athens, ran into a violent storm and lost about a third of their 1200 ships on the rocky shore of nearby Magnesia.
The allied Greek navy, included the Skiathian navy, using Skiathos as their base, blockaded the rest of the Persian fleet from making landfall on mainland Greece, and then helped provision the Spartan army holding the pass at Thermopylae from the Persian force which had been marching southwards overland. Although greatly outnumbered, the Skiathians and allied Greeks then engaged in a major naval battle with the Persians at the straits of Artemesium, where northern Evia comes close to the mainland.
Fought simultaneously with the much better-known Battle of Thermopylae, the Greek fleet of 271 ships managed to sink 400 Persian ships while losing 100 of their own. The battle, though a tactical victory for the Persians, served as a delaying action, allowing the Greeks to prepare for the later battle of Salamis near Athens, during which the Greek navy routed the Persians.
After the Peloponnesian War, Athens used the island as a naval base in its war against the Macedonians. After Macedonia captured the island, they installed a tyrant, until the return of democratic rule in 341 BC. A period of turmoil followed the death of Alexander in 333 BC. After the conquest of Greece by Rome in 146 BC, Skiathos was given relative autonomy as a possession of Rome. Mithridates VI, an ethnic Greek ruler from Pontus, Asia Minor, who fancied himself a second Alexander, took Skiathos in 88 BC as part of his campaign against the Romans.
Athens re-took the island in 41 BC, and the Romans re-established their rule in 221 AD. These were relatively quiet centuries. The Byzantines followed the Romans in 325 AD. The following centuries saw a lot of piratical activity in the Aegean, and Skiathos did not escape their depredations.
Skiathos fell into the hands of the Venetian following the 4th Crusade in 1204. They built the Bourtzi Castle on small island in the harbor, similar to the Bourtzi fort in the harbor of Nafplio in the Peloponnese. The Bourtzi turned out to be inadequate protection for the island, however. This prompted a move of the capital from its original ancient site in modern-day Skiathos Town, to Kastro, a much more defensible promontory on the north coast of the island. The Latins ruled the island until after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. After that it was the Ottoman Turks’ time to rule the island. In 1538 the island was captured by the Ottoman admiral Barbarossa (Red Beard), an Albanian pirate who was promoted to his position in the Ottoman navy by the sultan who figured that such an effective fighter may as well be part of the sultan’s navy.
In the 1830’s, after the conclusion of the War of Independence (which coincided with the virtual cessation of piratical activity), the capital was moved back to its original site.
The abundant pine forests on the island were key to the rise of Skiathos as a shipbuilding center. Practically the entire island was subsequently de-forested, but the forests made a comeback with the advent of steam power as the 19th century progressed and the ship building industry died. One small traditional shipbuilder remains in the area of Skiathos Town, building Greek fishing caiques not far from the airport.
In 2007, a fire in a garbage dump got out of control and spread across the south part of the island. Hundreds of tourists had to be evacuated from a number of resorts. Most of the island's pine forests were spared, and vegetation has come back in the intervening years so well that it's hard to tell where the fires were..
Skiathos Town, on the northeast side of the island, has been inhabited a long time. It was the ancient island's capital, was deserted for awhile due to pirate raids, and was re-established as the capital after the rebirth of Greece as an independent state in the 1830's.
As you sail into the harbor, you can see, off to the right, Strofilia Lagoon next to the airport runway. This brackish saltwater lake and march is surrounded by vegetation and an important resting place for migratory birds.
The town is the island's largest resort (after all, it has 5/6ths of the island's population to begin with), and can get very, very crowded during the peak months of July-August. Off-season can be quite nice, and even in the winter you'll meet a lot of ex-pats who have made the island their home. Night life during high season is pretty active, so if you prefer a more quiet holiday try booking for May-June, or September.
The seafront promenade is nice, with fishing caiques moored, waiting for their owners to take them out at sunset for a night's fishing. The walkway is aggregate pebble, with iron lamp stands giving it an old-fashioned feel, and scroll-backed benches to take a break on and watch people.
A pine-shaded footpath takes you along the seaside in both directions beyond the harbor; with one direction leading over the isthmus that separates the lagoon from the harbor, the occasional plane coming in for a landing overhead, and the other direction leading you under a shady paved path with lots of places to stop and enjoy the waters of the harbor through the bending boughs of the pines. You see the Bourtzi, the little fort on the little islet that is connected to land via a short bridge. There is a bronze statue dedicated to mariners lost at sea off to one side of the bridge at its beginning.
The Bourtzi is a teardrop-sized islet 160 m long and 64 m wide, on which was built a fortification during the first decade of the 13th century. It was a complete fort with towers, walls, and battlements, but so little is left of it it's hard to determine how high the walls were. It was destroyed in 1660, but the ruined fort was used as a defensive position nearly 162 years later during the Greek Revolution. The modern building and grounds taking up a large part of the islet was a local school and is now an exhibition hall with an open air theatre.
Other than the Bourtzi, Modern Skiathos Town is not very old, being rebuilt in the mid-1800's after the move from what turned out to be the temporary location at Kastro on the northern shore. But still and all it has the charming narrow lanes and cute, red-tiled homes you expect to see on a Greek island, with tourist shops taking up the first floors of most of the buildings with a hundred meters of the harbor side.
The writer Alexandros Papadiamantis was born in Skiathos. He's considered the best Greek prose writer of the 19th century. He specialized in stories using Skiathos as a locale, much like Thomas Hardy used Cornwall for his. And just as you grow familiar with Cornwall ready Hardy, you grow familiar with Skiathos reading Papadiamantis. His house in Skiathos Town has been turned into a museum. The town celebrates its native son every January 3-4, and on the 4th of March. There's a monument to Papadiamantis of the Bourtzi. His home has been turned into a museum. It has original furniture, and a variety of documents related to his life.