Skyros

Skyros is a place apart; 55 miles away from any of the other of the Sporades, and less than that to much larger Evia to the southwest, Skyros has a unique culture and atmosphere. It's buildings resemble those in the Cyclades, as does its climate. Half of it is forested, which makes it more like the other Sporades. Like most of the Cyclades, the other half is dry and relatively treeless.

Skyros (pop. 3,000) , about 30 km long and anywhere from 3-10 km wide, is oriented NW-SE. The island broadens at its north and south ends, and is narrower in the middle. Its two halves are quite different from each other. While the north, (where almost all of the people live), known as Meroi, is relatively green and not so mountainous, with its highest point being Mt. Olympos at 367 meters, the south, known as Vouno ("Mountain"), is a virtual uplands desert with its high point being Mt. Kohilas at 792 meters.

Skyros is famous chiefly for 2 things: (1) its raucous, primitive carnival, and (2) its population of wild pony-sized horses which are directly descended, many believe from the horses which pulled Achilles' chariot, and which were memorialized on the Parthenon friezes. They are genetically different from every other horse breed in the world, and are arguably the oldest breed in the world.

The strategic position of Skyros ensured that she would have people living on it from pre-history. Skyros is the first landfall anyone reaches while sailing from the Dardanelles towards Athens. Tourism is still rather underdeveloped on Skyros because it's a bit hard to get to. Visitors to Skyros are still predominantly Greeks, most of whom come to the really unique carnival celebration in early spring.

Skyros is home to a sizeable Greek  naval and air base. The nearly 1,000 personnel inject a fair amount of revenue into the local economy, which helps offset the lack of tourist trade, which is increasingly the life blood of the Greek economy.

Mythology

In mythology, Skyros was the refuge of history's first recorded draft dodger, Achilles. Reacting to a prophecy  that he would be covered in glory in the Trojan War but lose his life in the process, Achilles allowed his mother to dress him in women's clothing. He then hied himself off to hard to get to Skyros and went into hiding.

Achilles completely fooled the almost certainly severely near-sighted king of Skyros, Lykomedes, who invited Achilles to live in the palace with his daughters. Achilles then fell in love with one of the girls, Didameia, who bore him a son. Another prophecy stating that the Greeks could never conquer Troy without Achilles triggered a man hunt by Ulysses, king of Ithaca. He put in at Skyros disguised as a merchant. He hid weapons in his trade goods, gained entrance to the palace, and captured Achilles. Ulysses took Achilles to Troy, where, as was prophesied, Achilles was killed in combat, and where, as it was prophesied, the Greeks prevailed, although they did so using trickery.

The semi-divine hero Theseus is another figure connected with Skyros. The story is that Theseus, who, among other things, killed the Minotaur in Crete, found a place of refuge in Skyros after the Athenians had removed him from the throne, where he had been serving as king. Lycomedes, king of Skyros, was possibly afraid that Theseus would take the throne from him, took a walk with Theseus along a cliff side in Skyros, and, perhaps after inviting him close to the edge to better enjoy the view, suddenly pushed him off, murdering him.

History

Evidence  shows that Skyros has been inhabited since at least 5,000 BC (late Stone Age). The first inhabitants were the proto-Greek Pelasgians, and sub-tribes the Karians and Dolopes.

The archeological site of Palamari, in the far NE corner of the island, was a significant Bronze Age (2550-1650 BC) settlement and major port. Excavations are ongoing and open to the public. In 475 BC Skyros was an Athenian possession. Nearly 400 years later, in 86 BC, the Romans took over and made it a naval base. This ended in 395 AD, when control of the island passed to the Byzantine Empire. During the Byzantine era a number of churches and monasteries were built, often over the site of ancient pagan temples, as well as fortifications. In the 9th century Skyros suffered extensively from pirate attacks. The only safe place on the island was the fortified capital, Hora.

When Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204 AD, Skyros was given, along with some other islands, to the Gizi family. Nearly 200 years later, in 1403, Sultan Suleiman the Great  conquered Skyros. In 1453, Skyros was once again turned over to the Venetians. In 1471 it fell under the authority of the Ottomans, but was managed by the Venetians until 1537.

The pirate Barbarossa, who was also an admiral in the Ottoman navy, subjugated Skyros in 1538 and made the island pay an annual tax. Barbarossa was a cruel overseer, killing many Skyrians. The Ottomans intervened, and Skyros was allowed to manage its own affairs as long as it paid its annual taxes to Istanbul.

Skyros remained nominally under the authority of Ottoman Turkey, with a brief interregnum of Russian control in the 1770's. Th island vigorously supported the mainland in the Greek War of Independence (1821-29) and became a hiding place for refugees. After the war Skyros became part of the new Greek state.

Modern Skyros is an island of livestock breeders, fishermen, farmers, and caterers to the tourist trade.

VILLAGES

All of Skyros's villages are located in its northern half.

Hora, or Skyros Town, on the northeast coast of the island. In the state of Kentucky, a sharp, forested uprise leading to a rounded peak is not a hill or a mountain. They're called "knobs," which is really what they look like. Hora is characterized by a similar "knob," except that, instead of trees, it is clothed with cube-shaped, flat-roofed Cycladic-style houses clinging to itssides as if they were glued there. At its summit, the town's acropolis, is a Byzantine-era fortress with some Venetian-era additions. Hora's summit has been fortified by one civilization or another for as long as people began living there. The defensive possibilities of the peak almost certainly led people to settle there in the first place.

Hora, home to most of the island's 3,000 year-round residents, is the sort of beating heart of most activity on Skyros. There is a lower square, beyond which there are no motorized vehicles, not necessarily because they're prohibited- it's more a matter of simple physics. You just can't drive a vehicle up the stair-stepped lanes as they ascend the knob towards the Venetian fortress on the acropolis. There are also upward-ramping, narrow, flag-paved lanes bordered by vegetation-topped whitewashed native stone walls or the whitewashed sides of flights of stairs leading to the upper stories of the small homes, or the facades of tiny little shops and cafes. Many shops specialize in hand-crafted objects. Skyrians are famous for their hand-carved and stained wood, much of which decorates their houses in complex interior wood trim.

Just below the acropolis is the 10th century Agios Georgios monastery. Both the fortress and the monastery were damaged in an earthquake in 2001. Work has been taking place on both sites, and the monastery recently re-opened.

The upper square has a bronze statue raised in the memory English Poet Rupert Brooke, who is buried about 20 kilometers south of here at the south end of the island. Brooke, a casualty of WWI, died on a hospital ship anchored offshore in 1915. The statue was dedicated in the 1930's and caused controversy for being a nude.

Also near the upper square is the small but interesting Archeological Museum, and the catch-all Manos Faltaits Museum, a folklore collection of household utensils, a reconstruction of the inside of an older Skyrian home, and traditional costumes, among many other items.

Three km north of Hora (an easy, downhill walk) is Magazia, a growing collection of homes, rental pensions, shops, cafes and restaurants. It also has one of the best beaches on Skyros, with nice sand, a gradually deepening sea bed, which keeps the waters warm well past the regular tourist season. North of the beach there are some home-sized caves. Magazia is a pretty windy beach, a plus for wind surfers.

Aspous is a small resort 5 km south of Hora. A headland projects into the sea to the north of the east-facing beach, which should help a bit with winds blowing in from the Aegean.  Nature walks are the thing to do here if you get tired on the beach. There are plenty of paths to follow. For example, you can climb the hill to the church of the Prophet Elijah.

Another 5 kilometers  SW from Aspous is Aherounes, on the west coast of Skyros. It's close to the port and is a popular resort. Aherounes has its own very nice beach.

Just down the west coast from Aherounes about a kilometer is Linaria, the island's port town, where the ferry from Alonissos puts in. You can find small excursion boats for rent at the seafront to take you to various places up and down the coast, including hard to get to beaches, sea caves, and clean, richly blue waters. Linaria started life as a fishing village, and it still lives on as a fishing village. It comes to life during the summer  high season, when it gets busy enough to be interesting, but not so busy that you get claustrophobic.

The harbor is fairly well-sheltered from the winds. Though they haven't done much to the seafront except pave it (there is no pedestrian promenade to speak of) it's still nice for a stroll in the evening, and there are lots of fish taverns, cafes, and bars to choose from. The ground rises inland from the harbor, affording a pretty nice view of the surroundings. If you turn left at the port, there is a cafe on higher ground which gives you a chance to sample the sand/pebble composition of every beach on Skyros. The cafe, which overlooks the harbor, has samples of every beach on the island in long, oval trays. The trays vary from large, smooth stones to fine sand.

Five km north of Linaria, and just beyond  Aherounes is Pefkos (Pine), which is 11 km SW of Hora. It anchors the Wild Animal Refuge of Pefkos-Agios Ioannis-Agios Pavlos. Pefkos is about as good as it gets as far as traditional fishing villages go. The chapel of Agious Panteleimonas, on a rise of ground behind the hamlet gives a pleasant view of the houses, waterfront and bay.   

Atsitsa is about 4/5ths of the way up the west coast of Skyros, and almost due west of Hora. It's an idyllic, quiet spot by the sea where you can find a place to stay and have some of the freshest fish and lobster (a local specialty) to be found on the island. There's a lot of greenery around, with pine trees which come down nearly to the water's edge. You can enjoy the water, or take walks in the forested hills nearby. Atsitsa has its cultural side,  and there are small centers offering music lessons, painting, and dancing lessons.

CHURCHES AND MONASTERIES

The Monastery of St. George, Hora, is just below the acropolis, and below the Venetian fortress there. Agios Georgios is the patron saint of Skyros. The monastery building dates from 962 AD, although later additions were made until the 13th century. The monastery church was built in 1600, according to the inscription on the bell tower. Skyrians have decorated the church with the intricate wood carvings that they are known for. Furniture and decorative elements were painstakingly carved by native artisans. An interesting artifact is the first gold medal won by a Greek, marathoner Spyros Louis, during the first Olympics of the modern era in 1896. There is also a rare icon of St. George with a black face.

The Chapel of Agios Nikolaos, on a little peninsula just northeast of the resort area of Molos and about 4 km NE of Hora is without a doubt the most unique religious structure on Skyros, if not in the Aegean. A large, rectangular free-standing limestone monolith in the midst of an ancient limestone quarry has, in a lower corner, a blue-trimmed door leading into this small chapel cut out of the limestone. The chapel's inner dimensions are reflected by the whitewashed sector of the outside of the rock. It's a remarkable thing to see, this large rock with a little lower corner of it whitewashed, with the door set in its middle. There's not much room inside.

Close by is a cute little windmill, minus its fins, which was used as a club and restaurant and is now closed. On a rocky islet opposite the chapel is the Chapel of Agios Ermolaos, another white, one-room place of worship.

The Chapel of Virgin May Limpiani is about 6 km due west of the Chapel of Agios Nikolaos. At about 300 meters, it's near the summit of Mt. Olympus, highest point in north Skyros. It also takes advantage of a natural rock formation in that it is partly carved out of the base of a towering stone outcrop rising behind it. An ancient temple one stood on its grounds.

The cave Chapel of Agios Athanasios Athonitis is yet a 3rd place of worship which uses natural geology in its architecture. Saint Athanasios the Athonite died in the year 1,000 and was one of the founding fathers of Mt. Athos, the peninsula of Halkidiki dedicated to the Virgin Mary and home to 20 monasteries. This small chapel south of Molos and not far from Hora was built by Skyrians to honor the saint who lived in the cave for a period of time after receiving it and the land around it as a gift from the Byzantine emperor. The property now belongs to the Megisti Lavra monastery in Mt. Athos.

NATURE AND HIKING

Hiking

Because it is uncrowded and relatively under-populated and unspoiled, Skyros is a great place for hiking. Transport around the island is a little spotty, anyway, so walking is a nice way to get around. The north, generally, is easier to get around: it's more forested, it's where everyone lives, and its elevations are less challenging. The south, with its high point being twice as highest point in the north, much less vegetation, and its nearly 0 population, is much more difficult and requires better fitness, and a better provisioned walk, especially concerning water, a hat, and tough hiking boots.

About the best web site for Skyros hikers is http://www.skyroslife.gr/Trails.php?lang=en

It shows mapped routes and gives good advice.

Nature (including Skyrian Ponies and the Rupet Brooke grave)

Skyros has a  lot of interesting caves, and a fascinating shoreline that can be explored using locals' boats which are rented out for tours. It has that dual personality, with Meroi, the north being green and lower, and the southern half, Vouno, being hillier and drier.

There is a Nature Information Center in Hora which can give you all kinds of information about the island and ecotourism choices. It's open only a couple hours a day- 10 AM- 12 PM weekdays, and 6-8 PM on Saturdays.

The Skyrian Horse

The southern half of the island, Vouno, is a Natura 2000 protected area. It's also home to the Horse of Skyros. This unique to the world breed is short (about 10 hands, 105 cm, or 3.3 feet), with a much thicker and rougher mane and tail. They tend to be all of one color- usually some shade of brown- rather than dappled or multi-colored. Their shortness is apparent in classical art- friezes, sculptures, pottery painting- when you compare the size of the rider with the size of the horse, even taking into account the fact that the average Greek male back then was around 5 foot, 4 inches or 168 cm.

It is believed that Athenian settlers introduced the horses to Skyros as long ago as the 5th century, BC. It's also believed that these tough ponies, who have a reputation for endurance, were used by Alexander in his conquest of the then-known world. It's not out of the question that they were used to pull chariots during the siege of Troy. Although they have the stature of a pony, their physical attributes are those of a horse. They are their own breed, known officially as Equus Caballus Skyriano.

The Skyros Horse Trust is a non-profit dedicated to preserving the breed, the population of which has dwindled to endangered status. The trust culls horses that have interbred with donkeys. Their goals are to educate the public about the horses and their efforts to preserve them. They farm out horses to locals to care for them and use them in agricultural work.

Beginning in 2014, the Trust renewed an old tradition that had been discontinued: the Skyros Horse Fesival, held in mid-June. Theatrical events, music and dance, an art exhibition, and practical workshops are all part of the Festival.

The Tomb of Rupert Brook is in an olive grove in the middle of nowhere  on the extreme south end of the island. Brooke died at the age of 27 on a hospital ship anchored off the island on April 23, 1915. The ship was due to sail to the Gallipoli the following morning, and there was no time to do much more than dump his remains into a stone cairn on the island. Just after the war ended the more permanent site was chosen on the island's south side and he was moved and re-buried. As with Lord Byron  9 decades before, Brooke died in Greece without having experienced combat conditions, succumbing instead to illness. The best way to get to the grave is to take a boat to Tris Boukes (Three Mouthfuls) Bay on the south side of the island. From there it's about a 1 km walk up a dry gorge to the grave site. The site was chosen by his friend, William Denis Browne. Brooke is memorialized, along with 15 other WWI poets who died during the war, on an engraved slate in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey, London.

THE CARNIVAL

In Greece, the carnival season takes place in the several week period leading up to Lent, known as "Apokries ("apo- from, "kreas-" meat, i.e., "meatless"). Usually this covers the last couple weeks of February and, some years, early March. This is the time to both celebrate the ending of winter, and the lead-up to Lent, by living it up with lots of food, drink, and street partying. It is really a pre-Christian, Dionysian explosion of wild, raucous, earthy fun.

Tsikno Pempti (or "Smoke Thursday") falls on the second Thursday before "Clean Monday," the beginning of Lent, but it's the last day the devoted Orthodox believer eats meat. And he eats a lot of meat on this day. The pale blue of the sky becomes a bit hazy as Greeks all over the country break out their charcoal grills and cook tons of meat in the open air. You literally cannot escape the smell of cooking meat in every single village and city in the country on Tsikno Pempti.

Skyros's carnival revolves around the "goat dance:" groups of dancers come down from the castle in Hora, led by the "geri," the old man, a threatening presence dressed in goatskin capes with oversized livestock bells attached to their waists. The carry "glitsas-" the Greek shepherd's crook, and hide their faces behind kidskin masks. They are accompanied by "kopellas,("brides" or  "young girls")," short men dressed in traditional long dresses and wearing a fixed, painted female masks. They wander the streets and when two groups meet, they stand in circles and see how loud and long they can clank their bells through variations of what looks like a Greek version of the Chubby Checker dance craze from the early 1960's, the Twist: 

The men twist their hips this way and that, the dozen or so bulbous, cantaloupe-sized livestock bells raising a racket, especially when you have 8 or 10 of these guys doing it all at the same time: over a hundred bells clanking and clinking away, all the while the short, masked kopella in headscarf and traditional long skirt hops and twirls around inside the circle of men, a kerchief either hiding her nose and mouth, or waving about at waist level, the other hand akimbo on her hip. There's something suggestive about the globe-shaped bells on the mens' hips, jouncing and bouncing around as they twist, as if they were oversized breasts being shaken to attract males. It's a very strange event, and has the look and sound of something ancient.

The traditional story is that the geri- the old man- is a shepherd who lost his sheep during the hard winter. So he wears their bells, and, accompanied by his wife, walks through the village announcing the calamitous news. Historically, Greek warriors would sometimes decorate their shield with bells to frighten their enemies. Spiritually, bells in ancient Greece were a means of warding off evil spirits.

The goat dance takes place on the 4 weekends before Clean Monday 9"Kathari Deftera"). It's something all visitors to Greece should experience at least once, but you need to book a room well in advance, as this is one of the favorite destinations of Greeks themselves during the season.

ARCHEOLOGY AND MUSEUMS

The best place to start on Skyros with archeology is the Archeology Museum of Skyros. It was built in 1963. This small, two-room museum has artifacts dating from 2,800 BC up to the 1st century, BC. Objects on display include pottery from 2,800-1,900 BC (Early Helladic period), Mycenaean-era pottery (1600-1100 BC), various objects from the Geometric period (900-800 BC), including bronze bracelets, and vases, statuettes, and sculpture from the classical and Hellenistic periods (5th-1st century, BC).

As far as places, Palamari is the prime place. It's 14 km NW of Hora, where a large settlement has been uncovered. This includes a major harbor, and one of the most important pre-historic (2500-1800 BC) settlements in the Aegean. Ruins of homes and streets have been uncovered, indicating a well-organized population center. Stone tools and utensils have been found, as well as stone-paved terraces, as well as fireplaces ovens, and floors. Most of these findings are in the museum at Hora. There are also the remains of a defensive wall, with U-shaped bastions, a rampart, and a moat. It's close to Palamari Beach, as well.

BEACHES

There are a lot of beaches on Skyros, and most of them are either mostly deserted or relatively uncrowded. A lot of these are hard to get to, so I won't bother listing them as a casual visitor would find it even more difficult to get to than a local. All of these beaches are in the north half of the island, starting with the ones closest to Hora.

Magazia  (Gialos) is just below Hora. It's a sandy, organized 800 meter-long beach with a great view behind you to the village clinging to its heights, the St. George Monastery, and the Venetian Castle. There are plenty of room rentals nearby, as well as taverns, bars, and restaurants. It's one of the busiest beaches on Skyros. It takes about 10 minutes to walk down to it from the capital.

Molos sort of blends into Magazia as you head north. It's a good beach for kids because of its shallow, calm waters. It also has its share of beach bars and taverns. Close by is the unusual St. Nikolaos Chapel, a whitewashed lower corner of a monolithic piece of limestone with a blue-framed door set in it.

Gyrismata is just north of Molos, and 5 km north of Hora. Gyrismata means "turning," and it's just after a sharp turn in the shoreline from NE to NW. This beach is a favorite of the locals. It offers a lot of room, being both long and wide. This sandy beach is subject to the well-known meltemia winds blowing out of the north, but it's a topographically interesting place, what with the St. Nikolaos Chapel being close by, and an old limestone quarry, and a number of other little chapels.

Palamari is further up the coast to the north, and 13 km north of Hora. This east-facing beach is accessed by a 4 km-long dirt road. Palamari was the site of an ancient settlement. This unorganized, sandy beach is just next door.

Going south from Hora, Aspous beach is 5 km away. It's an unorganized beach with a taverna or two close by for refreshments. The beach has a number of large rocks, both offshore and on the sand. There are some trees. This beach is usually uncrowded, and does not appear to be a favorite.

Achili is just next door to Aspous to the south. It used to be a pretty nice place but the installation of a marine makes it less desirable. It's still a swimmable, sandy beach, but there are a number of fishing boats using the marine.

One the west side of Skyros, Acherounes beach, 10 km SW of Hora, is very nice, with soft, golden sand. It's close to the port of Linaria. It has some snack bars and cafes nearby. The waters here are sheltered, calm, and family friendly.

Kalamitsa is south of Linaria a few kilometers, and gets a fair amount of traffic for that reason. The beach is well organized, but windy. There are places to eat and drink nearby.

Pefkos is north of Linaria, and 11 km SW of Hora. It's a very nice, sandy beach with lots of trees and bushes coming down to it. Transportation can be a problem as no busses stop there, so you can only go by taxi, rented motorbike, or car.