Skopelos

With the exception of Skyros, if you look at the Sporades, you can see that they are, topographically, really a sort of extension of heavily wooded Mt. Pelion on the mainland north of Volos. You can imagine, were the sea lower, a peninsula chained by mountains thrusting itself into the sea for a hundred kilometers or so.

The film Mama Mia! was shot in Skopelos (pop. 5,000) in 2007. The movie, a paper-thin plot built around the pretty good songs of the 1970's Swedish pop group ABBA, was pretty bad, but there was no way to ruin the photography of this stunningly beautiful island. So rent or stream the movie, turn the sound off (unless you enjoy Merle Streep's singing voice- I don't), and enjoy the scenery.

Skopelos was a big grower of prune plums and exporter of prunes, but mechanization priced them out of the market in the 1980's. You can still see the prune-drying ovens in the yards of homes in the countryside. The island's once-considerable wine production vanished after the phylloxera blight killed off virtually every grape vine. Other agricultural activities include sheep and goat-raising, the production of feta cheese, and beekeeping and honey production.

Along with Skiathos, Skopelos had a thriving ship-building industry because of the available timber on the island. A 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica article mentions that almost every family on both islands either owned, built, skippered, or crewed a ship.

On Skopelos wealth is transferred from one generation to the next via the wife, making it a matrilineal culture, which is unusual for Greece. When a girl marries she almost always comes with a house and some land, which remain in her name.

Skopelos is shaped like a very fat saxophone, and oriented NW-SE. It's 20 km long, 9 km wide at its south end, and 2 km wide at its north end. Its highest mountain, Delphi, in the island's center, is 680 meters high. Palouki 5 km to the SE, is the next highest. The capital, Hora or Skopelos Town, is in the saddle-like plain between the 2 mountains. More than half the island is covered in pine forest, and its coastline is fairly irregular, scalloped with bays, small coves, and hidden beaches.

History

Originally the island was called Peparithos, who was the brother of Stafylos (Grape), its first resident who also introduced viticulture to Skopelos. They were sons of Dionysus the god of wine and Ariadne, who was a princess of Crete deserted on Naxos by Theseus, her boyfriend, and later found there by Dionysus. This distinctly Minoan Cretan myth is strong evidence that Skopelos was settled by the Minoans, probably around 1600 BC. Later the Mycenaeans settled the island, followed by the Dolopians, who were from Thessaly.

Centuries later 3 city-states were established by Chalkis, on Evia, the large island to the south of the Sporades: Panormos (today's Glossa), Selinos (Loutraki), and Peparithos (Skopelos Town). The island developed trade relations with other Aegean islands and mainland Greece and generally prospered. Peparithos had its own coins and participated in the Olympic Games. One Agnon of Peparithos won the footrace at the Olympics in 596 BC. Peparithos raised a statue to the sky god Apollo at the oracle of Delphi in gratitude for a victory over the Kares of Asia Minor.

In the 5th century, BC, during the Persian Wars, which lasted 50 years and saw 3 invasions or attempted invasions of Greece, Peparithos stayed neutral, but joined the Athens-led Delian League after the Persians were successfully repulsed. This ushered in a democratic government on Peparithos, which changed to an Oligarchy (rule of the few) after the Spartans defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War. During the war, in 427 BC, the historian Thucydides records a devastating earthquake and tsunami on the island.

During the Hellenistic period (4th-1st centuries, BC), Peparithos survived the turmoil following the death of Alexander of Macedon and the struggle between his successors, continued to mint coins, and to export its wine, which had become famous for its quality. Aristotle mentions Peparithian wine as an aphrodisiac.

Rome conquered the island in 146 BC, and it was during the time of Roman rule that the island was referred to as "Skopelos," by Ptolemy the Geographer in the 2nd century, AD.

In the 4th century, AD a man named Riginos figures in the island's affairs as one of its first bishops. Riginos was martyred during the Julian Persecutions, in 363 AD, and is now a saint in the Orthodox canon, and the patron of the island. His feast day is February 25th.

After the Romans the Byzantines ruled Skopelos until 1204 AD, when the Venetians took over after the sack of Constantinople during the 4th Crusade. The Byzantines later regained control of the island, but Skopelos suffered under constant pirate raids during the following centuries. The Venetians  re-took control of the island in 1453, and then it was conquered in 1538 by Hayredin Barbarossa (Redbeard), a cruel Albanian pirate commissioned as an admiral in the Turkish navy. Barbarossa massacred the residents or sold them into slavery, leaving the island nearly deserted, with many survivors relocating to Evia, the big island to the south, or Thessaly on the mainland. But it rebounded quickly; people moved back and lived under the Turks in relative autonomy. The population rose and Skopelos prospered, developing strong trading economy during the 16th-19th centuries.

Skopelos was an active participant in the Greek War of Independence, which broke out in 1821. It housed 70,000 refugees from northern Greece at one point during the war. Skopelos joined the modern Greek state at the war's conclusion in 1830. During the latter parts of the 19th century and into the 20th, many Skopelites, impoverished by the stratified society which only allowed the wealthy to own land, emigrated to the US and elsewhere.

Skopelos sent soldiers to fight in the Balkan Wars (1912-13) during which the Ottomans were finally ejected from Southwest Europe. They also participated in WWI, in the Asia Minor Catastrophe, during which Greece suffered a complete defeat after invading Turkey, and in WWII. In 1940 the more than 2,000 year-old wine-making industry on Skopelos collapsed with the invasive phylloxera epidemic killing virtually every grapevine on the island.

An interesting WWII story, courtesy of  Marc Dubin of Greektravel.com, has an Austrian named Alphonse living the ex-pat life of Skopelos during the late 1930's, eking out a living in his small fishing boat and hanging around the seafront cafes and bars with local fishermen. After a violent storm in 1939 his boat was found smashed on the rocks. Alphonse's body was never recovered. After the outbreak of WWII the Italians occupied Skopelos from June of 1941 to September of 1943. Italian rule on the Greek islands during the war was generally benign- but when the Germans took over after the Italian surrender to Allied Forces in '43 things generally got a lot  more difficult under the notoriously cruel, business-like rule of the Nazis. Except on Skopelos. When the German army landed, Alphonse the Austrian fisherman marched at their head as Kommandant. He'd staged his death, returned north, and was conscripted into the Axis forces. The other Sporades suffered terribly under German reprisals, but Alphonse made sure that his friends the Skopelites were treated humanely. Alphonse moved back into the area after the war, dying in 1987 in the nearby village of Trikeri, near the southern end of the Pelion peninsula.  

Villages

Skopelos Town (or Hora, pop. 3,300), nestled in the corner of the island's largest bay on the NE coast, is situated in a spectacularly beautiful place. The town is built in serried ranks on rising land. Most of the town is built on two rising foothills of a larger mountain, with an intervening lower ravine, on the northern end of a harbor. The central and southern end of the harbor is much less densely populated and relatively level, with a much slower rise of land as you go inland.

 If you go to a cafe on the town's heights, you see the town and bay with its rocky headlands spread out before you, with its tiled -roof buildings, its green spaces, and its many (over 100) tiny neighborhood chapels which are lovingly maintained by the locals.

The architecture of the town varies, dating from the 18th century and predominately from the 19th-20th centuries. Some of the more recent architecture reflects the colder climate of the Sporades relative to other islands in the southern Aegean, leading some builders to adopt a modified Macedonian style. This is most apparent in the many dwellings with "shanisia," an Ottoman architectural form which has a projecting 2nd story balcony undergirded by heavy timber supports. This adds a few square meters to the upper story of a building. Some of the geranium and bougainvillea-decorated lanes in Hora are so narrow that barely a meter or so separates buildings facing each other. The houses are often roofed with slate shingles. The building are made of plastered stone, with the upper floors framed in timber and covered with stucco.  This style is much different than, for example, the flat-roofed, sugar-cube style of Cycladic homes.

Because many of the houses are built into the upgrade of the land, their ground floors are almost split-level, with a few steps leading from the downhill side of the ground floor to the uphill side.

Hora also has a lot of neo-classical buildings, including many of its public buildings, a style which was adopted in the 1830's as the newly-born Greek state reached back into its ancient past to make a statement in the modern era. Many of the mansions of ship owners adopted this style, sometimes garishly so, with decorative embellishments in their facades such as pilasters (projecting attached columns) with fluted capitals at their tops, intricately carved friezes, and entrances framed in marble with a balcony above them.

Hora's unique architecture was recognized as a "Traditional Settlement of Outstanding Beauty" in 1978 by the Greek Government, which triggered changes in the building code for new construction to conform with the architectural norms of the older buildings. The very large (200m X 100m) parking lot and KTEL bus station at the harbor side is where the busy shipyards used to be, which were finally closed and razed in the 1980's.

There are some really nice tavernas in Hora, and it's relatively easy to find one that is more authentic and less "touristy-" in cases like this it's always smart to ask where the locals go.

Points of interest in Hora include The Venetian castle, dating from the 13th century, which is mostly in ruins but still offers a magnificent view of the town and environs, the Folklore Museum in the center of town, the Archeological site of Asklepio, to the right side of the harbor in an area called Ambeliki, and the beautiful church of the Esodia tis Theotokou (presentation of the Virgin Mary), known locally as the Panagista of Pirgos, near the north end of the port. It's one of the first buildings that draws your eye as you sail into the port. Hora makes an ideal, and picturesque base for your stay on the island if your focus is more than just sunbathing and swimming.

About 3 km east of Hora, on Mt. Palouki, are 3 monasteries, including Evangelistrias, which was an ecclesiastical academy, Prodromou, damaged by an earthquake in 1965, and Metamorfosis, a 16th-century dependency of Mt. Athos.

Glossa (pop 1,000) is a hilltop village about 3 km from the northern tip of the island, 11 km NW of Hora in a straight line, and 25 km following the roundabout main road of the island. It's the 2nd biggest settlement on Skopelos after Hora. Glossa means "tongue," and its name may be a reflection of the tongue-shaped northern section of Skopelos it's situated on. It sits about a kilometer above its port of Loutraki, which is the island's 2nd port. The village is one of the more picturesque in the Sporades. Most houses are Macedonian in construction, featuring slate roofs and the projecting 2nd floor balconies called shanisias. Women wear the traditional peasant dresses which have been worn for centuries here, and the Greek they speak is full of local idioms, making it almost its own dialect. Points of interest in this charming mountain village include the Monastery of the Taxiarxes which is in the midst of pine forests, and the ruins of Roman baths near the port.

Loutraki, the port of Glossa, is a  fishing village which features the ruins of an ancient acropolis of Selinounda, dating from the 4th century, BC.

Neo Klima (or Elios pop. 200) is the 3rd port of Skopelos, south of Glossa on the west coast of Skopelos, and 20 km west and a bit north of Hora. It is a new settlement, founded in 1981 and named for Klima (Vineyard), a small mountain village to the north between Neo Klima and Glossa. Klima suffered extensive damage in a 1965 earthquake, and many of the locals decided to start fresh near the sea. It has a  small marina and a pebbly beach.

Agnondas is a small port on the opposite, western side of the island from Hora. It's used as a port when the winds blowing in from the north Aegean make Hora's port unsafe. It's named after the ancient Olympic champion who won the Games' footrace in 596 BC.  The surrounding forest is a protected nature area. With several places for rent, Agnondas makes for a nice, quiet holiday.

Churches and monasteries

There are almost as many religious buildings on Skopelos as there are days in a year- 360, with Hora having a reportedly 123 all by itself. There are some 15 monasteries in the vicinity of Hora, and a total of 40 on the island. Not all of them are working, or even inhabited. Some of these churches and monasteries are quite old, with the oldest being the Agios Riginos monastery which houses the remains of the island's 4th century patron saint. This oldest monastery on Skopelos also houses one of its newest churches, which was built in 1960. All display some remarkable religious artwork, and testify to the rich and long Christian heritage of Skopelos. Here are the top religious attractions on the island.

In Hora, there are a number of interesting churches, which is as it should be, since there are 123 to choose from. In the oldest part of the town the church of the Birth of Christ is the town's central place of worship. It dates from 1765, and is built in the standard domes cruciform configuration. There is display space dedicated for icons and objects of veneration from the old temple of St. Athanasios in the Venetian castle, as well as some relics of St. Riginos. There are also several marble slab-covered crypts containing the remains of prominent priests and bishops.

The church of Panagitsa Pyrgou (Our Lady of the Tower), also called Our Lady of the Rock, and formally known as the church of the Esodia tis Theotokou (presentation of the Virgin Mary), is the most prominent religious monument in Hora, clearly visible on top of its rocky outcrop as you sail into the harbor. Mounting several steps, you get a great view from the church, and can see how is springs from the rock to which it is attached. The rock is a cliff edge, and getting up to it is a bit of work. The church of Agios Athanassios of Athos is in the ruins of the Venetian castle and dates from the 9th century. The Basilica of the Apostles  is near the Town Hall.

Monasteries near Hora include the Monastery of Episkopi, about 2 km west of Hora, built in 1078. The monastery is surrounded by thick defensivewalls. 

The Monastery of Evangelistria, 3.5 km east of Hora is a prominent post-Byzantine complex. Built in 1712, it sits on the slopes of Mt. Palouki. It also has fortress-like defensives, and is home to many beautiful icons, and a particularly beautiful intricately carved iconostasis

The Monastery of Saint Riginos, the patron of Skopelos, about 4 km. to the southwest of Hora. This is a Byzantine building surrounded by a large yard which houses the grave of Saint Riginos who died in 362 AD The main church was built in 1728, with another, more recent one dating from 1960. The older church replaced an even older building dating from the 5th century. Behind the church, there are the ruins of a Dorian-style temple.

The Church of Saint Ioannis Kastri, close to Glossa, has the most dramatic location on the island: the top of a  100 meter-high promontory over the water. The church was made famous as the location of the wedding scene in Mama Mia! It dates from the 18th century. There is  a flight of narrow steps carved in the rock leading to its summit. "Kastri" could refer to the previous existence of a castle on its summit.

The Monastery of Saint Barbara, built on a cliff close to the monasteries of Metamorphosis and Saint Ioannis Prodromos, is about 6 km. north of Hora. This oldest monastery on the island (1648) is no longer inhabited. It small grounds are surrounded by high stone walls, and considering its strong defenses and its location in a high place it probably doubled as a watchtower.

Nature and hiking

Skopelos is networked by paths used by domestic animals such as mules, donkeys, sheep and goats. They make ideal hiking paths for humans as well. They lead you through isolated farms, small hamlets, with some of the widest variety of flora anywhere in Greece, especially in the spring, when the whole countryside explodes in a riot of colors and smells after the rains of winter. About 70% of Skopelos is wooded by mostly pine trees, which provide shade for walking on hot days. The island has 65 species of birds, and a number of smaller mammals and other animals.

Skopelos does not have an organized network of trails, but because the island is small and quite walkable, you can create your own itinerary. Be sure you are properly provisioned, especially with water. A good trick when walking in unfamiliar country is to turn around from time to time and check your back trail. A hiking path looks a lot different on the return trip than it does on the way out.

Archeology and Museums

The Venetian Castle, on the heights above Hora, was built in the 13th century. It served as the acropolis of the ancient settlement of Peparithos. You get to it by continuing up the hill from the church of Panagitsa tou Pyrgou. Some ancient walls still standing were likely the location of ancient temples to Athena and Dionysos. The chapel of Agios Athanasios, the town's first metropolitan church, was raised on the foundations of an ancient pagan temple.

The Archeological site of Asklepio, to the right side of the harbor, has a lot of low-lyng foundation wall remnants, but not much else. Being close to the shore, you can imagine sailing into the harbor and seeing it as one of the most prominent structures in the ancient town. Asklepios was the god of healing.

Selinoundas Wall is in modern Loutraki. Its name is mentioned in the 2nd century AD. It is just a remnant of a much more extensive fortification. Based on materials used, apparently there were three different building phases; the polygonal type of archaic period, the classical of the Hellenic 4th century and the Byzantine bricks that were added later.

Not far from Glossa are the Sendoukia carved graves, dating probably to post-Roman times. There is a local legend that pirates were buried there much later, but no remains are there to prove this. They're a little hard to get to, being high up, but then the view is great if you make the hike.

Roman Baths were found at the seaside in the area of Loutraki, which means "Little Bath." Some of the ancient site is now underwater, and the hot springs which fed the baths no longer do so due to seismic changes.

On the SW sector of the island is the ancient fortified hill of Paleokastro, which was the location of Selinos or Selinountas, one of 3 ancient cities on Skopelos. It is thought that the area was inhabited as early as the 8th century, BC. A fortified citadel was built during the Classic period, and some of those wall remnants are still visible. It was the acropolis of a thriving seaside city-state once upon a time, and not much of it remains.

Skopelos does not have an archeological museum. It does have a Folklore Museum in Hora, which displays traditional costumes and everyday household implements from previous centuries. The building it houses dates from 1795, and the museum opened in 1992. The entire house is a reconstruction of a typical home of Skopelos from the 1800's.

Glossa has a Cultural Heritage Museum, opened in 2008. Its aim is to preserve and promote the cultural treasures of the island. It displays items of interest from Skopelos' naval history, various manuscripts, and other old personal items of interest.