The spirit of ancient Greece lives on Skopelos

Paul Mansfield explores an unspoilt heaven where time stands still and goats outnumber people...

by Paul Mansfield 

The Times, Saturday, February 17, 2001 

Each morning I walk from our villa down to the roadside spring to fill up my water bottles. I’m pleased with this little ritual, partly because of its associations of fetching water from the wall and the locals gathered by the small whitewashed fountain.

But it’s also because I know that the water being collected in jerry cans and loaded on to pick-ups is going to end up on the table at one or other of my favourite tavernas later in the day. Most tourist islands in Greece would not bother with this kind of detail. Skopelos, on the other hand, does.

This is an island which has put tourism in perspective. Rich with olives, vines and orchards, and with a sizeable number of Greek visitors a year, this island in the Sporades has no need to go out of its way to attract foreign tourists. Those who do come are treated well. Neighbouring Skiathos gets the package tours (and the direct flights which make Skopelos accessible) while Skopelos gets the Grecophiles, the nature-lovers and the peace-seekers.

Here is an example of the Skopeliot approach: only one beach on the island is allowed motorised water sports and this changes every year. So there are no “ruined” bits of the island to avoid, and little noise in the first place.

Skopelos town rises up around a large bay in a jumble of white and pastel-coloured houses. The back streets are a labyrinth of stone flags, wooden balconies hung with bougainvillea and narrow alleys which twist upwards towards a ruined fortress at the top of the hill.

Here and there are bijou craft shops and cafes aimed at tourists. But there are an equal number of purely local concerns: bakeries selling circular Skopeliot tiropittas (cheese puffs), dry-cleaning shops and musty general stores harbouring everything from saucepans to cigarettes.

This is the island Greece of old, as indeed is the water-front, which has an old kafenio (cafe) with iron tables and raffia-backed chairs. Old boys seats outside fingering their komboloi worry beads and gossiping. “It’s a short season here,” one of them told me with a smile. “Just when we’re getting tired of the tourists they all leave.”

Our villa was a cluster of rectangular and hexagonal towers, whose terracotta colour blended with the deep green landscape. Six of us settled in for the week, watching the ebb and flow of ships in the port from the large terrace, taking long lunches in the shade with draughts of retsina and spicy local ham and cheese, followed by a siesta.

Our only company was a few curious goats, and the goat-herd who shaded them away when they wandered too close. I lay dozing in the shade, listening to the “Hups!” of the goat-herd, the clanking of goat bells and the faint whirr of cicadas, smelling the wild thyme on the breeze. Perfect.

Skopelos is a pine covered island which was once an important Minoan settlement, ruled by Staphylos who was, according to myth, the son of Dionysus and Ariadne. Staphylos seems to have followed in his father’s footsteps by introducing wine-making to Skopelos; the site of his tomb, unearthed in the 1930’s, is now a small beach resort.

Exploring by car, we drove through the quiet pebbled bays and beaches of the south-east to the northwest of the island, where the wind whips in off the water and waves crash against towering cliffs. Tucked up in the hills is Glossa, Skopelos’s second town and a mine of exquisite island architecture. One feature of this is the traditional balcony adorned with wrought-iron carving and flowers. Locals hang washing from them and exchange gossip across the narrow streets.

Opposite the village church was a cafenio (cafe) run by a slightly goofy proprietor who took roughly for ever to deliver our ouzo, accompanied by a meze of fish and anchovies. The priest, in his scruffy cassock, ambled past. An old granny alternately scolded and caressed two angelic children, the bus from Skopelos rumbled in and the driver got down for a coffee. Life in Glossa is in permanent slow motion.

Down at the port of Loutraki we had a seafood lunch of epic proportions at a taverna. The owner of this humble-looking establishment invited us, as is customary, to inspect the kitchen where fish, meat, chicken, beans, salad and vine leaves were laid in rows. Even the most modest Skopeliot taverna is capable of putting on a feast.

My morning water collection was now complemented by an evening stroll in the hills behind our villa. Here, trails rose up surprisingly high and fast and the view back down was of a series of blue ridges, framed by the dark ribbon of the sea. A hand-full of monasteries was tucked in among the pines, their old stone walls bleached by the sun. Here I came across the goatherd with an injured kid slung across his back. He nodded a polite good evening and went on his way. As the heat slowly drained from the day, twilight settled on Skopelos and blurred the outline of the sea, land and sky into one.

The above content is an excerpt from the original article, published in “The Times” (