The Scoop On Skopelos

Feature by Willard Manus

"I have three houses on Skopelos, in the village of Klima. You will stay in one of them for the month of August, free of charge, of course. The nearby spearfishing is excellent; the only thing you'll need to buy from the market is bread. For the key to the main house, just go to the furno and ask for it."

This was Tassos, an Athenian friend, talking. He knew that we had rented out our own house on the island of Rhodes (for a fat sum) and needed a place to stay. Why not Skopelos, then? We had never visited it (or any of the other Northern Sporades islands) before--and the price of Tassos' house was right.

So off we went, taking the overnight boat from Rhodes to Piraeus, staying in Athens for a few days, then boarding a bus that took us up to the seacoast village of Aghios Konstantinos where we could catch the hydrofoil to Skopelos.

We were able to travel via hydrofoil (instead of the larger, slower ferry) because we hadn't brought our car with us. Tassos again: "You won't need it on Skopelos. There's only one paved road on the island and you'll have everything you need in my village."

Accompanying us was a Frenchwoman, Maxie, who was the widow of a late Athenian friend of ours. We had invited her to stay a week or two with us.

We weren't traveling light. We were lugging not just clothes, toilet articles and medicines but skindiving gear (my weight belt alone weighed seven kilos), mosquito netting, foodstuffs, a laptop computer and printer, books, magazines, notepads, shortwave radio, tape deck, cassettes, even kitchen utensils and a stack of towels and sheets. We were, after all, going to play house for a month.

The hydrofoil arrived at Skopelos in the late afternoon, dropping us in the port town of Loutraki. As soon as we stepped on the quay, we knew it had been a mistake to listen to Tassos' advice. A car was essential, if only because we had missed the last public bus of the day. It took an hour of scurrying around in the August heat to track down a taxi.

Klima turned out to be a 15-minute ride from Loutraki. We dumped all our possessions by the side of the road because no cars could enter the mountain village, which had just a steep, cobbled path for an entrance. My wife Mavis and I left Maxie behind while we sought out Tassos' house.

Klima was a strange, sad place. A major earthquake had hit the village in 1965, destroying two-thirds of its houses. Most of its 400 inhabitants had started a new village, down near the sea, called Elios. We later learned that every once in a while parts of Klima still gave way and tumbled down to the sea.

There was even a local joke: buy a dirt-cheap lot in Klima and in ten years you'll have prime waterfront property.

Klima was surrounded by olive and lemon trees, but its abandoned houses, fallen trees and piles of rubble gave it the eerie feeling of a ghost town. Only a few old folks seemed to be living here: silent, wrinkled women in black, a sightless man sitting on a stool outside his lopsided home.

We found our way to the furno (bakery), which was no more than a tin shack with an outside oven. The baker was a woman; also old and in black, with a curved nose that nearly met her chin. When she heard us out, she threw up her hands and cried, "No key, no key!"

"But Tassos said--"

"Don't tell me about Tassos. Go and tell your story to his wife!"

Wife? This was news to us.

We found her standing in front of a large house which had been recently restored. From the way she was posed, arms locked over her chest, eyes narrow and hostile, we knew we were in trouble.

"The house you were promised is mine!" she shouted. "Tassos and I were divorced three years ago. I will never give the key to any of his relatives or friends as long as I live!"

For further emphasis, she spat out a string of Greek curses, all aimed at vilifying Tassos. Nothing we said could placate her.

Tassos' other two houses proved to be unavailable as well. A German woman was living in one of them; the other was a complete wreck, little more than a pile of broken bricks and beams.

Back to the main road we went. The three of us stared disconsolately at each other, wondering what to do. Salvation soon presented itself in the persons of Olga and Emile, a French-speaking couple who drew up in a Renault, accompanied by a small child.

Maxie spoke to them and explained our predicament. Immediately they invited us down to their house, a charming villa on the edge of town which they had spent five years rebuilding. Over cold drinks and mezze, we chatted, in a mixture of English and French. They were Parisians who spent part of every summer in Klima. The child was their grandson and if his parents hadn't been coming tomorrow from France, we could have stayed in their adjoining guest cottage for the entire month of August, at no cost.

They had a phone and called us a cab (the same one we'd hired earlier). The cabbie found us a pension in Elios, a town with a new, prefabricated look. We stayed there for a few days while searching for a house to rent. We liked the couple who ran the pension. The wife did most of the work because her husband was blind and had only one arm (as a result of a dynamite-fishing mishap). Upon hearing that I was a spearfisherman, he offered to take me out in his boat. "You just have to guide me out of the harbor," he said. "After that I know my way around these waters perfectly."

But it wouldn't have been possible to stay in their pension for a month. Its rooms were not only tiny and hot, but infested with insects of various kinds. When Maxie got bit by bedbugs during the night, she decided to pack up and return to Athens.

Mavis and I bailed out of Elios as well. We rented a car and set out to investigate the island. Surely we could find a congenial place to rent.

Skopelos in Greek means a sharp, steep rock jutting from the sea. The 96-square km. island was indeed hilly and rocky, but with a surprisingly green interior. Plane, pine, walnut, olive, citrus, plum, pear and almond trees abounded, fed by a series of mountain streams. The road weaved its way around the southern side of the island, sometimes climbing precipitously, other times dipping down to such beach towns as Panormos, Agnondas and Stafilos (the name of the island's first King in ancient times).

Our guide book sang the praises of Skopelos' "golden, unspoiled" beaches. The book must have been written fifty years ago, as every beach we visited was jammed with Greek tourists from Athens, Volos and Thessaloniki, most of whom were camping in tents or vans. Finding a parking spot was difficult. The air was loud with blaring radios, screaming children, roaring speedboats.

We gave up all hopes of living in a beach town and headed to Skopelos' main city of Chora instead. Seen from afar Chora, scattered over the flanks of brown hills overlooking a long quay and semi-circular bay, looked appealing. There were jagged castle walls left over from Venetian days, numerous Byzantine churches, and an architectural mix of houses. Roofs of overlapping, irregular slate tiles were a common feature, as were Turkish wooden balconies, wide streets, whitewashed walls, vivid gardens, wide plazas. Fishing boats and private yachts shared waterfront moorings. The sunlight shone in purple and red tones on the skin of sea.

Once inside Chora, though, our impressions changed radically. The city's interior streets were so gridlocked with cars, vans, taxis and motorbikes that they resembled an L.A. freeway at rush hour. It was mid-summer and mass tourism was in full swing: hydrofoils to nearby Skiathos and Alonissos came and went every half hour or so, their huge airplane-like engines reverberating and spitting out clouds of noxious black smoke. Waiters in the coffeshops and tavernas lining the streets importuned us. There seemed to be no end of bars, crepe shops, boutiques, fast-food joints, travel agencies. The smell of cooking oil, french fries and grilled octopus hung in the air. All business signs were in English, French, German and Dutch. The sidewalks were choked with pedestrians; to get anywhere you had to bob and weave like a boxer.

It took an hour of chasing up and down Chora's steep back alleys to find a place to stay for a couple of nights. The pension adjoined a disco which pumped out techno dance music from midnight to seven a.m.

When we complained to the owner of the pension, he sniffed and said, "If noise bothers you, you shouldn't come to Chora in summer. The town is for people who want to have a good time and don't give a damn about sleeping."

Chora did have a few good things going for it: the church of St Athanassios; the nearby monastery of St Reginos, patron saint of the island; the local plum jam and other preserves; the boat rides to nearby coves where the sunbathing and skindiving were pleasurable. We also found a few decent places to eat, mom and pop ouzeries where the menu was limited to a few main dishes, but was always fresh and savory, with local wine served from the barrel.

It was the proprietor of one of those ouzeries who told us about a house for rent, one he thought might suit us. It was located high up in Chora, in a near-inacessible part of town. "It should be quiet and peaceful there," he said. "It also belongs to my cousin, so you will get a good price."

We checked the place out the next morning and fell in love with it. The two-story house had once belonged to a Turkish-Greek family. It had been renovated by its new owners, but they had gone easy on the cement and plaster, leaving the building's old stones and wooden balcony intact. It felt right when we moved into it and unpacked our things; even the furnishings were simple and authentic. We had found ourselves a proper home, not a tourist trap.

We especially appreciated the balcony, which overlooked Chora and the sea beyond. We took our breakfast out there, lingering over our toast and coffee, rejoicing in the beautiful vista, the clean, sweet air, the blessed silence and tranquillity.

Then came a blast of music as the shutters of the adjoining house were flung open, followed by the appearance on its terrace by a bunch of rowdy young men, one of whom climbed the parapet and affixed the Scottish Nationalist flag to a chimney pipe. They were from Glasgow, we learned, and had just arrived on a two-week package holiday. Although it was only nine in the morning they began to drink hard, waving their whiskey bottles around as they laughed, swore and sang. Their leader was a loudmouthed bantycock named Stewart. He looked across at us and shouted, "Hey, c'mon over and have a wee fookin' sip!"

When we declined, he turned to the passersby in the street below, bellowing, "Yiz are all invited to party with us whenever yiz like! We'll be goin' at it day and night--the longest non-stop party Greece has ever seen!"

Stewart wasn't kidding, either. The booze kept flowing next door, the music kept playing and the shouts of "Up the Scots" and "Fuck the Queen" didn't quit. When I asked Stewart, as politely as I could, to hold the noise down, he said with a sneer, "Listen, mate--when I'm on holiday nobody tells me what to do!"

Nothing stopped Stewart and his pals, not even a visit from the police, who were obviously under orders to go easy on the tourists. The agency rep who managed the rental house was equally gormless. There was nothing we could do but grit our teeth and try to ride out the nightmare.

We did it by abandoning our house during the day. At night, when it came time to try and sleep, we put rubber plugs in our ears and turned on a white noise machine. Thanks to those tactics, we managed, somehow, to survive the rest of our stay on Skopelos.