Skyros: The Island Of Collectors
Feature by Dalia Miller

Our love affair with Skyros began one sweltering summer day in 1976. It happened without any warning. My husband and I arrived in Piraeus after a lazy weekend in Mykonos and grabbed a taxi bound for the center of Athens. Sharing the backseat with us was a hand-painted oval platter featuring fanciful blue birds and swirling borders of green and orange. It was exquisite and unlike any faience pottery we had ever seen before. “Eínai apó tin Skyro” (it’s from Skyros), said the friendly cab driver who was taking it home to his wife as a birthday gift.

Swirling birds on a Kalliopi Nikolaou platter
That taxi ride sparked a decades-long addiction to Skyrianá, the traditional ceramics of the southernmost island in the Sporades. Very early the next morning, with streets still bathed in Athens’ pink-fingered dawn, we wandered endlessly around Plaka, the old neighborhood below the Acropolis, searching for magical platters from Skyros. On Adrianóu Street, a crowded two-level shop held promise. We waited patiently over our coffees for the store to open. Hanging on walls everywhere were plates and platters of all sizes and shapes. Several long, dusty tables were stacked with bowls, cups, candlesticks and pitchers. They all bore the distinctive designs of the platter in the taxi and the initials K. N. The shop owner said this collection was the handiwork of Kalliopi Nikolaou, a talented ceramic artist from Skyros, and a member of a multi-generational family of potters who work in a studio near Magaziá, just below the island capital. Her artful designs were based on traditional Skyrian motifs dating back hundreds of years: pantalooned brides and grooms, boats with three sails, even a damsel in a long flowing gown surrounded by plumed peacocks. We purchased several pieces which were carefully packed in bubble wrap to be hand-carried in a canvas bag on our return flight home.

Pantalooned bride and groom are typical Skyrian motifs.

During the next eight years, choice pieces by Kalliopi discovered in Corfu, Skiathos and at a fine Plaka jeweler on Kydathinaéon Street were added to our growing collection. Back home, our philhellene friends joined us frequently at Greek feasts served on our beloved Skyrian platters. Wasn’t it high time, they suggested, to go to the very source to discover how Skyros became such an influential center of Greek folk art?

It’s a balmy July morning in Skopelos. The early ferry has just pulled in and my husband and I and our fourteen year old daughter, Alison, reluctantly climb aboard, sad to leave this idyllic island where we have just spent three perfect days. But the Aegean Sea is embracing and spectacular in these parts and we are invigorated by cool breezes as we watch acrobatic dolphins frolic in the foamy wake behind our ship and gulls squawk and swoop overhead. We’re headed south to Skyros, the largest of the Sporades island cluster. It is like two islands in one. In the north, Horió, one of the most dramatically sited capitals in all of Greece, towers over pine-covered hills and fertile fields. In contrast, the rugged southern portion is largely barren and uninhabited, save for patches of maples and wild olive trees. Here, a few endangered enclaves of miniature horses roam free in isolation. So beloved are these little horses that they are even depicted on several Parthenon friezes.

Dramatically sited Skyros town (Horió)

Our ferry glides along and my history book is open. Long-forgotten mythological tales leap off the pages. In Homeric times Skyros was the refuge of Achilles who was hidden by his mother, Thetis, to save him from prophesized death in the Trojan War. High atop Skyros’ craggy acropolis, the court of King Lycomedes was the perfect foil for Achilles, who dressed as a girl and blended in with the king’s daughters. Only one daughter, Deidamia, knew his true identity and bore him a son, Neoptolemus. Odysseus came looking for Achilles, bringing jewels and fineries for the women in the court. He also carried weapons, announcing that danger was imminent. Unable to resist a battle, Achilles bared his chest, seized a spear and revealed himself, later joining the war brigade.

Skyros is also the place where Theseus, the brave Athenian warrior who slew the Minotaur, met his untimely death. He had fled to the island from Athens to escape an angry uprising, but King Lycomedes was convinced that Theseus would ultimately dethrone him and pushed him off a steep cliff into the sea.

Agorás teems with townspeople.

Over the millennia, the massive rock that once housed the court of Lycomedes became the successive stronghold of the Byzantines, the Venetians, the Turks, and finally part of the Modern Greek state. Just below the summit, the monastery of Aghios Georgios, founded in 962, is under the jurisdiction of the Megáli Lávra of Mount Athos. A resourceful native population built cubic houses on narrow, twisting lanes near the safety of the monastery and castle where they could retreat behind thick walls during pirate attacks. Its wealthiest citizens constructed grander mansions near the summit and the neighborhood became known as Megáli Stráta.

An old man wears shepherd sandals and pantaloons (vraka).

Quite an illustrious past, I muse, as we dock at Linariá, the island’s welcoming port lined with fish tavernas and souvenir shops. It is early afternoon and the waterfront is already packed with new age Brits who come to Skyros for holistic holidays and writing seminars at a nearby beach retreat in Atsítsa. The crowded port bus groans as it climbs to the capital, a mere 10 kilometers away, regaling us with breathtaking views in all directions. We have plans to rendezvous with two friends from Philadelphia, Adele and Argyris, who share our passion for Greece and its handicrafts. They are already waiting at a traditional pension overlooking an orchard near the town entrance where we are all holding reservations.

“Kalós orísate stin Skyro,” (welcome to Skyros) bellows Stavroula, the shrill-voiced proprietress, as she offers us quince spoon sweets and cold drinks under the dappled shade of her arbor plus numerous emphatic suggestions for the balance of the day. I question the absence of window screens in our rooms and Stavroula summarily hands us little gadgets to plug into wall outlets. “Yia ta kounoúpia “(for the mosquitoes), she blares, insisting that all windows must remain unfettered to let the air circulate!

Yellow-kerchiefed villager carries a heavy jug of oil.
Our group meanders up Agorás, the cobbled pedestrian street where so much of the town’s action takes place. The scene is eye candy to the beholder. Old men in traditional shepherd sandals are sipping coffee in front of a crowded café and a young family is feasting on rice pudding with noisy pleasure. French tourists already laden with several heavy packages browse in crowded handicraft shops. On the opposite side, a bakery stacked with tiganitá (sumptuous fritters) and ladópita (olive oil bread) is exuding tantalizing scents. We purchase mini yogurt pies and sit in front of the bakery to watch the passers-by. A burly butcher is coaxing a reluctant goat into his shop and a donkey weighted down with bags of onions is making its way toward the vegetable seller. Yellow-kerchiefed housewives are carrying large baskets filled with eggplant, green beans and zucchini. A sweet shop window display is brimming with jars of thyme honey and amygdálota (almond cookies). “Time sure seems to stand still in Skyros,” smiles Argyris as he takes in all the local color.

Coulentianou’s book brings the Goat Dance of Skyros to life.
“Too bad we’re here in July and not during Carnival when the goat dance celebration takes place,” Adele complains. This ancient rite dates back several millennia to pagan goat worship associated with the cult of Dionysus. No other tradition in Greece is as much anticipated by the public, and visitors flock to Skyros every year from all over the world, including ethnographers who come to document and analyze the rituals. It is a visual feast. A few dozen goatskin-masked men (yéroi), clad in black fur and white woolen tights, carry tall shepherd crooks. Around their waists are clusters of enormous goat and sheep bells, often weighing as much as 50 or 60 kilograms. They wander around town, bending, swaying and shaking to maximize the deafening sounds of the bells. Surely Achilles would smile if he could see cross-dressing men take the role of young women (koréles) who are part of the parade, along with other men dressed as foreigners (frángoi), colorful but less impressive than the yéroi. Every café on Agorás teems with townspeople and visitors who are enthralled by the goings on. “I’ve read that the festivities continue for days,” says Adele, “finally ending on Clean Monday with a huge feast and dancing for the entire community at the central square.” Only when the bells are silenced does Lent begin. All kinds of meanings have been attached to these bells. Do they ring to awaken the earth after the long chill of winter? Is the non-stop clatter a means to scare away evil spirits? To Skyrians, and especially to children, the goat dancers’ Carnival is simply a joyous tradition, with an enthusiastic following that has not diminished over the years. I rummage in my knapsack and find Joy Coulentianou’s illustrated book on the goat festival. We pass it around. “May we return one day to witness it live!” I sigh.

Magazia Beach viewed from the kastro

The island’s reputation as a center of Greek artistic traditions goes back hundreds of years. Not only is it famed for ceramic art, but it is equally renowned for fine embroideries, hand-carved furniture, weaving and delicate metalwork. Many of Horió’s compact houses are virtual museums, their whitewashed walls hung with antique Skyrianá, Majolica, Delft, Limoges and other fine European ceramics and copper platters collected over hundreds of years by the town’s aristocratic merchant class. During centuries of pirate incursions, these crafty and gutsy townspeople delivered food supplies to outlaws who hid in various island lairs in exchange for beautiful artifacts, amassing sizeable collections. To this day, no other locale in Greece is more synonymous with popular art.

The craggy Acropolis of Skyros as seen from the beach
We continue on Agorás, making a detour at a tiny house at #992. “Eláte,” come in, says the smiling lady of the house, proud to show off her mini museum-residence. The fireplace, or fgoú, is the focal point of this compact space. Sleeping areas are built high above storage cabinets. Nearly every inch of wall space is hung with ceramics and copper. Hand-carved chairs, a bench, cabinets, a small table and trunk are lined up next to the walls. Every functional household piece is within eyesight, ready to use, and the arrangement of all these items has evolved into high art. I am especially taken with her beautifully embroidered towels and bed sheets, dominated by charming birds with colorful feathered crowns. “Eínai to agapiméno hoopoe,” (it’s the beloved island hoopoe), our hostess explains. Other designs depict ships, mermaids and wildflowers. The chairs in the room are tiny, just like the island horses, and we wonder if in earlier times the locals were that much smaller in stature.

Our breakfast hostess feeds her chickens.

Winding through Hora’s maze of narrow lanes and arched passageways, we finally reach the summit where the remains of the kastro overlook the beaches of Magaziá and Mólos and the open sea beyond. Via a whitewashed tunnel, one can approach the monastery. We notice a Venetian lion and numerous ancient marble elements incorporated in its walls. It is easy to understand how this craggy location became such a coveted, strategic position in the Aegean. Even today the island houses an important military base and the government exerts control over the development of tourism and housing. The commercial restraint has allowed traditional culture to flourish to the benefit of its people and all of Greece.

A long cobbled path descends to Magaziá from the kastro and we explore this pleasant beach community with fine sand lapped by gentle waves. During the Venetian era gunpowder was stored here, giving the area its name. A couple of ceramic workshops are located on the beach, but Kalliopi’s studio is nowhere to be found. By now the sun is beginning to set and the air is thick with freshly fried fish. We realize how hungry we are and head to Stefano’s, an attractive taverna at the water’s edge. Skyros is known as “lobster island” and the waiter insists that we order astakomakaronáda (lobster spaghetti). It is mouth-wateringly delicious. My husband is even brave enough to try sea urchin fritters. We eat with gusto, lingering to chat under an inky sky twinkling with stars. Above us, the kastro gleams eerily in the moonlight, as if summoning the ghosts of Lycomedes and Theseus to appear.

Miraculously, we survive our first night without an attack of kounoúpia and awaken early, ready to tackle the day. “Fresh omelets” says the sign at a popular breakfast spot. “Why not,” we say. They come to our table in no time, delicately herbed and accompanied by a thick slab of local feta and juicy tomatoes. “You like?” asks our server. She leaves us to feed her chickens which, she assures us, lay the finest eggs on the island. We chatter away and watch as she bends and clucks to them, disappearing to collect more feed behind an ancient wood door that creaks behind her. As we mull over our sightseeing agenda, her musical voice rings out of a small storeroom window: “Prépei na páte sta mouseía” (you must go to the museums)!

Both are situated high up the village, just steps away from a large square where a towering nude statue entitled “Eternal Poetry” pays homage to the English poet Rupert Brooke. He was a philhellene and a war hero who died of blood poisoning at the young age of 28 aboard ship off the southern part of Skyros. The year was 1915 and he was headed to battle the Turks in the Dardanelles. The nakedness of the statue caused quite a stir when it was erected in 1931, and the townspeople reveled in the notoriety. Even Eleftherios Venizelos, prime minister at the time, came to the dedication ceremony. Brooke’s actual grave is situated in a peaceful olive grove in southern Skyros, overlooking Tris Boukes Bay where the British fleet massed during World War I.

Adjoining Brooke Square, the island’s well-tended archaeological museum displays pots, coins, jewelry and other artifacts from Palamari, an early Bronze Age site that flourished for millennia. The antiquities are outstanding, but we are more impressed with a recreated Skyrian interior, larger and grander than the little house we visited yesterday and showcasing specimen handicrafts. “I’d love to have any of these,” I blurt out in my collector mode.

The Faltaïts Museum overlooks the Bay of Molos.
The private Faltaïts Museum is housed in an ancestral family mansion on the square, commanding a terraced site that towers over the Bay of Mólos. It is one of the very first folk museums to be established in Greece. Fortunately for us, Anastasia Faltaïts is on the premises today. She welcomes us with a warm smile, explaining that the museum also functions as a cultural and artistic center for the entire community. A collection of 3,000 items includes manuscripts and books dating from the Byzantine and Turkish eras, centuries-old ceramics, archival photographs of the Skyrian Carnival and contemporary paintings and sculpture by Manos Faltaïts. There are long tables where visitors can sit and read. Adjoining is a workshop where numerous handicrafts are made. “We even hold classes for children and adults,” says Anastasia. “The museum plans to build an outdoor theater for cultural events and reenactments.” We are impressed by the painstaking organization of the collections. “My family has been in Skyros for generations,” she continues. “We were successful merchants who valued education and tradition. Some of our family members were even archons (lords) of the Megáli Stráta,” she adds with great pride. We ask her where we should dine in town. “Go to Pappoú kai Egó for dinner. They serve traditional Skyrian dishes. You will love it,” she waves to us in parting.

Anastasia Faltaïts
It is easy to get lost in the labyrinthine upper town. We trail behind two stray cats to a photo spot abloom with bougainvillea, only to discover a tiny workshop where a village woman is bent over her embroidery. I recognize the hoopoe bird, the focal point of her design. A friendly English woman is poring over a notebook. We exchange hellos and begin to chat. I find out that she has been coming to the island for several years to attend writing workshops at the Skyros Center in Atsítsa. “Why do you love it here so much?” I ask. “Because in Skyros I get in touch with myself,” she discloses. “When I gaze at the sea and I am filled with hope and happiness and I become aware of what is important in life.” She pulls out a crinkled copy of Brooke’s 1914 sonnet. “Here, let me read you this excerpt and see if you think he captures the spirit of Skyros: ‘Waters blown by changing winds to laughter, and lit by rich skies, all day, and after.’“

A woman is bent over embroidery of the hoopoe bird.

We get directions to the restaurant. Pappoú kai Egó is awash with hanging spoons, bundles of garlic, old wine bottles and plenty of Skyrian families. The appetizers here are popular with the townspeople, so we decide to try them all: a pikilía (assortment) of zucchini croquettes, fried pumpkin in yogurt and saganáki (flaming) meatballs, to be followed by tender goat in lemon sauce. The waiter asks how we heard about the restaurant. “Anastasia recommended it,” we respond. “Málista! Anastasia, archóntissa eínai” (Of course! Anastasia is a classy lady), he mutters under his breath.

Tables are crowded in the large central plateía (square), where bars and cafes throng with well-heeled tourists and locals who come to unwind and gossip. We make our way down to the beach area where “On the Rocks,” a crowded disco, is throbbing rhythmically with American pop tunes and occasional Greek bouzouki numbers. From our table, we watch as the Aegean swallows the sun, turning cinnamon red. On our return walk, the night air is heady with wild thyme and the tang of the sea. We can hear the soft tinkling of bells rising from well-worn goat paths. Soon, the landscape is bathed in deep violet and the lights of the village glitter like jewels on the darkened neck of the kástro. Later, I fall into a restless sleep, revisiting the legends and heroes of Skyros.

Pine trees fringe the sea at Pefkos.

On our third day, a hired driver takes us on a tour of the northern part of Skyros. We wind through well-watered valleys thick with pines and cypresses, past groves of olive and pomegranate trees fed by underground springs, to Péfkos, a spectacular little bay where the pine trees come right to the water’s edge. Our driver points to several islets that lie off the west coast of Skyros. The largest is Skyropoúla, but the most interesting is Sarakíno, in the south, once the largest pirate center in the Aegean. The western side hides dramatic sea caves that can be visited by caïque. Little churches dot the countryside. We stop to visit a solitary, centuries-old chapel. It is damp and dark and redolent with incense, with long tapers that glint in shafts of sunlight that beam from tiny windows. “I wonder who built this place?” says my husband. We marvel that on Skyros, just as on every island, there are hundreds of little chapels dedicated to a variety of saints, perhaps a throwback to the numerous altars where the ancients worshiped.

We opt to take the inaugural flight from Skyros back to Athens, taking off at a military base north of Horió where air service has just been initiated. I hold my breath as our tiny plane swoops over Tris Boúkes in the south, jerking and dropping altitude in several air pockets. What an adventure! In my knapsack are three of Kalliopi’s bowls that we stumbled upon in the upper town. They are fine specimens and I envision serving tztatzíki (yogurt dip) and other delectables to my future dinner guests!

As the years went by, we noticed that Kalliopi’s plates were nowhere to be found in Greece. Stores still stocked Skyrian ceramics, but they were of inferior quality, with a mass-produced look. About eight years ago, while attending the St. Sophia Greek Festival in Los Angeles, I spotted a stall selling Skyrian platters, but with a more contemporary look. The woman behind the counter introduced herself: “I am Kalliopi Nikolaou.” She had moved to the Santa Cruz area decades earlier and had founded a company, Skyros Ceramics, geared to American tastes. I told her we had been ardent collectors of her handiwork for many years. “Efharistó yia tin písti sas,” (thank you for your loyalty), she hugged us tightly with a wistful tear in her eye.