Skiathos: Serendipity in High Season
    
By Dalia Miller
Photos: Kip Miller

You want to go to Skiathos? Right in the middle of a meltémi (powerful Aegean windstorm)?” The ticket seller in Paros flicks his eyes in disapproval. He thinks it’s unwise to cross the sea today. Maybe not even tomorrow. Still, there is a large ferry scheduled to leave in ten minutes. We are conflicted. Our remaining time in Greece is short and we have our hearts set on Skiathos, a beautiful island in the Sporades group renowned for its magnificent beaches. Do we dare? “How rough could it be?” my husband asks.

It is mid-August 1980. We have just spent four idyllic beach days with two Athenian friends in Naxos, the largest island in the Cyclades, followed by three more alone here in Paros where we ran into Yiannis Parios, the renowned Greek singer. It happened last night in Paroikia, the capital. We popped into a record store to inquire where we could hear live Greek music to cap off our visit. The proprietor asked what kind of music we preferred and if we liked Parios, assuming we were just clueless American tourists. “Of course we like Parios,” I assured him and proceeded to name some of our favorite songs from a couple of his albums. “This is Parios,” he replied in an astonished voice, pointing to a slim man sitting on the door stoop between two fawning teenaged girls. Parios beamed at us, surprised that ordinary Americans could be fans, and invited us to join him at a private party that would commence in one hour! By the time we arrived, the party was already in full swing, with Parios out on the dance floor. I watched him in total disbelief. Not only could the man sing, he was also an accomplished dancer, springing and twirling effortlessly in a local rendition of bállos! It was his native island after all.

Still basking in the karma of the previous night, we board the ferry headed to Rafina on the mainland. From there we will have to return to Athens and take an evening bus north to Volos, followed by an early morning boat to Skiathos. Half an hour out, the meltémi emerges in full force. Our ferry swings like a cardboard toy on the raging sea, swaying sideways by more than 45 degrees. We retreat to the lowest level, finding the last empty seats in a middle row, and try to stay put with each violent swing of the hull. I stare at my watch. Time is ticking by slowly, much too slowly. Several people feel violently ill and run out for air. “Are we going to make it through this?” I blurt out loud.

All of a sudden the wind dies down, as if Poseidon, god of the sea, is determined not to spoil our vacation. I notice that the ferry is packed. It is high season for Greeks, many of them traveling to their native villages for the Assumption of the Virgin Mary panegyria (saint day celebrations) that take place on the 15th of August throughout the country. During August nearly everyone tries escape the heat, and Athens and other cities become ghost towns while islands are saturated. I pull out our guide book for a quick refresher on Skiathos and its hotel choices. We typically wing it when traveling in Greece, that is, we find accommodations upon arrival by heading to the tourist police or a local booking agent. “Not to worry,” I tell my husband, “I am sure we will find a great place to stay.”

It’s the middle of the night when we finally arrive in Volos. We take a simple room right by the harbor, awakening in time for the first morning boat headed to Skiathos. There are only a handful of passengers on board and they are all as impatient as we are to get there.
   


The jewel of the Sporades Islands, Skiathos is blanketed with trees
and renowned throughout the Aegean for its variety of beaches.

   
Skiathos means “in the shadow of Athos,” the towering holy mountain of the Halkidiki Peninsula to the north which casts its shadow over the island at day’s end. It is immensely popular with Athenian, British and Italian tourists, and numerous hotels and luxurious villas have sprung up on its southern side amid quiet bays and pine-fringed beaches. All told there are more than 60 beaches offering something for everyone: fine sand, pebbles and stones, hidden coves, tiny inlets, resort-style, even nudist.

We begin our approach and the town ahead takes my breath away. Morning sun glitters on red-roofed houses that climb two hills above a small double harbor. Skiathos town, or Hora, is the island’s major settlement, home to nearly all of its 6,100 residents. We pass by Boúrtzi, a small peninsula that separates the new and the old harbor areas jammed with caïques, yachts and assorted fishing boats. The countryside beyond is amazingly lush and green. Skiathos is blanketed in pine forests which once supplied a sizeable ship-building industry. Today, caïques are still made at a small shipwright in the lagoon by the harbor, but tourism and olive cultivation are the mainstays of the population.
   


A local housewife peddles a private room during the August high season.

    
Several old women in black come forward, holding up signs for rooms to let in their homes. “No thank you,” we push ahead to a crowded tourist booking office. “I am very sorry,” whines the harassed attendant. “Skiathos is full. No more hotel rooms.” We are stunned. “Does this mean we will have to camp on the beach?” I ask. “Maybe you should walk around and knock on some hotel doors?” the attendant shouts over the office noise as we walk out.

We drag our suitcases up a main street, only to find out that most hotels are not located in town. A sign on a large tree points in the direction of Dino’s Guesthouse, hidden down a narrow lane. The two-story building probably has a dozen rooms at most. Inside the small lobby, a swaggering Dino says that his last room is reserved and that the guests are due in any minute on the next boat. We are dejected. “But,” he encourages us, “come back in half an hour. If they don’t show up, you can have the room.” Fifteen, twenty minutes go by. We walk back inside. “OK,” says Dino, “I give you the room,” magnanimously waving his hands in the air.

Dino’s lobby area serves as a gathering place. Several young professionals who arrived the day before from Athens are sipping wine. We meet them all: Yiannis, a dark-haired attorney, Nikos, an electrical engineer, Takis, an accountant who brought his red Alfa Romeo over on the ferry, and Ourania, a perky blonde secretary whose wandering eyes have already locked in on Dino. Two friendly Greek couples are delighted to try out their English, showering us with endless questions. Dino is busy schmoozing all his guests. I tell him how much I enjoy Greek folk dancing: “My Philadelphia troupe, Theseus, has been performing for several years. We will be dancing at the Greek Embassy in D.C. in the fall.” As if lightening had struck, Dino answers with a jolt: “I danced with Dora Stratou [the Athens Greek folk dance ensemble] for two years!” He rushes to his desk and pops a tape into a worn cassette player. With Dino taking the lead, we are dragged into line in a joyous welcome to Skiathos.

In early evening, we wander en force to the port area to Koziakas, a popular grill house and one of the oldest establishments in town, anxious to taste their signature lamb on skewers. But the night has only just begun, and we head to a quaint ouzo bar right on the seafront where we all enjoy a Petraki special, a drink invented by an Englishman and made with local brandy and lemonade. Our newly minted paréa (group of friends) has bonded. All of us agree to gather on other days and nights. In Greece the concept of “group” is ingrained and eating alone is unheard of.

The next morning, over coffee and toast, we spot a no-nonsense, mustachioed woman in the kitchen ironing Dino’s white trousers. I am stunned to learn that she is his spouse. Most likely, this hard-working housewife is the product of an island proxenió (arranged marriage) forged for economic reasons. Ten minutes later, Ourania stumbles in for breakfast. She keeps rubbing her eyes and can’t stop yawning. I give my husband a knowing glance. Yannis at the next table whispers that he spotted Dino with her on the roof. “They were probably there all night,” he winks.

We rush out alone to explore. The home of one of Greece’s greatest prose figures, Alexander Papadiamantis, renowned for his evocative short stories and novels, is located on a tiny square off the main street. Part of a devout family, he is considered Skiathos’s most illustrious native son. The austere house that he made his office and retreat until his death in 1910 now serves as a museum. We stop for a brief visit and gain a glimpse of 19th century life: the simple, almost monastic rooms, a narrow bed next to a tiny window, a built-in cupboard by an old fireplace overhung with shelves filled with rustic cups, and a side room holding the priestly vestments of his father, Adamantios. Of his many stories perhaps his best-known work is The Murderess, a compelling tale that depicts the tribulations of Hadoula who lives a dirt-poor existence on the island.

Hora is filled with narrow, cobbled lanes, some lined with balconied merchant houses dating from the 19th century and surrounded by flower-filled gardens. Bougainvillea spills over old stone walls embedded with Byzantine bricks. Not far from the water, the town Cathedral of Treis Ierarches (three bishops) is crowded with people just exiting from a service. We climb the northern hill, the site of the lovely church of Aghios Nikolaos with panoramic views in all directions and a distinctive clock tower, up to an old windmill at the very summit. Hora’s second hill was once crowned by an ancient acropolis, but nothing remains of it today. Next to a building that functions as the town hall, we notice a few capitals and relics from the geometric era.

Skiathos has its share of quality handicraft shops, and we are drawn to Archipelagos, situated in a restored building not far from the Papadiamantis House. It is crammed with maritime antiques, folk costumes, delicate embroideries, vintage ceramics, jewelry and old prints. We spend two hours sifting through its treasures and select a 19th century map of Greece, already beautifully framed, and a rustic jug, perfect for a mantle piece. Near the cathedral, Gallerie Varsakis displays some pieces that are worthy of the Benaki Museum in Athens. Gleaming by the front window is an elegant Skyrian bowl in blue, white and orange. “We’ll take it,” we tell the shop girl without a monent’s hesitation.
   


Pine-fringed Koukounaries, with its long sweep of fine sand, perhaps the finest beach in Greece.

   
It is now early afternoon and much warmer. The coastal bus takes us to the end of the line at Koukounariés, a curving beach considered by many to be the finest in all of Greece, with a long sweep of golden sand and stone pines that come right up to the water’s edge. On opposite ends, the Xenia and the Skiathos Palace hotels offer upscale accommodations and windsurfing opportunities. Adding to the idyllic setting is a fresh water inland pond, Strofiliá, which attracts a large variety of birds. We take a leisurely dip in the crystal waters of the sea, among the purest in the Mediterranean. After a short nap under the pines, we climb over a small hill to Banana Beach where bathers like to “peel off” their clothes. Even though we are lounging with suits on, we fall into conversation with a nude American couple. He is a bearded professor of film studies at a public university in Indiana; she a long-haired short story writer and avid admirer of Papadiamantis. Two hours elapse as we reminisce about our travels in Greece and the current global political situation.

Hours later, we bump into them on Papadiamantis Street and almost don’t recognize them with their clothes on. We smile awkwardly and move our separate ways. Surveying our restaurant choices, I suddenly remember that we forgot to change money. What to do? We count out our drachmas: only 480 left. A tiny oinomayeríon (simple stovetop eatery) on a side street looks both affordable and appetizing. The owner is quite accommodating and we are more than satisfied with his stifádo (beef and onion stew) and a side of horta (wild greens). “Nostimótato,” (most delicious), I tell him. We even have a few drachmas left for an ice cream. In Greece you rarely go hungry!

Yannis, Nikos and Takis have a proposal the next morning. Dino introduced them to a local fisherman, Thanasis, who has promised to share his catch of the day if we all join him for dinner in the evening. “Why not? It’s a plan,” Says my husband. Our paréa boards a caïque at the port bound for Tsougriá, an uninhabited island not far from Hora, popular for its lovely beaches. We head to the best one, turquoise and transparent with a generous swath of white sand. The beach is crowded with young families and dozens of foreign women surrounded by admiring Greek youths known as kamákia (harpoons). This is a scene we have witnessed on many Greek islands: Alpha Greek males continuously on the make and uninhibited single women in vacation mode willing to be “harpooned.” We find a spot to sunbathe and listen to Greek music on the radio. Takis is amazed that we recognize so many of the singers and so we play a game: “Who is this artist?” he asks. Each time we guess correctly, we get credit for a free beer. Five correct guesses, a plate of mezedákia (appetizers). As the music continues, I survey the beach. In the distance, I spot Dino sunning with a topless Ourania. We all smile at each other.
    


Thanasis, a jovial local fisherman, invites us to join him in the evening to share his catch of the day.

    
The sun is rapidly sinking as we watch Thanasis approach in his weather-beaten fishing boat. “Káli spéra, paidiá“(good evening, kids!). “I am happy to see you,” he beams at our extended paréa. We climb in and he reveals his catch: a very large barboúni (red mullet) and an entire bagful of gávros (anchovies). Our eyes grow wide in anticipation. We pull out of the harbor and speed along the southern coast. I am surprised by how fast we are moving and Thanassis explains that his boat is a trehandíri, a faster type of caïque built right on the island. We head toward Kanapítsa beach, to a landing near a small taverna that Thanasis frequents on a regular basis. The owners are enthusiastic and immediately take the fish to the kitchen to prepare the feast. We order an assortment of appetizers, a giant village salad topped with local feta, horta and fries, plus beer and ouzo. In due time, the gávros comes out, crispy and fragrant. Thanasis shows me how to eat one: “Just pop it into your mouth, that’s it!” Of all our memorable meals in Greece, nothing compares to the taste of this delectable tiny fish. The barboúni is next, grilled to perfection and seasoned with herbs and plenty of lemon. “This meal is one for the ages,” we praise Thanasis for his generosity. Without any prompting and in patchwork “Gringlish,” he shares some of his favorite fishing tales. Dino pulls out a bottle of Scotch and we laugh and clink glasses until midnight. I decide that in Skiathos everyone is a born storyteller in the tradition of the great master.

It’s still cool in the morning when we board a bus headed toward the monastery of Evangelístria. Set amid pine and olive trees in the foothills of the island’s tallest mountain, it is a remarkable complex built entirely of stone and founded during the late Byzantine period. The panegyri dedicated to the Theotokou (Virgin Mary) was just celebrated here a few days ago and I am sorry we missed it. Fragrant and musty with incense, the church is a cross in square design with three domes and a hand-carved wooden iconostasis. Numerous wall frescoes are still fresh and compelling and one can sense why this evocative holy site is much revered by the locals. During the years leading to the Greek revolution, many guerilla fighters used it as a hideout and the very first official Greek flag was raised here in 1807. We notice it proudly on display. Two of the war’s great heroes, Kolokotronis and Miaoulis, took their vows here. Evangelístria continued to provide moral and financial support to Greece’s freedom fighters during the Revolution of 1821 and Skiathos was integrated into the young Greek nation from its very onset.

Leaving, we spot two monks tending their olive grove. Evangelístria is self-sustaining and the monks make and sell their own wine, olive oil and honey. The walk back to Hora is about four kilometers and we set out on a pine-forested road smelling of wet earth and thick with ferns and heather. An old woman sitting sideways on a mule crosses our path. Behind her trails a small herd of goats, their tiny bells tinkling non-stop. “Yeia sas,” (health to you) she greets us. “Káli méra,” (good morning) we answer. A young boy, probably a grandson, is holding up the rear listening to American pop tunes on his transistor. We make it back to Hora extra hungry and head straight to a busy taverna near the Boúrtzi, sharing a large plate of papoutsákia (eggplant stuffed with meat and béchamel sauce), one of our favorite dishes.
    


The islet of Boúrtzi, built by the Venetians in the 13th century, today serves as a park and cultural center.

   
Boúrtzi means tower in Turkish and it was here that the Venetian Ghisi family erected a mighty fortress in 1207, but little of it remains today save for some cannons and embrasures. A high school was built here decades ago which today functions as a cultural center known as St. George’s Castle, namesake of the little church that was part of the original fort. Tourists are sun bathing on crumbling fortress walls, or jumping off boulders into the cool sea. Boúrtzi is filled with pines, providing us respite from the Aegean sun. We linger in the tiny park area for a couple of hours, catching all the boat movement in the port. In the distant horizon, a ferry creeps in the shimmering sea framed by the purple mountains of Euboea. The harbor area is especially lively at night and we return to take in the action at several quayside discos. As we sip our Petrakis, throngs of dancers gyrate the night away in an end-of-the-summer catharsis.
    


Weathered rocks have formed an arch on Lalaria, Skiathos’s renowned pebble and rock beach.
    
Boats leave the harbor area daily for many remote beaches. We check out our options and select one that makes a circle tour of the island with a stop at Lalária, undoubtedly the most photographed beach in Skiathos and in the Sporades in general. Our boat heads east past the Pounta peninsula, toward the rugged northern side where steep cliffs are forbidding. Lalária is a beach unlike any other, with immense wind and sea-carved boulders punctuated by a dramatic arch that extends over a limpid greenish sea. Round white pebbles and polished stones fill the beach and sunbathers tread gingerly upon them. We pull in and are told we have a couple of hours to enjoy the beach and explore the area.
    

Homer’s wine dark sea stretches mysteriously from Kastro,
the island’s abandoned stronghold destroyed by the pirate Barbarossa.

    
The nearby citadel of Kastro was the island stronghold during centuries of pirate attacks. It is a natural fortress with a steep rock face that cannot be scaled. During its heyday, Kastro had 300 houses and 22 churches and its only entrance was through a drawbridge on the island side. When an enemy approached, the drawbridge would be raised. Yiorgos, our boatman, explains that we can reach Kastro from Lalária if we ascend a trail that winds between the rocks, continuing through coastal bushes to the site. We climb up sigá, sigá (slowly). The view is exceptional: Homer’s wine-dark sea stretches out as far as the eye can see. The site is overgrown with shrubs and all the houses are gone, with only three churches remaining. We find remnants of the old gate and a piece of the landing where defenders of the town once poured boiling oil on their enemies. There are even portions of an old mosque, a vestige of the Turkish occupation that began when the notorious pirate Barbarossa conquered the island in 1537. Kastro never fully recovered from that siege and when an independent Greek state was declared in 1829, it was finally abandoned in favor of Hora, which was built up in less than a year.

Heading back to Lalária, we are thankful for our good sneakers on the slippery descent. There is still time to swim and we rush out to the beach, marveling at the foaming transparency of the sea. We splash blissfully for a good half hour. Suddenly, I feel a twinge in my leg. I notice several jellyfish circulating around me and run out of the water as the pain increases in intensity. A local fisherman sitting on a rock rushes to help. He recommends that I cover my eyes while he pees on my bite. I have heard that ammonia can reduce the pain, but I decline, rubbing sand into the sting, a second-best remedy.
     


I savor a long gaze at island’s pellucid sea, a magnet to all visitors.

    
The tour boat continues circling the island and an exuberant Yiorgos points out some of his favorite beaches: the rocky cove of Kechria, the white sand of Mandráki with tumbles of sand dunes, and Agía Eleni with its fine views of the Pelion mainland across. This is the very channel that Xerxes once crossed with his army headed to the battle of Marathon. We round the bend at Koukounariés and continue past Troúlos. The stone pined peninsula of Kalamáki looms ahead, dotted with numerous white villas and the family-friendly beaches of Kanapítsa and Ahladiés. This is a water sports center and we spot several novice snorkelers getting instructions from a muscular Skiathan youth.

Early that evening, we find our paréa gathered in front of a sweet shop devouring platefuls of loukóumades (fried doughnuts dripping with honey). They make room for us at the table and we all share our day’s adventures. “Unfortunately, we are leaving tomorrow,” I disclose. Nikos is glad he can stay until the end of the month. “Sorry you will miss the panegyri of St. Fanourios on August 27,” says a disappointed Takis. Apparently, this lively festival is dedicated to the saint who helps girls find husbands; he also retrieves lost items and aids travelers in returning home. “How appropriate that this feast day takes place at the end of the season,” I remark.

We are flying back to Athens to save time. At the Olympic Airlines office in Hora, I ask to use the facilities. The clerk hands me a key, a bucket and hose. “You need to fill the bucket to flush the toilet, and the hose to connect to the sink faucet because the bucket won’t fit in the sink,” she explains. “Hopefully, our plane will be up to speed,” says my smiling husband.

And it is! As we climb over the island, Skiathos reveals itself in all its magnificence. What a joyful experiences we’ve had: glimmers of the island’s layered history interwoven with the simple pleasures of sea, sand and paréa. Even though we came completely unprepared and at the very height of the busy season, it was pure serendipity!