When we climbed, like pilgrims of yore, the 198 precarious and shimmering stone steps to the chapel Agios Ioannis sto Kastri, we encountered two sights that explain why this tiny church, clinging for its life to a stark rock outcrop 100m above the waves, is Trip Advisor’s no.1 place to see on the fantastic Greek island of Skopelos.
First was the jaw-dropping panoramic view of the sea and the neighbouring island of Alonissos, well worth 198 steps of anybody’s effort. The second was the sight of small groups of international modern-day pilgrims gathered near the chapel reciting, not biblical verses, but Abba lyrics.
Because this is where the climactic wedding scene takes place in Mamma Mia!, the Abba-based movie. Yet, as our climb to the chapel showed, Skopelos has much more to offer than its label as the Mamma Mia! island might suggest.
For fans, the movie locations are all there, recognisable and far from crowded (although there are no donkeys to transport you up the rock in real life, and the chapel is hardly big enough for Saint Michael to swing his sword).
For the rest of us, though, Skopelos remains the near-perfect unspoilt Greek island, which has decidedly not turned itself into a Hollywood theme park. There is almost nothing here to suggest that Meryl Streep’s feet ever walked upon Skopelos’s mountains green. Despite the local map’s (somewhat grudging?) concession that the rock-top church is now better known as “the Mamma Mia chapel”, the priceless view from Agios Ioannis sto Kari is probably much the same as when the rock was a lookout for repelling pirate invaders (the name translates as “St John on the castle”). We saw more adverts for Mamma Mia! the musical at Gatwick airport than signs of it on Skopelos.
“Unspoilt” is an overused and abused label for holiday islands, of course. Skopelos is no rustic backwater. It still looks like the Greek island of many a British holidaymaker’s imagination, where you can pootle a boat along a dramatic coastline, swim in secluded bays, wander around ancient monasteries or discover mysterious burial sites in the mountains. Sail in to the picture-book whitewashed harbour of Skopelos Town, or climb to the hilltop village of Glossa, where one evening we ate outdoors while watching local children leaping over a fire of burning flowers, in an ancient ceremony said to sort out who they will marry.
If that sounds stereotypical, Skopelos is a stereotype with a difference. It retains a character and soul of its own, one it so far refuses to sell.
One reason for the absence of mass tourism on Skopelos is the lack of direct flights. You fly to Skiathos, its neighbour in the North Sporades island group just east of the Pelion peninsula on the Greek mainland. (They sell the Mamma Mia! connection harder on Skiathos, with frequent open-air film shows, despite only a couple of scenes having been shot there.)
Our holiday began waiting for the ferry in the cafés of Skiathos port, watching the planes come in to land perilously low over the harbour — great fun, until you realise that you were on the previous one swooping in and screeching to a halt. The only real risk is said to be to tourists, blown off their feet while filming landings next to a sign that tells them not to stand there.