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The secret life of Greeks

Yes, they have Greek salads! And hidden clear-water coves, pebbly European beaches, and seaside with blue wicker-back chairs overlooking the Aegean. ...
/ Source: Islands Magazine

Yes, they have Greek salads! And hidden clear-water coves, pebbly European beaches, and seaside tavernas with blue wicker-back chairs overlooking the Aegean. ...

“You are a silent killer. A ninja,” I whisper to Dmitri. The fisherman, although he doesn’t understand much English, reacts to the word “ninja” and laughs.

We are bobbing in a boat in the Aegean Sea in the darkness, the warm September evening lit only by a thin sliver of moon and the flashlights of fishermen on a half-dozen small wooden boats known as psarovarka. Armed with a fishing hook that looks like a torture instrument, Dmitri has filled his plastic bucket noiselessly with squid. He’s very effective — the ninja-calamari man.

It had been prearranged that I’d meet Dmitri in the tiny seaside village of Agnontas, on Skopelos, at sunset. I had ambitiously wanted to earn my dinner. After a few beers at the taverna, Dmitri and I motored out into the sea.

In the old days, he tells me as we drop our lines, the men used fire to attract squid. They would start a blaze in a bucket and then balance the flaming container, using poles, over the water. I get the story in broken English from Dmitri, but I notice that along with a sardine for bait, his hook has a fluorescent tip. I had previously been told that, when they are ready to mate, female squid glow to attract suitors, and I relate this to Dmitri. But he guffaws at the tale and says it isn’t true. I reel in my lightless 90-foot line: “Tipota,” I say, shrugging. Nothing.

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It doesn’t matter. Dmitri, by the looks of his bucket, wins the calamari prize. Besides, the real payoff for me is the sky. What looks to be part of our Milky Way galaxy paints the blackness — the stars blur beneath a translucent swirl. When I tell Dmitri that I prefer watching the stars to catching my dinner, he responds, “That’s why I fish.”

Then, as if the night couldn’t be more heavenly, a shooting star blazes across infinity. And the faint lights of Evia Island twinkle from just across the bay.

Back on shore at Pavlos taverna, Dmitri pulls three squid out of his pail and hands them to the chef, who disappears in the back. Minutes later, the air is scented with citrus, sizzling olive oil and charbroiling fish. OK, so maybe I haven’t exactly earned it, but I did go the extra mile beyond the supermarket fish section — I came to Greece. And now, as I dunk thick pita in salty taramasalata (carp roe dip) and cut into my tender calamari steak, I feel that I have truly arrived — in a place I almost didn’t find. Simply put, I was looking for an Aegean paradise that no one had heard of, but on an island that had the typical Greek amenities: seaside tavernas, blue-green waters, village life. Out of the roughly 169 inhabited Greek isles, there must be a find. No one had heard of the Sporades chain, of which Skopelos is a part — at least no one in the United States. Turns out the Sporades island of Skiathos spills over with the chips-and-egg package crowd. But Skopelos, an island of 4,700, lacking an airport, was less convenient and therefore quieter.

I had to land in Skiathos and catch a ferry, which after 40 minutes deposited me in one of the most well-preserved harbor towns in Greece, Skopelos Town; on the east side of the island, the village was built on a hill in maze-like fashion, supposedly to confuse pirates. Its sloping stone walkways wind by whitewashed houses and 123 churches, the oldest dating to A.D. 1000. (The entire island has 360 churches.) Mules ambling through Skopelos Town are stacked high with deliveries: slate roof tiles, flats of beer, tins of olive oil, jars of honey and almond paste.

Life on Skopelos revolves around the sea. Octopus are netted. Sea bream and red mullet are caught and carried to tavernas, such as Flisvos in the village of Loutraki. There, you don’t order fish from a menu; you cherry-pick it from the cooler. The cook weighs your selection and charges you by the kilo. Then you sit in the taverna’s annex, a platform over the water, and eat prawns grilled in sea salt, accompanied by a Greek salad topped with a hunk of feta sprinkled with fresh-picked oregano and drizzled with olive oil that tastes earthy and green.

Skopelos is also very green, as I discover on a late-morning drive around the 37-square-mile island. Forests of pine cover 75 percent of the island, interspersed with chestnut, walnut, pear, fig and almond trees, plus grove upon grove of olive trees, with distinctive silvery leaves and twisted trunks.

Most of the land is undisturbed. “You can only build houses in olive groves,” Makis Perdikaris tells me. Makis, who is from Athens, fell in love with Skopelos and, in 1992, started a business here. He offers houses for rent: luxury villas positioned on various hilltops overlooking the sea, townhouses in Skopelos Town, and even 200-year-old former monks’ quarters where kiwi vines drape the arbor. He also speaks English fluently, which is why he has offered to show me the island.

We bump along a rutted dirt road, meant more for a mule than a car, and pass tomatoes drying in the sun, raspberries clinging to vines, and sage, oregano and thyme growing wild. I see a woman stooping next to a bucket full of walnuts, shelling them. We even come across gobbling wild turkeys as we make a pilgrimage to the kalivia, a farmhouse used as a base for olive picking and in the old days, for drying prunes (turning plums into prunes was once a thriving industry here).

There are more than 100 abandoned kalivia on Skopelos, constructed by the families who once lived in them. Beams are often made from chestnut wood; furniture from hand-carved pine and the houses themselves from wine. When plaster was mixed, the family masons are reputed to have used wine, which was more plentiful than water.

The story could be true, as I find out the next day on my walking tour of Skopelos Town, when the subject comes up again.

“It is said that there was so much wine on the island, brought by the Cretans in 600 B.C., that houses are built out of wine,” confirms Daphne Chliverous, who leads three-hour walks through town. “The wine here was so well-known that [ancient] coins from Skopelos, found on Lesbos and Kos, have an image of the grape on them.”

Daphne talks as she, Makis and I walk up through a dreamscape of whitewash. The geometrically simple houses were made, I believe, to cast perfect shadows in the sun; the white makes the sky and sea look an unreal blue. The first church we come to is so marshmallow-white, so delicate that it seems make-believe, with a white dome and a small white plaster cross. Built during the Turkish occupation (from the 15th to 19th centuries), Panagia tou Pyrgou, Virgin Mary of the Tower, is the church most often associated with the island, because it is one of the first things visible from the sea.

Before the Turks, the Venetians occupied Skopelos, building two castles, Daphne says as we weave our way to the ruins (only a stone wall remains) and onward, walking past a cage of pet chickadees, flower boxes propped in blue-shuttered windows and lemon trees and caper berry vines hardily sprouting out of the stones.

Daphne makes a call on her cell phone and an old man shows up to unlock a 12th-century church for us. “They’re locked because of icon stealing,” Daphne explains. On the church’s floor is a mosaic of pebbles, and hanging near the altar are tin plates with an eye engraved on each of them for protection against the “evil eye.”

Hidden within Skopelos’ streets is Michalis Pies, housed in a 1940s storefront with white tile floors. We order the island specialty, tyropita skopelitos (cheese pies) and eat at a table outside.

We end the tour with a visit to Nikolas Rodios’ pottery studio. Rodios’ hands are stained red from the clay he has spun since he was 5. He shapes vessels using the same wheel his grandfather worked at more than 100 years ago, operating it manually with a pedal. His kiln is wood-burning.

I spend the rest of the day driving around and getting lost off the main road of the island, discovering empty beaches. Beaches at the villages of Panormos and Limnonari are populated with tourists, especially in the late summer. But if you hike around coves and scramble through shallows, you’ve got the place to yourself — almost. That afternoon, as I hopscotch ocean rocks, I shock a couple sunning themselves — very thoroughly — on a giant rock.

On my last night on the island, I walk along the seafront of Skopelos Town with Makis. Lanterns glow from mulberry trees, and the tavernas are swinging. On the sidewalk, a man roasts sweet corn over coals. A portrait artist and a henna tattoo artist have set up stations. Two excursion boats have their masts adorned with twinkling lights; brochures onboard promote day sails to the marine park off nearby Alónissos, another island in the Sporades chain.

We head to Anatoli, a bar near the ruins of the Venetian castle at the top of Skopelos Town. A white stone wall is all that separates us from the sea below. Cats meow along it. A trio is playing rembetika, a blues music that evolved in the hashish dens on mainland Greece in the early 1900s. One man strums a bouzouki while singing soulfully about, as Makis puts it, “a lost love.” Even though I can’t understand the lyrics, the sentiment winds around my heart. Tomorrow I’ll be leaving my Aegean hideaway — and who knows when I’ll be able return and sail into the darkness with a squid fisherman who appreciates the stars as well as the sea.

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