Sporades: Pines by the sea

Caribbean azure meets emerald green on Skiathos, the most renowned of the Sporades Is-lands.


With over 60 magnificent sandy beaches, all surrounded by fragrant pine forests, Skiathos is the capital of tourism in the Sporades.

The island’s southern part is defined by luxury hotels and cosmopolitan beaches in protected bays filled with imposing yachts. The beach of Koukounaries, perhaps the best known in this area, is unique in that it lies right next to the important wetlands of Strofilias.

Skiathos Town, the island’s capital, was built towards the end of the 18th century on top of the ruins of an ancient town, of which there is little trace left today. It has a lovely island atmosphere, especially in the Plakes neighborhood, with its picturesque street corners and tidy front yards filled with bougainvilleas and geraniums. The iconic pine-covered islet of Bourtzi, located in the port, was once home to a Venetian castle, built in 1270; it was demolished by Francesco Morosini in 1660 when he ousted the Ottomans from the island. On a narrow street just a few meters from the port stands the Papadiamantis House, a modest 1860 building that was home to the great Skiathian writer Alexandros Papadiamantis. On the ground floor, there is a nice library and bookstore with books about the author and Skiathos.

The northern and northwestern parts of the island are characterized by deep green valleys covered in olive groves and pine trees, dotted with Byzantine churches, and which reach down to rugged shores and protected bays, like those of Mikros Aselinos and Mandraki. The region’s wonderful countryside is criss-crossed by paths of unique beauty, like the one that connects Panaghia Kounistra to Aghios Ioannis Krifos.

The north is also home to the remains of the medieval capital of Skiathos, which date back to the 14th century; now known simply as Kastro, or “Castle”, the ruins of this settlement stand perched on a steep cliff above the sea. Two of the 22 churches that were once active here have been preserved, together with their beautiful frescoes. An Ottoman-era mosque still stands as well, and there are remains of other buildings and three cisterns. The view of the northern Aegean and Mt Athos from Kastro’s “cannon of Anagia” is breathtaking.

The 18th-century Evangelistria Monastery, nestled in the peaceful mountains of Skiathos, is a historically noteworthy monastery; this is where the blue and white Greek flag was first introduced to a group of Greek freedom fighters in 1807, long before the Greek Revolution broke out. The monastery houses a remarkable collection of sacred relics, folk art objects, and archival material concerning the Balkan Wars, as well as a museum of musical instruments with a wide range of display items, including African pieces made out of materials such as corn leaves and humanitarian aid containers.

The shores of Skiathos, with their amazing bays and hidden sandy beaches, make going for a boat ride a real joy. A short distance offshore from Skiathos Town are barren islets surrounded by wonderful waters, the largest of which is the island of Tsougrias. If, however, you’re only able to take one boat ride, then make sure it’s to Lalaria, a white-pebbled beach on the far north coast, with turquoise waters surrounded by steep rocks and inaccessible by land. Many consider this to be the island’s most beautiful beach, but please keep in mind that the waters around it become treacherous when a north wind is blowing.

ALONISSOS

Together with the other islands of the marine park, Alonissos used to be a famous pirate haunt in the northern Aegean. Today, ships bring tourists rather than brigands, but this part of the island’s history can be still explored at the Folklore Museum in Patitiri, which contains several fascinating relics from that period. The island, known as Ikos in ancient times, offers visitors a glimpse of what it looked like in the Middle Ages in the narrow cobbled streets of Palio Horio, which also has a few interesting surviving samples of Venetian architecture.

The village was deserted by the locals in the wake of a powerful earthquake in 1965, but the subsequent tourism boom brought European travelers who bought up the abandoned houses and restored them with love and attention to detail, thus preserving gems of vernacular Aegean architecture. Alonissos is also the best destination in the Sporades for walking and trekking, with myriad well-tended paths that take you to stunning coastal stretches, old chapels, gorgeous viewing spots, and through fragrant brushland with views over the Erimonisa. However, not every destination needs walking shoes – Aghios Dimitrios, the island’s prettiest beach, is accessible by car.

SKOPELOS

Whatever isn’t pine forest on the verdant island of Skopelos is either vineyards, olive groves or plum orchards. Renowned for its wine since ancient times, the island saw its grapevines consumed by a phylloxera outbreak a few decades ago and hasn’t completely recovered yet. Its famed Peparithis wine is now being produced only on a small scale for household consumption. Skopelos’ main town, Hora, is the biggest and most beautiful settlement in the Sporades. Spread out beneath the Venetian-era Gyzi Castle, it is all white sugar-cube houses with blue shutters doors, riotous bougainvillea, quaint churches and stately neoclassical villas. Other attractive areas include Palaio Klima, a quiet spot on the southwestern end of the island full of mulberry and fig trees, and bustling Glossa on the northwestern coast, with its attractive mansions (known here as “captains’ homes”) and the loveliest sunset in the Sporades.

With gorgeous azure waters, the western coast of Skopelos from Armenoptera to Milia, with scattered emerald islets and the sheltered bays of Panormos and Agnonta, is a sailor’s joy. On Palouki Hill, a cluster of late Byzantine monasteries lends the area an atmosphere similar to Mt Athos in Halkidiki.


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