Skopelos: Subtle charms of a wild isle

Skopelos is difficult and brooding, but this authentic Greek outcrop never fails to seduce, says Stephen Bayley

Sea-girt? Wine-dark? There is something about Greek islands that tempts even the normally aloof, fastidious and modern into clumsy Homeric references. But Skopelos is rather different. Although it has immaculate mythological and literary credentials – the local council could ask the god Dionysos and the playwright Sophocles for endorsements – Skopelos is superlatively unromantic, although that is not to say unlovely. It's more a matter of park your battered, dusty moped and leave the keys in the ignition.

In his 1964 book The Hellenic Traveller, Guy Pentreath reported Skopelos to be "unvisited". That's not quite true today, but it is a giant rock and there is nowhere to build a landing strip. The lack of an airport and want of decent hotels does have a certain filtering effect. This leaves the island not so much unspoilt as unimproved in the first place.

The journey there is not of an arduousness that would humble Odysseus, but it does deter the idle. Skopelos is in the Sporades archipelago – impressive green eruptions in blue water, the peaks of submerged mountains – north of Athens. Skiathos is the best known and most ruined of the Sporades, where you find an airport that has one of the shortest runways in Europe able to accept charter jets. And this runway ends in that same blue water, so it's a matter of slam-it-down, Oh-my-God landings and full-thrust yee-hah take-offs. Thus, not for the faint-hearted.

Once, trembling, off the plane in Skiathos, you connect – eventually – with several equally uncomfortable waterborne travel options to Skopelos: ferry, hydrofoil or catamaran. Alternatively, you can fly to Athens, then take a four-hour bus trip to Volos on the mainland followed by a long hydrofoil or catamaran trip through the mysterious Euboean Channel. Put it this way, travelling to Skopelos from the UK takes the worst part of a day.

Anyway, to visit coral in deep seas is the purpose here, not to moan about transport horrors. My sister-in-law bought a house at the precipitous peak of Skopelos' old town a decade ago and we have been visiting regularly ever since. I am writing this on the upper terrace: immediate and ample reward for a trying journey. On a clear day, you can see mounts Olympus and Athos on the horizon. Alonissos, the third island of the Sporades, is right in front of you. The gods are, surely, ever-present and so, too, is the growl of the ferries. Because Skopelos is so very quiet – no traffic to speak of, no aircraft – what sounds there are acquire a special significance.

Approaching engines of ferries and hydrofoils, for example, tend to define the dynamic of the day: with their arrival and departure come consequential peaks and troughs in population and, therefore, surges of vitality. After the vessels, the most intrusive sounds are the percussive clank of the many church bells. And then there is the morning fish van – an ancient and frayed Volkswagen pick-up announcing the day's catch unreasonably early through a rattling loudspeaker. The manic voice competes with feedback and sounds as if a violent insurrection is being co-ordinated. But in reality he is selling only oily kolios (mackerel) and fresh anchovies. On a good day, you get a marine diesel, an Eastern Orthodox peal and an imprecation to buy fish simultaneously. It's a notably rich wake-up call.

Besides the mopeds, often carrying three people plus an animal, other forms of transport characterise the island. The quad-bike is a favourite; I saw a muscular old woman powering impressively up a steep incline at what must have been nearly full throttle. In other versions, they acquire shelving to become motorised pop-up market stalls, although the fruit on sale has inevitably been traumatised in transit. Cars are a ridiculous proposition here, but Skopelos is the only place I know where a ludicrous, but tough, miniature 4x4 Suzuki Jimny or a Daihatsu Terios nearly makes sense. They are Japanese donkeys.

My own local favourite transport option? An ancient, but indomitable, Toyota flat-bed truck repainted by hand through many seasons in the same brown as the sombre Skopolitan woodwork of the houses. The windscreen remains, but all other glass, as well as the windscreen wipers, are missing.

Skopelos is an austere place, therefore productive of consumerist fantasies among the residents. One set of yearnings is indicated by the business card of Stavros, one of the handful of island taxi-drivers (there are only one-and-a-half main roads). The card shows a gleaming current model S-Class Mercedes, while Stavros's reality is a two-generation old C-Class irretrievably dulled by dust externally but raised to a high shine internally by the perpetual motion of transient bottoms across black vinyl. I am also fond of the garbage truck called "Theseus", a rare concession to classicism.

Then there is the notorious Flying Dolphin, commercial name of the Soviet-era Voskhod Design 352 – the ageing hydrofoil. Like a hideous monster in classical mythology, this is a disturbing hybrid. Design 352 has the prow of a 19th-century schooner, the cabin and style of a Fifties airliner and makes the noise of a T-34 tank on a test to destruction. Inside, the Flying Dolphins have acquired the same yellow, crazed patina of old Formica. Designed for tranquil inland Russian waterways, Flying Dolphins are exciting in anything other than very calm seas.

However, wind was such a presence in the classical world that the ancients gave them divine identities and poetic names: one of the key monuments of Athens is the Tower of the Winds. The Aegean is shallow and turbulent so the Ancient Greeks did not sail for six months of the year. Modern Skopolitans perhaps sail for even less. Tellingly, one of the few books about Skopelos is by Englishman Michael Carroll; it is called Gates of the Wind (1965).

Once this week the Aegean meltemi wind howled disturbingly all night, shaking the shutters and making cables whine. There was sheet lightning over distant Olympus and the next morning the fish van didn't come.

Skopelos is a quick-study of the island mentality. Even with (patchy) internet, you get an authentic sense of isolation. Even in a comfortable house on a hot day with a cold beer, your mind sets up a contest between a yearning to leave, but a reluctance to go. How much more intense must this be for the resident rather than the occasional visitor?

Although celebrated for its green-ness and plum orchards, much of Skopelos is forbidding. The sea approach from Skiathos requires navigation of Cape Gourouni, named after a pig, both because of its morphological consonance – it resemble a hog's back – as well as its notorious bad manners. With Cape Gourouni rounded, you marvel at the dark, sun-less north-facing cliff-faces with no points of access. Thus, arrival in the huge semi-circular harbour of Skopelos is a profound psychological relief.

The principal town, also called Skopelos, is the best reason for visiting the island. It is divided into four very distinct parts. Imagine that semi-circle: on the left, a boring, low-lying section with a few hotels of the inferior sort and places that rent Suzukis and Daihatsus. Continuing the sweep of the bay, there is Gliftorema, a valley where the old itinerant Macedonian blacksmiths worked, which leads onto one of the only flat parts of the whole island with its plums and olives. Then there is the Paralea, the sea-front prom of cafés and bars rather as the less sophisticated parts of the Côte d'Azur might have been in the Thirties.

Lastly, the treasure: the Chora, one of the wonders of European vernacular building. "Chora" is the term for the densely packed white village that tumbles down the steep hillside that defines Skopelos's old town. That such urban felicity was achieved without professional intervention is a source of wonder.

There are many such white villages in the Aegean, but Skopelos is both one of the very best with the additional benefit of being among the least gentrified. Unless you are a specially intrepid moped operator or the owner of a donkey, walking is the only option. And walking becomes a revelatory architectural experience, a sort of tectonic primal scream. You get mostly shade interrupted by violent bursts of light. You also get bougainvillea, oleander and jasmine-scented dead-ends. And you get hazard and surprise, a genuinely thrilling jumble of spatial continuity and formal variety.

No-one has yet agreed exactly how many churches there are in Skopelos's Chora. Everywhere, the contrast of the intense feeling of security and seclusion with the ever-present possibility of getting lost touches a very profound human sense. No wonder the labyrinth was a fixed idea in the classical imagination.

It was vernacular building of this sort which became the beau idéal for many modernist designers and inspired two influential books which must be read before a visit to Skopelos. First, Bernard Rudofsky's Architecture without Architects (1964). Second, Myron Goldfinger's Villages in the Sun (1969). Rudofsky called it "non-pedigreed architecture". It is, on the whole, very much better than the pedigreed sort.

Then, there are beaches. From the Paralea, you can take a water-taxi west to Glisteri, or Stavros can drive you south to Staphylos (founded by Dionysos, no less) or beyond to Agnondas and Panormos and Milia. From the Paralea it is a 15-minute walk to Glifoneri and there is really not much point in going anywhere else. Here, you find a clean, but unkempt, strip of pebble and shingle. There are some rackety loungers administered by a middle-aged beach-bum-superintendent camped under a tree selling cold beers from a bin bag while he attempts, not terribly successfully, to learn English from a book. A few minutes' trudge from Glifoneri is a spasmodically charming taverna called Stella. In August, there were perhaps never more than about 40 people on Glifoneri. The food is as Greek food everywhere: neither better nor worse than you can find in Hellenic restaurants in Britain. Still, a jug of "wine in bulk" tends to level most criticisms.

Initially delighted by its simplicity – I scribbled "better than Sorrento!" in my notebook – the food soon settles into a fugue of maddening repetition. The complacent lack of inventiveness or want of quality control reveals a malaise. As, indeed, while no puritan, me, do old and not-so-old boys sitting around glumly drinking beer at 10.15am.

Anyway, back to the terrace with my indulgent view of the expansive wine-dark business to the left compromised only by the power cables dangling before my eyes. Skopelos is hot, difficult, brooding. But it is also quiet and, the fascinating Chora excepted, makes absolutely no concessions whatsoever to cultural curiosity or intellectual pursuits. Was it strange or was it inevitable that they filmed Mamma Mia! here four summers ago?

Travel essentials: Skopelos

Getting there

* There are no direct flights between the UK and Skopelos. The nearest airport is at Skiathos, served by Thomson (0871 231 4787; flights.thomson.co.uk) from Gatwick, East Midlands, Birmingham, Manchester and Newcastle; and Thomas Cook (0871 230 2406; flythomascook.com) from Gatwick, East Midlands, Manchester and Newcastle.

* From Skiathos, ferries to Skopelos are operated by Hellas (00 30 210 3315905; hellasferries.gr), Nel Lines (00 30 210 412 5888; nel.gr) and Hellenic (00 30 210 41 99 000; hellenicseaways.gr).

* Alternatively, ferries operate from Thessaloniki. Flights from the UK to Thessaloniki are offered by Ryanair from Stansted; easyJet and British Airways from Gatwick.

Staying there

* Madro Travel (00 30 242 40 22 300; madrotravel.gr) offers self-catered rental of the Pink House from €80 per day based on two sharing or €120 including the annexe sleeping four.

More information

* Greek National Tourism Organisation: 020-7495 9300; visitgreece.gr

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