Very few visitors to Greece – indeed, hardly any Greeks themselves – know of an ancient law which decrees that, if you order fish in a restaurant, it comes with a compulsory side order of cat.
But, whereas the tuna, squid, mussels, octopus, etc. are brought to your table, the cat arrives, unheralded and unnoticed, under its own steam.
There it will sit, fixing the diner with an unblinking stare, until he or she is forced to provide titbits. Sometimes the cat will make a small sound, or even pat the diner’s leg with a questing paw. This, however, serves only to demonstrate that the feline is new to the game. The approved technique is one of complete immobility, total silence and the aforementioned unblinking stare.
It is particularly successful when used on female British diners, as I saw for myself when I was on the island of Skiathos recently. The cats of Skiathos are self-satisfied, sleek and plump creatures.
So, remember that little-known piece of Hellenic legislation, and be prepared to share your meal with a cat, unless you opt for the Moussaka.
(Incidentally, there is another ancient Greek law that says that, in the highly unlikely event your chosen restaurant has no cats, you must never order “kouneli me saltsa skordou”. Which is rabbit in garlic sauce.)
To be serious, or, at least, less frivolous, Skiathos is a super place in which to take a short holiday. So super, in fact, that we may return later in the year. If so, we may stay once more at the boutique Hotel Meltemi, whose beds are comfortable, whose plumbing works, whose breakfasts are tasty, and whose staff are friendly and eager to be of service.
It is located right on the seafront within easy strolling distance of shops, restaurants and the assortment of small boats waiting to take you on enjoyable excursions.
We chose ‘Kalypso’ for our two trips – the first to the nearby island of Skopelos, whose current claim to fame is that it was the location for the filming of ‘Mamma Mia’. This probably accounts for the overwhelming number of mature ladies, mostly Scandinavian, who had booked the trip and knew more about ABBA and the film than is probably good for them.
(The fact that the open-air cinema in Skiathos town shows ‘Mamma Mia’ three times a week is evidence enough of life imitating art imitating life, if you get my drift.)
Our second excursion took us completely around Skiathos, with stops at the celebrated Lalaria pebble beach, and to Kastro, which, from 1538 until 1829, was the island’s capital. We also popped over to the mainland at Pelion, visiting the tiny community of Katiygiorgi.
On both trips, we lunched at small, slightly ramshackle, places right beside the sea and ate very well for little cost. At those restaurants and, indeed, at all the restaurants on Skiathos (we stayed “b. and b,” at the Meltemi), we were pleasantly surprised by the very low prices on the menus, and by the quality and presentation of our meals.
If I’m honest – and I always am when writing “Now and Then” – I have to confess that I have previously regarded the Greek cuisine as somewhat basic and the presentation of meals little better than rough and ready. After Skiathos, I have completely revised that opinion.
Greek wine has also improved, since the trips of my youth, which, on reflection, seem to have been dominated by overnight ferry trips, the collection of souvenir postcards, and the drinking of too much Retsina and Demestica.
(As the latter’s name is very close to “Domestos”, we dubbed it the wine “…that kills 99% of all known taste buds.”)
On this trip we drank our fill – but did so “carefully and responsibly” as bidden by the mandatory messages on television commercials. Nonetheless, there were moments when I recalled one of our tour guides many years ago. A large, middle-aged chap, he did tend to overdo it at lunchtime, and every evening, earning himself the nickname of “Absorba the Greek”.
One of the Sporades, or “scattered”, islands, Skiathos is a mere 30 square miles in size, which made it extremely difficult to find enough space for an airport. Indeed, when an airport project was first mooted, the larger island of Skopelos was a more obvious choice, but the inhabitants there rejected the notion, as they didn’t want their tranquillity disturbed by too many tourists. Thanks to “Mamma Mia” that worked out well, didn’t it?
So Skiathos got the airport, but it is a tight fit. Planes approach it over the old harbour, putting their engines into reverse thrust as soon as their wheels hit the runway. They have to do this as that runway is a mere 5,341 feet long. Skiathos airport is officially designated “short and narrow”, and only experienced pilots can handle it.
(Building work to provide much-needed improvements is taking place in the main building, adding to the confusion you experience at any airport. However, neither that, nor its short runway, is the airport’s main problem. The main problem is that it is Greek and therefore run by people who are incapable of running an airport. I say this with a heavy heart, having formed the opinion over more than half a century of travelling to that otherwise splendid country. The Greeks are a fine people, with the richest of histories. They have had a monumental effect on civilisation. But they have their weak spots and operating airports is one of them. The staff at Skiathos airport seem to have no concept of customer service.)
It is, officially “Alexandros Papadiamantis International Airport”, being named after a writer who was born and lived on Skiathos from 1851 until 1911. He is quite famous in Greece, having produced newspaper articles, stories and books, but his work is virtually untranslatable, as he used local dialect and vocabulary. His house, in Skiathos town, is a sad-looking museum, and near it is little square that bears its name, and is the location of a pleasant bar.
Actually, there are many pleasant bars and restaurants in the town and on the harbour front. Most of the bars advertise “happy hour”, which is a misnomer as these last for at least two, and sometimes three hours.
Afterwards, I presume, “unhappy hour” commences, but sensible visitors have, by then, departed for their dinners.
I mentioned the small size of the island, which means it is relatively easy to get around. Outside Skiathos town, the most popular destination is Koukounaries, which boasts what some say is the finest beach in Greece, and where hotels, apartments and restaurants are located.
We went there on a very fast motor boat from the old port – a fifteen minute ride which costs 3 euros. As there was a queue for the return journey, we decided not to risk being left behind when the last boat left, so used the bus to get back to town. Again, Skiathos is easy to handle in this respect. Just one bus route and one single fare of 2 euros. The trick is to remember which number bus stop you need, though this was no problem for us as Koukounaries is at one end of the route and Skiathos town at the other.
We got into the habit of taking a morning coffee in a restaurant opposite the ferry terminal, where we could watch (Carole preferred “supervise”) arrivals and departures, marvelling at how vehicles were manoeuvred up and down the ramp, often in reverse. It looked chaotic, but there must have been method in the chaos, as vehicles and foot passengers came and went without incident. (I hope they are managing without us.)
We regarded it as a kind of morning entertainment, a cabaret to go with the coffees. I commend it to you as a great way of absorbing the island’s ambiance.
Beside the ferry terminal is the pine-clad peninsula of Bourtzi, the dividing point between the old and new ports. It had a castle on it, built by a couple of Venetian brothers in 1297, and a small church.
It also served as a lazaret, or quarantine, island. What was once a primary school there is now a cultural centre with summertime theatrical and musical performances.
It was on that little peninsula, at a table overlooking the sparkling sea and the hazy distant mainland, that we ate our last lunch and drank our last wine in the shade of a large Mediterranean Pine before heading to the airport and home. That moment is one of many I recall with pleasure from an all-too-short visit to Skiathos.
I hope very much to return.
John Carter travelled to Skiathos with Classic Collection Holidays on a package holiday which included flights, transfers and B&B accommodation at the Meltemi Boutique Hotel.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Classic Collection Holidays.