Skyros Centre and experiencing the Writers’ Lab

Two ferries and a coach ride.  Not quite as easy to reach Skyros as the more popular Greek islands.  But that’s part of its charm and, why, even in 2014 it remains relatively unspoiled.  Definitely well worth going the extra mile.

View from Skyros Centre Having had a sampler writing weekend course at Skyros Holidays UK base in the Isle of Wight last year, I was very keen to get the full experience on the renowned Writer’s Lab programme at the Skyros Centre so opted for the two week ‘Aspects of Novel Writing’ facilitated by the wonderful Mez Packer.  And, dear reader, you’ll be pleased to learn the course did not disappoint.  If you don’t see my name in print in the next few years it won’t be because the teaching and support wasn’t good – it was excellent.  So no pressure; watch this space.  Anyway back to the holiday.

Although I went with an open mind, having never been on a ‘community’ based holiday before, I was a tad concerned it might be a bit too much sharing, caring and hugging for my liking.  And to be honest, the first few days were a bit of a shock to someone more used to staying in 5* and boutique hotels.  My room was simple but perfectly adequate with an en-suite shower, a rather noisy a/c unit, and a balcony with sea view.  Many participants share rooms but I opted to pay a single room supplement as I wasn’t keen on sharing with someone I didn’t know, though it seemed to work well for everyone who did share.  I was lucky to be allocated a room located a couple of minutes walk from the Skyros Centre on the edge of the village and on the path down to the beach.  Other participants stayed in a variety of houses scattered around the village that were very quaint and a real Greek experience, but slightly further away.

The Centre is located up some very steep steps on the edge of the village with a wonderful airy terrace where all meals (and some classes) are taken.  It is also used for outdoor concerts, the end-of-holiday cabaret and occasional dancing.  The terrace is shaded by trees including fig trees laded with juicy, perfectly ripe figs which we gorged on during our stay. The view from the terrace down towards the beach, sea and distant houses is wonderful: both inspirational and calming – a perfect place for whiling away the hours when not writing.

Skyros beach and town in background We were about 25 participants in total for the three courses on offer at the Skyros Centre: The Writers’ Lab, Life Choices and The Art Studio. On our first night we all sat in a large circle, introduced ourselves, and were given an outline of what life at the Skyros Centre was all about.   For a start we all had small daily jobs – yes, you heard me jobs – so we were asked to ‘volunteer’ for tasks such as washing the dishes, sweeping the path, clearing the tables etc.  But miraculously, the simple act of sharing and mucking in contributed enormously to getting to know everyone and a general sense of togetherness. By the second day I knew everyone by name and there was always someone to talk to, have a drink with or meet up for supper. Apart from being on a beautiful traditional Greek island the point of Skyros is meeting a wide range of people, learning some new skills you’ve long fancied doing in a totally secure and supportive environment and, for most people, discovering something about themselves.  And it works.

Early morning yoga is available followed by breakfast and ‘Demos’ a short communal meeting where news and the day’s activities are discussed led by a volunteer who offers a thought for the day – not unlike Radio 4’s The Today Programme.  After that everyone gets on with their short nominated task before the classes start mid-morning.  The afternoons are free for siesta or swimming and sunbathing on the wonderful sandy beach, about 10 minutes walk downhill from the Centre.  All meals are eaten buffet-style on the terrace and made by the lovely Vasso, a local Skyrian lady, who cooks a variety of delicious Greek dishes, mostly vegetarian, from vegetables grown in her own garden. There was an honesty bar at the Centre so it was always possible to help yourself to drinks and complimentary tea and coffee, day or night.  And for those who need their internet fix, Broadband access was freely available.

Lovely sandy beach below Skyros town Skyros town is a true Greek island gem and picture-postcard-pretty. The English WW1 poet, Rupert Brookes chose to be buried on Skyros.  I can understand why.

A maze of white cubist, bougainvillea and jasmine clad houses, tightly squeezed together organically tumbling up and down the steep hill upon which the town is built; hidden alleyways, cobbled paths, lots of steps, all majestically overseen by a monastery at the very top of the rock.  Consequently the town is completely pedestrianized as only a few roads lower down can accommodate vehicles.  The village is vibrant, oozing with life and laughter, the locals extremely friendly and welcoming, where ‘kali mera’ and other greetings are freely given to everyone: apart from the luxuriously long Skyros siesta (1.30 – 7.00pm!) when you could hear a pin drop.  With a wide range of traditional tavernas and kafe-neons as well as smarter cocktail bars and restaurants, there is no shortage of places to eat, relax and rub shoulders with the locals and (mostly) Greek tourists.  There are also a wide range of local and tourist shops, selling good quality jewellery, clothes and ceramics, for which Skyros has a justifiably deserved reputation.

If two ferries and a coach ride would deter you from visiting the island and experiencing the joys of a Skyros holiday there are domestic flights from Athens four days a week – just don’t bank on the days tying in exactly with the course start and end days.  But, look on the bright side, for little additional cost you could add a day or two onto your stay, so it’s win-win all round.

The Writers Group As well as the Centre, Skyros Holidays also offer a different experience at Atsitsa Bay, a hamlet surrounded by a pine forest on the other side of the island. During our stay Skyros Holidays celebrated its 35th birthday so we went over to Atsitsa for a celebration party.  Accommodation here is in very basic small huts  and communal bathrooms.  Catering for larger numbers than the Centre and set in lush gardens, Atsitsa offers a larger variety of courses including ‘drop-in’ classes where you can do as much or as little as you like.  Essentially, Atsitsa is an inclusive holiday, with full-board and lots of activities where children are also welcome. Like the Skyros Centre, Atsitsa has its own fan base with many repeat guests, but although beautifully located I was glad to be staying in the town.

It can often be quite daunting, holidaying on your own.  Particularly if you are female.  During my two weeks at the Skyros Centre I felt very secure, never lonely, met some lovely people, learnt new skills and enjoyed myself enormously. Skyros may not suit everyone. But if you are open to meeting new people and trying something different it might be just what you need. Certainly the very high number of people I met who had holidayed there before speaks for itself.

You may find interesting:
Skyros Creative Writing Holidays on the Isle of Wight

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Chrissy Nason

Travel writer & hotel specialist

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