To the north of the island of Skopelos is a huge rock topped by a tiny monastery. Below it lies a bay of sparkling, turquoise sea. It used to be a beautiful, quiet place to swim. Then Mamma Mia! hit the screens. The monastery was the site of the movie’s big wedding finale so now the bay heaves with boats and the rock swarms with pilgrims climbing to gawp at the ‘Mamma Mia Church’. All rooms in Skopelos are now booked up two years ahead.
Mamma Mia! was shot partly in Pelion, Greece’s ‘heel’, and on the islands of Skopelos and Skiathos in the northern Sporades. My husband has been holidaying in Skiathos since 1962 when his parents built a house there. Now we have our own house, so I was curious to see how the film portrayed the island.
I hardly recognised the paradise of deserted golden beaches, unspoilt forests and charming villages inhabited by donkeys and smiling people. Donna, the character played by Meryl Streep, owns a guesthouse. She may be struggling financially but her lifestyle is enviable. All her guests are good-looking and fabulously, expensively dressed. In her world there are no tourists, sun-reddened and beer-bloated, who spill off the ferries and charter flights (on Fridays alone, 24 planes land on Skiathos, 15 from Britain). There are no concrete hotels, building sites, overflowing dustbins, ugly supermarkets, ‘poolside bars’ or crowded tavernas selling egg and chips alongside the tired souvlaki and moussaka. Neither are there endless tatty shops flogging flip-flops, lilos, tawdry trinkets and suntan lotion. It never rains.
Tourists flocking to Skiathos, yearning for a taste of Donna’s lifestyle, will be largely disappointed and yet — and there is a yet — just a few minutes away from the sea, there is a place approaching Donna’s hideaway paradise.
Enter Christina Kofinas — like Donna, a foreigner on the island. Christina, a gorgeous, long-legged Dutch blonde, arrived in Skiathos in 1984, met Fotis, a fisherman’s son, and fell in love. Fotis had a shack on the beach from which he taught waterskiing and sold food cooked by his mother. Christina threw in her high-powered job in Holland, married Fotis and has been on Skiathos ever since.
Christina laughs when I suggest there are similarities between her and Donna. ‘Oh, I wish it was so easy!’ she says. Indeed, the legions of capable local staff that inhabit Donna’s kitchen are a complete fantasy. Christina rents out rooms and manages seven houses with only a Bulgarian couple to help her. Finding a reliable cleaner let alone a babysitter or gardener in Skiathos is like hitting oil. The aspects of Donna’s world that Christina recognises are the broken shutters, defective plumbing and the endless cycle of laundry and sheer hard work.
Christina rises at 5.30 a.m. and tends to her vegetables, garden, chickens and goats before starting to cook for the shack that Fotis still runs on Troulos Beach. Then she does the laundry, makes chutney or jam and probably drives to the port to collect a guest. At three o’clock she dons a bikini, still looking sensational pushing 50, and drives to Troulos bearing huge platters of food. Then she drives the ski boat. In mid-August people were skiing in the moonlight till after 9.30.
Christina and Fotis built their house bit by bit and Christina is proud of the fact that it is now one of the most beautiful spots on Skiathos. The rooms she rents are in an Eden of jasmine-wreathed arches, huge pots of tumbling geraniums, fragrant rose bowers, towering lilies and vines heavy with grapes. The rooms are furnished simply but beautifully. Her guests tend to come back again and again, keeping Christina a closely guarded secret.
Skiathos may have been spoilt by greedy developers but it hasn’t put off visitors — and I’m not just talking about package tourists. Pierce Brosnan has reputedly bought a plot of land behind Koukounaries beach, where Abramovich’s twin yachts, with Putin on board, were recently moored. This August Charles and Camilla dropped anchor off Skiathos, courtesy of Spiro Latsis, the Greek billionaire. For all Skiathos’s hurriedly built shabbiness, there is little to beat the Aegean Sea for its warm, aquamarine transparency and boats are a major part of daily life. On even the tiniest islands sprinkled around Skiathos there are beach shacks serving chilled local wine and freshly caught sardines and crayfish hot off the grill. What could be better than to eat lunch while your children play just feet away in clean sea? Then, if you’re lucky, you can leave the madding seaside crowds behind and return to your fragrant haven in Christina’s garden.