Self-professed musical enthusiast Jack Palfrey visits the Greek Sporades, setting of 2008 hit film Mama Mia!, only to leave with more than he bargained for, including one hell of a hangover.
When I was told I’d be visiting Skopelos, the Greek island on which the 2008 hit film Mamma Mia was set, I was more than a little bit excited. I know what you’re thinking, but what’s wrong with a 23-year-old male enjoying a musical based on the hit songs of Abba? Besides it’s the fastest selling DVD of all time in the UK, so chances are, whether you choose to publicly admit it or not, you probably love it too.
In my mind, striding (or crawling as I’d later find out) up the steps to the hilltop white chapel in front of which Meryl Streep sings The Winner Takes It All to a clearly uncomfortable Pierce Brosnan, would be a personal travel highlight, deeming previous trips to landmarks like the Eiffel Tower insignificant in comparison.
The island of Skopelos, home of the Mamma Mia church, was the last stop on my whirlwind tour of the Sporades, a lesser-known 24-island archipelago off the eastern coast of mainland Greece. Had I known then what I know now, perhaps I would have been in less of a hurry to skip right to the end of the trip.
It was early morning and the sun was just beginning to prickle at the back of my neck as we meandered through the narrow streets of Alonissos’s Old Town. Even though I knew my heart lay in Skopelos, I had to admit that Alonissos struck an impressive first impression. Built into the remnants of a giant hilltop castle that once protected the island from roaming pirates, the Old Town appeared to me as the embodiment of traditional Greece, with tables from white-walled and orange-roofed restaurants spilling out into the winding streets, unoccupied mostly, except for the occasional local smoking a roll up black liquorish cigarette with a stray cat lounging at their feet.
We followed one of the weaving castle paths to a small courtyard with a collection of simple wicker tables overlooking the sea. This was Hayiati, a bar boasting the most scenic beer garden I’d ever seen.
Upon taking a seat we were greeted by a woman with wide hips and a huge smile, the owner, who insisted immediately that we try a home-made cheese pie. Before visiting the Sporades I had no idea that Greece was famous for cheese pie, but after being fed over a dozen of them during my short trip, I’m certainly well aware now. However, out of all the cheese pies I sampled, Hayiati’s was the best. A simple recipe: home-made dough topped with feta and spinach. I seized a few large slices and leisurely took in the view.
Before the sun reached full force we were on our way again, departing the island’s small harbour to explore the remits of The National Marine Park of Alonissos, the largest protected marine area in Europe and home to dolphins, whales and, most significantly, the Mediterranean monk seal, one of the most endangered mammals in the world.
Despite the park’s magnificent aquatic wildlife credentials, it was the many tiny, mostly uninhabited, islets that captured my intrigue, specifically Kyra Panagia, on which stands a lone miniature monastery inhabited by a single monk; our next stop.
After a sweaty climb, we reached the large wooden doors of the picturesque stone monastery. Pushing open the large doors exposed a square cobblestoned courtyard, in the centre of which stood the sacred inner sanctum, a tiny building laced with gold, dedicated to the birth of the Virgin Mary. The unique monastery was once a functioning olive mill, its structure now laboriously restored with wooden beams coiled in olive vines.
After a few laps of the open courtyard, trying to avoid standing on a sleeping cat, I caught the eye of the resident monk, a short man dressed in all black robes with a thick beard. He gestured me into a small room.
The monk, whose name translated into English as ‘Graceman’, offered me a seat at what was presumably his kitchen table and poured me a glass of home-made ouzo.
“You are from London?” He asked in surprisingly clear English.
“I was a chef in Camden town for six years,” said Graceman, slurping down his ouzo in a single swallow.
I haven’t met many monks but Graceman was not what I had expected. He poured himself another shot and gestured for me to drink mine.
“It’s good yes?” he said smiling.
I’d never tasted anything worse in my life.
Graceman spoke about living alone on the island. He’d lived at the monastery for three years now, previously living at a monastery on Mount Athos with 200 other monks, and had helped restore it in what was an ongoing project. He told me about his love for Greece and the beauty of his island. I asked him if he named his cats, which disappointingly, he did not.
“It’s very challenging being a monk and living alone,” he said, as he began topping up my glass for a third time, despite my clear look of horror, “but it’s great to meet people from all over. This monastery is unlike any other in the world.”
I had to agree with him there.
Mamma Mia church
The next morning I awoke, a little hazy, but filled with excitement. Today was the day.
If Alonissos is the authority on culture in the Sporades, then Skopelos certainly takes the crown for natural beauty. Driving along the mountain-crested road to the church it was easy to confirm that Skopelos is one of the greenest Greek islands, a mix of dense jungle, turquoise waters and white sand, with only a few small clusters of settlements dotted along its coastline.
Before I even had time to shake off the home-made ouzo hangover, we were standing at the foot of the steps staring up at the tiny Mamma Mia church, or St John’s Church to use its correct name. I had to admit that, despite the beautiful scene, it looked a lot larger in the film.
I set off at a decent pace up the stone stairway that snaked its way up the hill, quickly finding myself reduced to a slow crawl from the heat of the morning sun.
Upon reaching the top, sweat soaked and dry mouthed, I couldn’t shake a sense of disappointment. Peering inside the tiny building I could instantly see that this wasn’t where the famous church scene from the movie had taken place (I’d later find out that all the wedding scenes were filmed in a studio back in the UK).
As I paused for reflection, looking down at the characteristically still green Aegean Sea, I couldn’t help but feel cheated. The church was a fake, and during the drive I’d discovered more forgery – notably that Donna’s beach house is nowhere near the beach, and the heavily featured ‘authentic’ wooden pier is nothing but a purpose-built prop.
If you come to the Sporades with a Mamma Mia sculpted fantasy, like the hordes of tourists that line the poster-plastered tour boats that leave from Skiathos daily, you will probably leave disappointed. What you are likely to discover instead however is a slice of traditional Greece, culturally and historically intriguing, adventurous and unique.
NEED TO KNOW
Monarch Airways fly directly to Skiathos (a short ferry ride from both Alonissos and Skopelos) from Gatwick for £319.50 return, per person. The Alonissos Marine Park Tour, including Kyra Panagia, is run by Albedo Travel.
Where to stay
On Alonissos, 4 Epoches Hotel is an excellent choice located on the quieter side of the island with an on-site swimming pool. On Skopelos, Adrina Beach Hotel is a modern resort with a beautiful private pebble beach, situated only a short distance from St John’s Church. Prices start from €50 per person.