Greece and the destination

Self-professed musical enthusiast Jack Palfrey visits the Greek Sporades, setting of 2008 hit film Mamma 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.

Cheese pies

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.

Ouzo shots

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.