Skiathos’ Chora

The pine-clad rocky promontory of Bourtzi, which juts out into the bay in front of Skiathos Chora, today divides the port into two: to the north is the featureless modern port where the ferries dock, and to the west is the more attractive old port, which is used for fishing boats and other small craft. In Antiquity the promontory would have been an island; it still was at the time that the Ghisi brothers established their dominion over the island in the early 13th century by building a fortress here. The rise is now crowned by a neoclassical building—slightly out of proportion to its site—which was formerly a Gymnasion or high school, and today is used as a ‘Cultural Centre’. A peacefulness pervades the minute headland and its cafe is a pleasant place to sit. On the grassy slope above the causeway there are a few ancient stones, a couple of which, unusually, still possess their bronze clamps in situ. Bourtzi is sometimes referred to in older writings as the ‘Castle of Aghios Giorgios’: the church to St George, which once occupied this site, is now gone, but these pieces of antiquity may have been amongst the stones brought from the ancient town and incorporated in the church’s structure when it was built. Beside the causeway are monuments to Papadiamantis and Moraitidis, the island’s most famous men of letters (see below).

   The Chora spreads over two hills: one, to the north, is crowned by the church of Aghios Nikolaos with a wind mill at its summit; the other, to the south, occupies the site of the ancient acropolis. The town’s main street, Odos Papadiamantis, winds through the valley in between, across the area where the ancient agora would have been. Visible evidence of the ancient town is almost non-existent beyond a few miscellaneous pieces—capitals, columns, and dedicatory inscriptions of late date—which have been gathered in the forecourt of the Demarcheion, or Town Hall.

   A little inland and above the western end of the old port, is the town’s 19th century cathedral, dedicated to the Tris Gerarches—SS. Basil, John Chrysostom and Gregory the Theologian. The area beyond the cathedral to the west is a web of narrow streets with very much more the feel of an island ‘chora’; these lead uphill to the church of the Panaghia Limnia at the summit (also 19th century). In front of its east end is an impressive example of a Skiathos mansion: the house has a fine balcony with columns on the upper level and gives a sense of the simple grandeur of the dwellings of the rich trading and ship-building families on the island in the last century. The building is currently awaiting restoration after a fire. Further north from here is the church of Aghia Triada; between it and the cemetery is the hill of the ancient acropolis, of which there are only scattered remains—no more than a few single marble pieces scattered in the area of pine trees just above the cemetery and on the edge of the car-park below. To the west a once fortified escarpment drops to the sea.

   In the centre of the town behind the new port, and on the corner of a small plateia just a few steps east of the main shopping thoroughfare, the house of Alexander Papadiamantis, who through his writings has made his native island famous beyond its shores, has been pre served. (Open daily 9.30–1 & 5–8; closed Mon.) The humble simplicity of this house is a reflection of the almost monastic soul of the writer who lived here, as well as of the more general simplicity of life on the Greek islands 100 years ago. The room where he died in 1911 has been preserved unchanged, and the house contains just a few of the objects relating to his last sojourn here. This is the house of a man who hated noise and ostentation of every kind: one is left wondering what he would make of the Skiathos of today.

   The northern extremity of the harbour of Skiathos ends in a shallow lagoon defined by a narrow spit of land which cuts across to the hilly promontory of Pounta to the east. This was once the centre of the island’s most important and vital industry—boat-building. The tide of that industry has withdrawn and left the boatyards somewhat stranded, although in recent years the demand for traditional wooden cai―ques is reviving. The manufacture of boats was underpinned by the plentiful supply of pine-wood from the hills of the island. Today the level of activity is diminished, but it is fascinating nonetheless to see the shaped wooden elements being prepared and seasoned, the craft slowly taking form, and the visible presence of a highly specialized skill which has its roots in a long history.

Alexandros Papadiamantis

Papadiamantis was born on Skiathos in March 1851 into a family predominantly of clergymen and sail ors; he was educated first on the island, and latterly in Chalcis and in Athens. Aged 21 he visited Mount Athos—a defining moment of his youth which reinforced his natural religious bent. He read philosophy at university and worked for the Greek press as a translator and story writer. In his life he published nearly 20 novels and over 100 short stories. In 1908 he returned to his native Skiathos, and died there in January 1911 at the age of 60. His writing has something of that astringent quality which char acterises every aspect of Greek island life: no words are ever wasted, and what is not said is often just as significant as what is said. The scenes he describes and settings he chooses are inhabited by simple folk and simple, but intense, joys: his vision, however, is that of the unsentimental realist, and his conclusions are fundamentally melancholy. He exalted the Greek landscape, the dignified simplicity of its people, and their ancient traditions: what Jean François Millet did for French rural life in his paintings, Papadiamantis did for Greek rural life in his writings. Millet was sometimes criticised for what were considered the repetitive and often inconsequential subjects of his drawings and paintings, and a similar commentary has been levelled against Papadiamantis. Some of his stories can have little objective activity, but their virtue lies in the deep tranquillity they convey, and in the empathetic and unsentimental eye that the author turns upon a world which he sensed, at every turn, was slipping away. He wrote in a simple, poetic Greek and exalted the poetry of simple lives. He never lost his deep moral conviction and devout religious passion; the house where he lived is of a monastic simplicity which matches the spareness of his choice of words.
   The Papadiamantis Museum has a small shop where it is possible to find his works both in Greek and in translation. An off-print is available in Greek and in English, of his hard and jewel-like short story, Love in the Snow.

Skiathos Island is part of the Sporades Island Group, Greece.

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