From the sea, the ascending sweep of the Chora of Skopelos is an amphitheatre of clear and simple architectural forms—triangles, squares and cylinders—enhanced by contrasts in the building materials: the irregular, silvery shapes of the schist roof-tiles, the thin wooden balconies and the smooth, uniformly whitewashed walls. The roof scape is constantly broken by the towers and cupolas of churches. There are a great many churches—allegedly 123 in the Chora alone (though the true number is more like a half of that). It is a reflection of the unbroken prosperity of Skopelos and of its relative freedom under the period of Turkish domination that these highly individual churches are decorated with wall-paintings, fine iconostases, architectural details, and in some cases with Ottoman ceramics.
An itinerary follows which covers the oldest quarter of the town: it begins at the northern end of the port, climbs up to the Kastro, and re-descends to the front again not far from the striking building of the Demarcheion (Town Hall) which stands at the centre of the water front.
The northern end of the promenade is closed and an chored by the long, low mass of the church of the Panaghia tou Pyrgou sitting on the rocks above. Its name (‘Virgin of the Tower’) would suggest that this point of the promontory was once marked by a watch-tower. The old part of the church—the domed, inscribed-cross core of the building—is 15th century, with a spacious narthex and elegant bell tower added in the 19th century. There are remains of wall-paintings near the south door. Immediately to seaward of it stands the tiny chapel of Aghii Pantes (All Saints): there is rare (for Skopelos) tile-work in the construction of its eastern apse, unobtrusive vine decorations around the door, and a small ogival niche to the left of the entrance, for the placing of an icon on feast days.
Higher up above these two churches, and to the left of the path, is Aghios Nikolaos—another small church of inscribed cross-with-dome plan which has had a vestibule added to its north side: the section of an ancient column, with dowel-hole in its centre, is prominently displayed on the exterior of the east end. A further climb (keeping to the edge of the hill) brings you to a terrace with the seats of a cafe from which the whole cascade of architectural volumes below can be appreciated. Slightly set back from here, is the 15th century church of the Evangelismos (the Annunciation), which is entered through an enclosed courtyard to the south. The church has satisfying proportions both inside and out. The repainting of the apse is regrettable but does not detract from the beauty of the 16th and 17th century icons on the screen. The characteristic variety of colour and shape in the ‘fish-scale’ schist roof, and the church’s pleasing octagonal drum are best appreciated from the stairs above and behind. These steps lead up to a higher level and the church of Aghios Athanasios tou Kastrou which is of the 11th century and probably the oldest church in Chora. Its design is a simple barrel vaulted nave, which has been substantially buttressed on its south side. The lateral wall-paintings of figures of saints, however, are of 500 years later, and the carved iconostasis is of the 18th century. The church’s size and its proximity to the old citadel/acropolis would suggest that it had particular importance early on, and may have been the original episcopal church of the island. From Aghios Athanasios, it is a short climb to the summit where a taverna unexpectedly occupies the site of the fortress castle built by Filippo Ghisi in the 13th century. The area of the castle is small, and probably represents the keep of a larger fortified complex which extended to the north and west. Descending the steps at the rear (west side) and looking back, the base of the large masonry blocks of the walls of the ancient acropolis of Peparethos are visible at the lower level. These are of the 5th century bc and function as the solid foundations for the mediaeval walls built on top of them. Other vestiges of ancient retaining walls can be glimpsed higher up on the hillside which lies to the west and northwest of the fortress: these created the terraces on which the temples of Athena and Dionysos originally stood, commanding magnificent views and visible from far out to sea.
Taking the narrow street which skirts closely around the south side of the bottom of the castle and descends a narrow alley between houses anti-clockwise round the hill, you will come to the end of the path at some steps and to an alley which runs transversely. To the right of you is the church of Aghios Antonios and to the left is Aghios Giorgios, clearly recognisable by its cupola, with a tall drum decorated with blind arcades: it vies with Aghios Athanasios (see above) as one of the oldest churches in Chora, but it is a more intimate space and more beautiful building, with a domed Greek-cross plan. The interior has a beautiful pebble floor: there are wall paintings on the west wall which, though venerable, are in poor condition. Further along the same street on the opposite side, through a gate and with a small space or avli in front of it, is another remarkable church, dedicated to the Panaghia (Zoodochos Pigi). This has fine paintings in the apse and sanctuary: a Christ and Virgin blessing above a ring of saints; and a Lamentation scene, to the left.
By returning back past Aghios Giorgios and Aghios Antonios at the end of the street, you come to steps which lead down towards an imposing low-lying church; as you approach, the conical rises and striking silhouette of its schist-tiled roof appear before you like a relief map of an island landscape. This is the church of the * Gennisi tou Christou (Nativity of Christ)—architecturally satisfying and highly unusual both inside and out.
The core of the church dates from the late 15th century, but a broad parallel nave, or parecclesion, has been added on the north side in the 19th century; on the south, the addition of the long low arcaded porch, which forms one side of an en closed courtyard, is a particularly beautiful feature, typical of the architecture of churches in northern Greece. The interior space of the church is dominated by a heterogeneous group of eight columns: two monolithic columns with early Byzantine capitals, two with undecorated capitals, and four extraordinary columns composed of drums at the west end. The floor incorporates an interesting orange/pink variety of stone, similar to portasanta marble from Chios: in fact it is native to the island and comes from the area of the promontory at Stafilos, where almost identical material can be seen in its natural state.
In the area of the Christouare a number of smaller churches worthy of mention. Returning to the main street or alley above its west end and the bell tower, the small chapel of Aghia Paraskevi is directly opposite; to right (north) is the 12th century church of Aghios Demetrios (20m on the left), with wall-paintings of later date inside; to left is Aghia Triada. Straight uphill past Aghia Paraskevi and along the first alley to the left is a simple vaulted chapel, probably of the 16th century, dedicated to the Gennisi tis Theotokou (the Nativity of the Virgin), sitting below the level of the path to the left after about 25m. Its principal interest lies in its wooden * iconostasis, which must have been created for the church about a century later. The screen is carved perhaps with more vitality than subtlety, and is gilded and painted: but it incorporates a fine series of 16th century tempera panels, depicting scenes from the lives of Christ and of the Virgin, which run along the top, each framed with a scallop shell fan above within an arch. The doors of the screen are also painted. This is a rare piece for its un-restored, original condition and the quality of its painting. The church has a couple of ancient fragments and part of a fluted column in the forecourt by the entrance door.
By returning once again to the Christouchurch and taking the path that goes downhill beside its arcaded south side, after five or six twists in the descent, you emerge at a church with a small shaded terrace to its south side and a pleasant view overlooking the port. This is the 11th century church of the Aghii Apostoli: its size, its single-aisle design, and its age are all similar to the church of Aghios Athanasios tou Kastrou (above). Inside are wall paintings of the 17th century: a fine row of saints along the south wall, with elaborate and richly painted robes. The plainness of the exterior of the east end which faces over the harbour is relieved by the inclusion of five, identical 16th century Iznik tiles, with prominent saz leaf design. These were trophies, acquired by sailors and merchants, and included as decoration.
By taking the alley-way out of the south corner of the terrace beside the church, and then descending to the left, you are confronted after 100m by one of the most remarkable churches in Chora—* Aghios Michail, whose exterior is a veritable museum of ancient fragments, sarcophagi, column sections and inscriptions.
Immediately visible are the large slabs of sarcophagus (c. 190 x 70 cm: 5 in total on the east and west façades, plus two lids immured to either side of the window over the west door), carved with bold designs of abstract ornamental forms based on garland and altar motifs. The pale purple volcanic stone from which they are carved (somewhat like a poor man’s porphyry) reveals their origin from Assos in Turkey, a little to the south of Troy. They are probably work of the 2nd or 1st century bc. The east end of the church in corporates other elements: part of a boss from a marble coffer, a run of egg and dart cornice, and an ancient marble slab with two rosettes, carved with a partially legible inscription of the 2nd century bc referring to a certain ‘Praxiteles, son of Praxiteles’. The corners of the church and the west front in corporate more ancient, largely white marble elements. The interior is unusually light; it contains fine icons and icon frames, and two large carved marble candlesticks.
At this point you are once again close the water front, dominated by the Demarcheion (Town Hall): it has a broad, low roof of schist ‘slates’ and a delicate first-floor balcony, giving pleasing relief to the façade.
Skopelos Island is part of the Sporades Island Group, Greece.