22 September, 2016

The best mojitos are made in Skopelos

Ever since watching Alexis Bledel as Lena in Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants  fall into the (what I was sure could only be photo-shopped) blue water of a small island harbour surrounded by boxy white stone houses, and be rescued by a shirtless Greek man who takes her driving on a motorcycle and dancing in a little Greek Taverna  – I’ve dreamed of going to Greece.
I hate admitting such shallow reasons for wanting to visit the cradle of Western Civilisation, birthplace of the Olympics and a country that, though still recovering from the global financial crisis of the late 2000s, is currently doing what it can to help with one of the worst refugee crises in recent history. But I won’t lie. An American teenage coming-of-age movie was the origin of my inspiration. However,  my reasons for admiring and feeling curious about the country have matured over the years; Greece is the exotic, beautiful, friendly and ancient family matriarch with a lifetime of stories and a good sense of humour, that I’ve always wanted to meet.

This year that meeting finally took place.  

In choosing which of the 1400 Greek islands to visit, our criteria included small, good beaches, easy to get to, and less touristy than others. We settled on Skopelos, which happens to be where Mamma Mia was filmed – a fact that had no bearing whatsoever on our choice to visit.  An easy 3 hour flight from Manchester got us to Skiathos island, which has the smallest runway I have ever flown onto. It saddles one end of the island, connecting the sea on each side in a small arc of tarmac. Slightly terrifying.

We stayed one night in Skiathos, walking down to the docks in the evening to watch the swaths of hip tourists mix with fashionable young locals in the harbour night-life. The next morning a ferry took us to Skopelos in less than an hour and while we did have to wait longer than that for a bus into town, the sun and relaxed island vibe made the wait more pleasant than it would be in a gloomy England bus terminal.

The bus arrived more-or-less on time and got us from Glossa port to our Airbnb maisonette in the little town of Neo Klima. Our hosts were Vasoula and Babis, staying in the apartment next to ours, she a retired anaesthetist and master-decorator, he an architect whose smile shone through his eyes and who had built the sixteen apartments in the complex where we stayed. This couple made our stay in Greece a unique, rich experience. We felt like distant cousins, welcomed with ice-cream and sour cherries on our arrival, and given a bottle of Skopelos honey to take back with us on our departure. We were invited for a fish barbeque at their house, with fish caught fresh that morning and grilled to salty perfection, and we watched the Euro semi-final (Portugal  vs Wales) in their living room while drinking scotch whisky. One afternoon, Vasoula made us the island specialty, ‘Skopelos cheese pie’ –feta cheese wrapped in dough and twisted into a coil, deep fried and drizzled with honey before consumption. Not for the faint of stomach. It lasted us the entire week.

Most of our time was spent on the beaches and in the water – so warm you could swim for hours before feeling any sort of chill. On our first day we rented a quad bike, definitely the best decision of our holiday. The roads twist up-and-down and while the buses are inexpensive, they only run every 1 to 2 hours. The quad bike was perfect: it gave us freedom to explore the island independently in the open air and sun, with the warm smell of vegetation and sea coming to us on the wind. Cars share the roads in equal measure with mopeds, motorcycles of all sizes, buses, and quad-bikes and we zoomed from beach to beach – swimming over the white stones of hidden Hovolo beach, sizzling our skin on the sands of Agnondas, or lying in the shelter of umbrellas at expensive beach bars. We climbed up through the brilliant bright houses of Skopelos town, each street a piece of living art and we even made it to the chapel where Meryl Streep runs up some dodgy looking stairs in Mamma Mia. The climb up those stairs is worth it for the view at the top, where you can stare down into blue waters that haven’t been photo-shopped but look like God painted them that morning with his own special colours.

Our only disappointment was that the best meals we had on the island were the ones we cooked ourselves or that Vasoula made for us – I’m sad to say that the restaurants were disappointing. I am an adventurous eater and self-proclaimed foodie, but was let down by the lack of flavour in most of the meals we tried, especially considering the incredible fresh ingredients at hand on the island – goat, feta, olives, herbs and a sea of fish. We did however, find the best mojito I’ve ever tasted, and I’ve tried them in bars and restaurants on three different continents. This one was made by a proud, middle-aged Greek lady in Skopelos town who claimed to make the best cocktails in the world, and wasn’t lying. Her tiny cafĂ©-bar is a short climb up the edge of the town and smells of fresh mint. That mojito was worth every cent and more.

At the end of the week we said goodbye to our faithful quad-bike, packed the honey and some fresh oregano (picked by Babis on his walks into the mountains), and left Greece feeling brown and happy.

Dream fulfilled. Next stop, Israel.