Mamma mia! Skopelos is the ideal Greek wedding
SKOPELOS, Greece — It sits atop a giant rock 300 feet above the Aegean Sea like a bright white fedora. It would’ve been the perfect spot for a lighthouse. The crisscrossing beam could be seen clear to Turkey. But instead, what sits atop the rock is a church. Its modest trappings and small size bely its mystery and fame.
The Church of Agios Ioannis Kastri is to Hollywood today what the Acropolis is to history. It became the centerpoint of a movie that has pulled at the heartstrings of every woman ever since it came out in 2008. “Mamma Mia!” is the quintessential romantic tale of a wedding in a setting seemingly designed by Venus, the Greek God of Love.
“Mamma Mia!” is also the worst movie in the history of cinema. More on that later.
Comparing a small church on a tiny Greek island with the Acropolis is cheap hyperbole? Perhaps. Maybe I’ve been influenced by too many women readers — and an Italian girlfriend — who nearly weep at the mere mention of “Mamma Mia!” The couple and the wedding party stand outside a snow-white church under a giant olive tree. The royal blue Aegean omnipresent in the background, banging against the craggy cliffs. The sun shines like a spotlight from heaven, illuminating the couple as if they’re the last lovers on earth.
Yes, it’s romantic. So is eating a Greek salad and drinking ouzo on a beach watching a sunset. I don’t have to put up with Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan singing to experience it.
Still, when in Skopelos, you visit Agios Ioannis. During our annual August trip to Greece last month, we made the pilgrimage to arguably Greece’s most famous church. It’s the first time I’ve been thankful of a global pandemic. Unlike normal times, there was no mob of selfie-snapping tourists.
From our village of Panormos on the west side of Skopelos, we took a bus eight miles north to Glossa, the island’s second biggest village with all of 1,200 people. A taxi took us the windy seven miles across the northern part of Skopelos, dense with pine trees and gorgeous scenes of the Aegean around every turn.
We started careening down a steep hill and knew we had reached our destination when we reached sea level and saw a big snack bar with tables and chairs for the steady stream of tourists.
But this is summer 2021. Covid still rages around the world. The beautiful isle of Skopelos is nearly Covid free but tourism here isn’t quite back to pre-pandemic levels. The snack bar was empty. We saw one other parked car.
We practically had Agios Ioannis to ourselves.
This pilgrimage isn’t for your average tourist whose idea of exercise is turning their lanais chair to face the sun. Marina and I looked up — way up — at the church and saw a narrow, steep staircase. It’s 198 steps from the crude parking lot to the church which, like most climbs on small Greek islands, has an incredible view making it worth it.
We started up, holding onto the handrail they installed to prevent death. As we ascended, the views of the Aegean became more brilliant, the wind more brisk. On a warm day in the low 80s, it was more joyful than painful.
When we reached the top, I was a bit underwhelmed by the church. It’s tiny. It has a simple A-frame entry with a doorway so short I had to dip my 6-foot-3 frame to enter. Simple brown paint trimmed the door, base and roof.
Inside, however, is beautiful. Paintings of various saints line the far wall. A brilliant, shiny gold stand holds what would be a large Bible. A large silver altar holds dozens of small candles for you to light.
That’s about it. No sign. No plaque commemorating the movie (Thank God, pardon the expression). The mystery, however, gives it some inner beauty.
No one knows who built it or when. The word “Kastri” comes from the Greek word for “castle,” leading many to believe a castle stood atop this rock centuries ago to ward off marauding pirates who stalked these waters. I believe that story. Skopelos even has a pirates graveyard.
According to legend, there are two stories behind the church: One, St. John was spotted atop the rock and a church was immediately built in his name. Agios Ioannis means St. John; two, centuries ago, a fisherman from Glossa was fishing near the rock when he saw a light on top. That night he dreamed that a beautiful woman told him atop the rock was an icon of Ioannis Prodomos (St. John the Baptist). The fisherman climbed the rock, found the icon and took it home.
Strangely, every time he climbed to the top, the icon had returned. A church was built to honor this sacred spot.
What I found sacred — and so did Hollywood — was the view. It’s breathtaking. Next to the church is an olive tree so huge and old it looked like Zeus planted it. Around the tree and behind the church is a panoramic view of the Aegean sea, the cliffs on both sides and the forest of trees that make Skopelos so naturally gorgeous. On clear days I’ve read you can see 5,282-foot Mt. Pelion in the distance.
To be accurate, the wedding scenes from “Mamma Mia!” used the outside of the church as the jaw-dropping scenery that flicked at women’s hearts. The inside would barely hold the best men and maids of honor. The wedding itself was filmed in a studio in London.
The movie didn’t tug at my heart. It tugged at my gut. For 90 minutes I fought the urge to lose it. “Mamma Mia!” made “Caddy Shack 2” look like “Gone With the Wind.” It’s a hokey, schlocky chick flick featuring a dingbat bride and stupid plot. And sorry, Meryl and Pierce. You can’t sing. At all. Granted, I’m not a fan of music. But there are some groups whose music I can’t stay in the same room with.
Abba is one of them. I greeted the recent news of their revival tour with the same revulsion I’ve reserved for a new wave of Covid.
Not many people agreed with my assessment. Based on Catherine Johnson’s book of the 1999 musical “Mamma Mia!”, the film version grossed more than $600 million and netted more than $550 million. It was the highest-grossing live-action musical of all time until “Beauty and the Beast” in 2017.
I will even admit that if you’re going to get married, Agios Ioannis Kastri would be on my shortlist — and I get nervous walking down a movie aisle.
A couple who did it
I reached out to one couple who married there and one year after their magic date, I could still hear the romance pouring from their words, like honey dripping off sugar cubes.
“It was amazing,” Karoly Zaicsek said. “I think it was the most beautiful wedding I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Karoly, 36, and his 32-year-old wife, Eszter Kaszas, are lawyers in Budapest and had planned a wedding for August 2020 in Miami. With Covid moving across the U.S. like a wildfire, her mother suggested they come up with a Plan B. One Friday night they were having dinner while watching a film: “Mamma Mia!” They loved it. More than anything, they loved the scenery.
“We searched on Google which island was in the film and recognized Skopelos,” Eszter said. “It’s not so far from Hungary. We decided to get married in Skopelos.”
My first question was how did they get that whole wedding party up all those steps in formal wedding garb? Also, that day was the hottest day of the year in Skopelos: 106. She wore a casual dress and comfortable shoes and Karoly wore shorts and a T-shirt.
They both changed behind the church before the ceremony. Privacy wasn’t an issue. Tourism had collapsed all over Greece last summer. It was just Karoly and Eszter, the wedding planner and three or four tourists.
They had the ceremony right next to the big olive tree.
“The best part for me was when the ceremony ended, we played some songs from ‘Mamma Mia!’” Eszter said. “Some tourists started dancing. It was just like the movie, really. It’s a beautiful place, a beautiful church and you can hear ‘Mamma Mia!’ songs. Some people were just getting there and started to dance with us.
“It was perfect.”
Karoly said he’s been to about 100 weddings, and Greek weddings are traditionally big. He has a big family and lots of friends. This, however, was way different.
“We were just alone,” he said. “It was perfect, the perfect wedding. It would be if I could choose a wedding, it would be just like that. I was extremely satisfied.”
The wedding planner
Since “Mamma Mia!” came out, weddings on Skopelos have become somewhat of a cottage industry. The top wedding planner on the island is Ildi Matus, a Slovak of Hungarian origin who moved to Skopelos 14 years ago after falling in love with it as a tourist. In somewhat of a foreshadowing of what’s to come, she met her husband, Ioannis, on the “Mamma Mia!” set where she was an extra and he was Meryl Streep’s driver.
“She was really friendly,” he said. “I had to drive her to the last scene. They told me to drive really careful. She’s afraid of the car so you have to drive really slow. So for a drive that’s 5-10 minutes I took 20. But she was driving 400 kilometers per hour in the movie.”
Added Ildi: “We were out for a meal one night and (Streep and Brosnan) were sitting at the next table. You didn’t even realize they were sitting there because no one was around them.”
Ildi never saw herself as a wedding planner. She and her husband operate MagicCars rentals (www.magiccars.gr) but she and her sister are also the only people on this island of 5,000 who speak Greek, Slovak and Hungarian not to mention English.
“No one can take my job,” Ildi said.
It began in 2013 when Hungarians and Slovaks, inspired by the film, contacted her and asked if they could get married there. She said yes and she’d help them translate.
“Then they said, ‘Will you please help me with the decorations?’” she said. “Then I helped with the decorations. In the end I do everything. I am like a tour guide for them on the island. I wait for them at the port. We do everything together, from the accommodation to everything.”
Before the movie, the only people marrying on Skopelos were a few local Greeks. Since the movie, the business is booming. But it’s tricky. Only Greeks can marry in a Greek Orthodox church such as Agios Ioannis. However, because it’s too small to hold a wedding, the square around it is perfect.
In 2019, Ildi did 26 weddings. Two other wedding planners, Ildi said, did 10 each. This year, even with tourism not quite back to pre-pandemic levels, she has done 13 and has seven planned for this month. Ioannis estimates that weddings bring into Skopelos an estimated 1 million euros a year.
It would be more but the United Kingdom has made traveling abroad extremely difficult, forcing some couples to shelve their plans for later.
The logistics are complicated for wedding planners. She must translate all the papers from Slovak or Hungarian into Greek, a long arduous process. Then there is the transporting all the chairs up the steep goat path in the heat.
The island hosts weddings elsewhere, and often are photographed at a beautiful tree-covered outcropping near Port Agnondas in Skopelos Town. where Ildi and Ioannis wedded. However, getting married atop a 300-foot cliff that millions of people worldwide have seen on the big screen is different. Really different.
“There aren’t thousands of people looking at you like you would in town,” Ildi said. “They can have their privacy. Only the sound of the sea because it’s always windy. The sun’s always shiny. It hardly ever has clouds.
“Eighty percent of the people like this place not just because of the beauty — it’s first, of course — but because that was the place where ‘Mamma Mia!’ was shot: ‘I got married at the same place as Pierce Brosnan!’”
If you think about it (and I rarely have), having a small wedding is much easier than having a big wedding in a church. What’s harder, climbing 198 steps or making sure every guest at the reception has enough croutons in their salad?
I asked Eszter what advice she’d give couples thinking of getting married at Agios Ioannis.
“Just do it,” she said. “It’s not so hard to organize it. We organized it in three weeks from beginning to end. The wedding planner does everything that you want. Don’t be afraid. It was in Covid period. It wasn’t a normal phase and we could still do it.”
Maybe that fisherman’s story is true. Maybe he did see a beautiful woman in his dreams. Sure sounds like a lot of men have seen the woman of their dreams here since then.
If you want to get married on Skopelos …
Contact: Ildi Matus, email@example.com, www.magiccars.gr, 30-24240-2350.
How to get there: Athens has numerous flights per day to Skiathos. I paid 417 euros for two tickets in August through Aegean Air. The price drops in September. Numerous ferries leave from Skiathos to Skopelos. I paid 26.50 for two one-way tickets. Reservations recommended.
Where to stay: Aphrodite Hotel, Panormos Village, 30-24240-23152, www.afroditehotel.gr, firstname.lastname@example.org. Three-star hotel 100 meters off beach. Spacious rooms with balcony. Breakfast buffet included.
Where to eat: Taverna Vasiliki, Panormos Village, 30-698-694-0316, 10 a.m.-midnight. Our go-to place for cheap, authentic Greek cuisine across street from beach. It’s where locals go. Meals starting at 6 a.m.
Dolphin of Skopelos, Panormos Village, 30-242-402-4304, email@example.com. Somewhat elegant restaurant with gourmet Greek dishes at reasonable prices. Next door to Vasiliki.
When to go: Avoid August. It’s the hottest month of the year and most crowded. In winter, the island all but shuts down. Average temperature range in June is 68-77, August 72-80 and September 65-74. Summer months average less than an inch of rain.
For more information: Tourist Police serve as the Greek government tourist information center. The office on Skiathos is on Ring Road, 8 a.m.-9 p.m.