Mamma Mia! Skopelos and Sporades Islands are specks of paradise in the Aegean Sea

The isle of Tsougrias, only four miles from Skiathos, has no inhabitants.

SKOPELOS, Greece — Three times a week for the last few years, the little Attikon Open Air Cinema on Skiathos has played “Mamma Mia!” Besides being the worst movie Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan ever made (There’s a reason none of her 21 Oscar nominations were for her singing, and James Bond DOES NOT sing.), it is a chick flick of nauseating proportions. It’s so sugary sweet, you could pour the script on pancakes. Yet the film is revered on this little Greek island as if it’s “Gone With the Wind.”

The Greek gods of Zeus, Poseidon and Apollo have been replaced by Abba.

Yet behind the schlocky script, sleazy characters and song and dance routines right out of the Des Moines Dinner Theater, the scenery is worth an Oscar. If you don’t know the 2008 movie, it’s about a young woman who’s getting married and invites three men from her mom’s past hoping she’ll meet her real father. Her mother runs a hotel in Greece and organizes the wedding on an idyllic Greek island right out of the pages of Homer.


It is about 80 miles north of Athens in the Sporades Islands and about 15 miles from our hotel on Skiathos. White, sandy beaches. Dramatic cliffside scenery. Languid port lined with restaurants slinging cold beer and fresh seafood. Oh, yes. The cute white chapel where the wedding in “Mamma Mia!” takes place, one of 360 churches on the island, sits atop a cliff like an empty souvenir stand. Meryl Streep pilgrims and bored, henpecked men make the climb up for their significant others’ star Instagram posting.

The view from our fourth floor at the Esperides Beach Hotel on Skiathos. Photo by Marina Pascucci

While my girlfriend, Marina, gets weepy discussing the movie, Skopelos lured me with its other charms, such as its 36 beaches. It took a lot to get me off Skiathos. On our second straight August on Skiathos, we upgraded to the four-star Esperides Beach Resort. It has a gorgeous circular pool around a concrete island of lanais chairs. An affordable beach bar sits next to a beautiful sandy beach with nary a rock and water so clear we could identify the fish swimming around our ankles. Our balcony overlooked it all and the breakfast buffet (Marina’s one travel must by threat of garotting in my sleep.) had everything from tiropitas (Greek cheese pies) to baked beans and sausage. It seemed to cater almost entirely to Greeks, English and Italians. The hotel manager said I was not only the only American in the hotel, I was the only American they’ve ever had.

Last year we were among the many Italian residents who took advantage of the 90-minute direct flights from Rome. As I blogged last year, Skiathos has 65 beaches and a string of buses that cruise up and down the southern road linking them all. The island has a new and old port, all teeming with great tavernas where I could drink my ouzo on ice and many romantic restaurants with their own twists on the delicious Greek traditional dishes. I could live on Greek salads.

In fact, on Skiathos, I do.

The harbor on Skopelos.

But after so many days in paradise, you greedily want more. So from our beach dock we took the water taxi 15 minutes to the old port where we boarded the Kassandra Delfinous for one of its daily trips to Skopelos. The Kassandra Delfinous is a 150-foot yacht with seating areas in the open-air port and aft.

The Kassandra Delfinous is a cattle car. About 200 people poured onto the boat, giving us a dim glimpse of what a cruise would feel like. Marina and I gave blood oaths never to take a cruise vacation and fortunately this was only one day.

But unlike cruises where you go an entire day without seeing land, the views were spectacular. Coming out of Skiathos harbor we could see some of the beautiful high-end homes built along the sea. We saw the pine forests above the beaches and pleasure boats bobbing up and down on the water.

Marina and I on the Kassandra Delfinous.

It’s only 15 minutes to Skopelos, an island of 37 square miles, just slightly bigger than Mykonos. Skopelos comes into view in the form of Kastani Beach, featured in a “Mamma Mia!” scene that fortunately escaped my memory bank. Kastani is a gorgeous beach stretching about 200 meters where a rocky outcrop separates it from another stretch of sand. A hidden trail through some vegetation leads to another small, secluded beach.

Despite 200 of us invading this beach and certainly pissing off those already on it, it didn’t feel very crowded as we laid on our beach towels for a couple hours. I always say you have no idea what freedom is like unless you decide on what Greek island you want to visit on your way to a boat dock. Greece has 6,000 islands. Each one has its own history, geography, beaches.

Skopelos has a beach definitely worth the big screen.

Kastani Beach on Skopelos.

We next stopped in Skopelos town, one of two “towns” on the island. The dock is lined chock-a-block with restaurants with covered, outdoor seating at tables all looking out onto the water. Marina and I ventured up the hilly historical center of the town looking for a taverna off the well-beaten path. We passed jewelry stores, clothes stores, souvenir stores. We saw one restaurant. It was closed.

We passed a local who looked as if she was showing around some visiting friends. We asked about a restaurant off the dock.

“I’m sorry. We only have two,” she said. “And they’re closed until evening.”

Souvlaki on Skopelos.

Too hungry and thirsty to be crestfallen, we took a seat and feasted on giant shrimp, souvlaki and a mountainous Greek salad topped with that huge, gorgeous chunk of white feta cheese covered in rosemary. Along with an ice-cold beer, it didn’t feel touristy at all. It felt as if we were eating in a Greek grandmother’s seaside home.

(By the way, the Ancient Greek civilization flourished in the 8th century B.C. However, the Greeks still show evidence they have the same superior minds that gave us democracy, architecture and theater. Every beer we ordered came in a frosted mug. The Greek beer scene hasn’t advanced like the rest of the world but the country’s national Mythos beer tasted like the best in the world just the way it was served. Italy? Get on board.)

Skopelos dates back to the 8th century BC.

Ironically, Skopelos was once famous for its wine. The Cretans introduced viticulture during the Bronze Age, Sophocles even wrote a play called “Philoctetes” which includes a wine merchant on his way to “Peparethos,” the island’s first name before it was changed to Skopelos, which comes from Staphylos, the Greek word for grape.

On the way back to Skiathos, we cruised by the Al Giannis Chapel of “Mamma Mia!” fame. I think I saw a woman walking up the steep steps dragging a man wearing a birdcage around his neck. We had a long swim at sunset on beautiful Lalaria Beach on Skiathos before heading back to the port.

Our outer-island exploration wasn’t over. Every day as we took the steps down from our fourth-floor room, we looked out into the Aegean to see a small island out in the sea. It wasn’t too far, maybe four miles.

The beach on Tsougrias.

It’s the isle of Tsougrias, a natural habitat governed by Skiathos with one of the best nutshell descriptions in the Greek Islands:

It has a beach, lounge chairs and a bar. That’s it. It has no inhabitants. A small boat leaves Skiathos every morning and in 10 minutes we stopped at a tiny dock. About a dozen of us walked briskly along fine, white sand to the plethora of comfy lounge chairs, all with accompanying umbrellas.

With a backdrop of pine trees, it was the perfect paradise to while away an entire afternoon. We had nothing to do and nowhere to go. Well, we walked the 20 feet to the bluest waters we’ve seen in Greece. It’s the kind of blue that changes shades as you wade out 100 meters up to your neck. It went from green blue, to sky blue to royal blue, an absolute rainbow of the best the Aegean Sea has to offer.

It doesn’t get much more isolated than on Tsougrias.

In early afternoon we sat at the bar with the sandy floor and ate roast chicken off giant spits spinning slowly next to the beer spigots. Along with a big Greek salad and an ice-cold beer, we sat in the shade and wondered about the paradise we’ve discovered. From one paradise to another to another, Greece’s Sporades Islands are 90 minutes from Rome but light years from Rome’s problems. The Sporades have no garbage. They have reliable public transportation. They have no mafia. They are specks in a blue sea that make you throttle back and realize there is no such thing as wasting time doing nothing.

Marina and I have decided the Sporades will be our annual August getaway. Sandy beaches. Greek salads. Frosted beer mugs. Every day sunny, dry and in the ‘80s.

These are scenes I don’t mind seeing again.

Bolt reunion in Greece: He’s alive and well and didn’t remember us

We found this month-old kitten near death atop a gutter on Skiathos three years ago. Today Bolt is thriving, with some bumps, at the Skiathos Cat Welfare Association. Marina Pascucci photos
SKIATHOS, Greece – We were going to go viral.

I was sure of it. This reunion had all the trappings that pull on heartstrings, from Facebook links to the Animal Planet channel. Everyone would weep, including Marina and me. The setup was made for the big screen – well, at least, a little screen – and I’d practiced using my cell phone’s video camera beforehand.

Marina and I returned to Skiathos, the Greek island in the North Aegean, to see little Bolt, the kitten we saved from certain death atop a Skiathos gutter three years before. Bolt is alive and well in the same Skiathos Cat Welfare Association we left him.

I could picture it: We’d walk into the cat sanctuary’s giant yard and out of 150 cats, Bolt would race through the entire herd and jump into our arms, his memory flashing back to when he was a sick kitten, like a hidden dream finally uncovered.

Everyone remembers the viral video of the huge lion in Kenya jumping into the arms of his two Australian handlers who returned after rescuing him as a cub from a London department store cage. After 10 years away, the lion recognized them. The lion’s giant paws nearly engulfed their heads in affection. It brought tears to the world’s eyes.

Would Bolt be next? Let’s put it this way:

Picture a scowling couch potato when a solicitor visits. Bolt didn’t move. He didn’t blink an eye. We found him in a little cushioned bed by a shelter. He looked at us with all the enlightenment and excitement of a bored 3-year-old.

In other words, he acted like a cat.

We did get some quality time with Bolt, but it wasn’t easy after he had five teeth pulled.

Forget Animal Planet. We just hoped Bolt would let us pet him. It took Sharon Hewing, the sanctuary’s founder and director, to pick him up by the scruff of his neck and hold him down while we precariously stroked his orange fur. Bolt struggled to break free.

Our reunion, the one we hoped would go video viral, lasted all of about three minutes. (see video).
“He’s not afraid of humans,” Sharon said. “He’s just afraid of new people.”

The back story, however, is quite touching. My blog from 2016 brought some readers to tears. I even welled up writing it. As we walked down the hill from our hotel to dinner, we found him motionless on a curb. His eyes were sealed shut from mucous. One leg was disfigured from infection. We took him back to our room. He licked a little milk off my finger and we put him in a warm basket with blankets. We hoped he wouldn’t die.

He didn’t. He hung in there and we took him to the sanctuary where Sharon did some medical magic and brought him back to life. By the time we left Skiathos a few days later, his eyes were open and he was eating normal food. We named him Bolt, for the champion sprinter we hoped he’d run like some day.

Sanctuary director Sharon Hewing with Sophia, whom she rescued after her mother was killed by a car a few days earlier.

For three years we monitored his progress from afar. It was overwhelmingly positive. He had grown into his huge, bat-like ears. He played with the other cats. He ate normally. His infected leg didn’t seem like an issue. I sent occasional cash contributions earmarked for his care. The pictures we received, of him climbing a couch, eating with others, sleeping peacefully, warmed our hearts.

As Marina, who has saved many cats in her life, often tells me, “When you save a cat, you save the world.”

Unfortunately, our reunion was a combination bad timing and overly optimistic expectations. Before our mid-August arrival, one of the sanctuary’s volunteers, Chrissy Tuffin, wrote me saying, “I must warn you that Bolt doesn’t like being picked up or held. He’s not let me near him.”

We also happened to arrive the day he had five teeth pulled. Think it hurts for humans? It’s worse for cats. Bolt was mad at the world and we showed up.

Marina had plenty of attention from the 150 cats on the property.

We let Bolt go to sit in the bushes alone and Sharon and I retreated to the privacy of her small house on the property. We had to weave through more than 150 cats who were playing, sleeping or rubbing against my leg in an attempt to seduce me into petting them. One cat kept nibbling on Marina’s neck.

Out of 150 cats, Bolt seemed the most unfriendly of them all.

“Not all are sociable,” Sharon told me. “About 10 percent you can’t get close to. I can go up to him but not strangers. It depends where they come from. Maybe they remember things that happened to them before I got them.”

If that’s the case, Bolt doesn’t remember Marina or me. No wonder. His eyes were sealed shut nearly the entire time. However, he does apparently remember the painful shots Chrissy gave him during those scary, iffy, first few days at the sanctuary.

“I’d give him shots and he’d scream!” Chrissy said. “I’d put food down and he’d run back in his cage because he knew he was safe there. It made me weep.”

The sanctuary’s cats crave affection, even from each other.

However, at least he’s alive and relatively healthy. His right back leg looks normal but the infection left it useless. He’s essentially a three-legged cat although he’s the fastest three-legged cat in the Greek Islands.

While our reunion wasn’t perfect, I did get my feline fix. Photo by Marina Pascucci

“The leg’s no problem,” Sharon said. “Not at all. No issue. He runs as fast as the rest of them. When I go down to feed them in the morning, he’s one of those that runs from the top to the bottom because they get fed first. He’s very social with the other cats.”

Sharon and her volunteers are the real heroines in this story. Without them, Marina would still be weeping as she did in the restaurant the night we found Bolt. Originally from England, Sharon started the association after moving to Skiathos in 2004 and seeing the huge cat population on an island without even a vet, let alone a sanctuary. She works up to 18-hour days feeding cats, getting them to the one vet who did arrive and rescuing other cats abandoned by their mothers or evil swine with second homes here and no more need for a cat.

Two days before we arrived, a mother cat was killed by a car as her three kittens watched. Terrified, they hid in the bushes in a rainstorm. Sharon found them after two days and tried nursing the soaked kittens to health. Only one survived. Named Sophia, she sat on my lap and closed her eyes as I rubbed her tummy. She seemed to smile.

“That’s the best part of it,” Sharon said.

The sanctuary has a kiosk in town to collect food and supplies from locals.

Since our first visit, Sharon has put a kiosk near the town center. People drop food and supplies for the association and the local government has put feeders all over town for the many strays still roaming the streets. It started a nutrient program and gives funds to the local vet for sterilization.

Her next goal is a new place. Her sanctuary has a beautiful view of the Aegean and a smaller house for kittens down the road isn’t far from a beach.

Marina at the Skiathos Cat Welfare Association entrance.

Still, she needs more space. She has money for a bigger sanctuary but the Greek paperwork makes the transition impossibly slow.

We visited Bolt two more times, both with the timing of a tsunami at a company picnic. He was down in the kitten house, inside the supply room resting in a cushioned cabinet. He just had blood tests taken and was still woozy from the pain killers.

I’ve had bad weeks before but Bolt happened to have one of his worst during our visit.

I tried luring him toward my hand, awaiting to caress him. He looked at it as if it was a zip-code directory. Fortunately, except needing medicine for a little feline immunodeficiency, his blood tests came back negative.

The cats are happy and well taken care of at the sanctuary over the sea. Photos by Marina Pascucci

Marina and I wound up holding and caressing a wide array of fat, happy little kittens waiting for adoption. On that end, the association is booming. Sharon said this year so far people have adopted about 50. Many come from the United Kingdom. That’s not good. If Brexit passes Oct. 31, it will be nearly impossible to import cats from Greece.

No, I couldn’t adopt Bolt. I travel too much. In Rome I’ve had two top-floor apartments with way too much exposure and too many escape routes. In fact, I wondered if the sanctuary would be better for Bolt than someone’s home.

That night at a volunteers dinner in the lovely restaurant, Porta Rossa, ironically right across the street from our hotel, I met Nina Lobregt, the Dutch volunteer who helped care for Bolt for two weeks after we brought her in. She thinks they should amputate the leg. It still bothers him, she said. But more importantly, he could use a home.

“It’s strange because he was quite sociable with humans in the beginning,” Nina said. “He will be perfect in a home as the only cat. He gets the attention as the only one and he will change completely.”

Anyone out there want a three-legged cat from Greece? Or any other cat? Contact Sharon at her website: