Thomson Holidays

Chapel of Agios Ioannis

Mamma Mia! chapel on Skopelos still brings in the holiday visitors

The pretty white-washed chapel of Agios Ioannis looks every bit as perfect as it did in the phenomenally successful movie hit Mamma Mia! but appearances are deceptive.

The chapel of Agios Ioannis perches 100 metres above the sea on a rock outcrop in the north-east coast of the Sporades island of Skopelos in the north-east Aegean.

Once visited only a few times a year, the picturesque chapel is now the pilgrimage of choice for thousands of Mamma Mia! fans eager to glimpse the place where young Sophie, played by Amanda Seyfried, took gave marriage vows, many years after the film and music DVD were released in 2008.

But Mamma Mia fans who climb the 105 steps to the chapel door may find themselves disappointed. The interior is not the site seen in the movie. Agios Ioannis is far too small for filming and it was only used for outside location shots.

The empty interior of Agios Ioannis is barely big enough to fit four people, never mind movie stars Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and the whole entourage of wedding party celebrities who turned up to see the happy couple tie the wedding knot on celluloid.

In case you missed it Mamma Mia! was based on the successful West End show of the same name. A string of Abba hit songs were worked into a hopelessly cheesy plot about a girl who uncovers the identity of her biological father after secretly inviting her mother's former lovers to her wedding on the unspoilt fictional Greek island of Kalokairi.

Much of the filming for Mamma Mia! took place on Skopelos and the romantic chapel wedding was a high spot in the movie. But the interior was shot on the set of Pinewood Studios in the UK.

No-one is certain of when the actual Agios Ioannis chapel was built. Local legend has it that a mysterious glow on the rock each night came from an icon to the venerable saint that appeared to have been left there.

Villagers kept taking the icon to a nearby chapel but each night it was magically transported back to the top of the rock. Eventually the locals took the hint and carved steps to the top of the rock and erected a chapel to house the icon.

The full name of the chapel is Agios Ioannis sto Kastri, which suggests there may originally have been a small castle or lookout post sited there, but no remains have survived.

It certainly commands extensive views over the sea and the coastline and to the small pebble and shingle beach below where a small beach cantina opens in the high summer season.

The chapel is now not only a target for film fans but seems to have generated a Greek wedding industry as couples hope to recapture the magic of the movie setting.

Skopelos island firms offer couples the chance to "make your life long commitment outside the famous chapel which features in the famous Mama Mia! movie."

Outside is the operative word. Weddings of overseas visitors take place either at the bottom of the stone steps or outside the chapel in an open courtyard.

Only authorised Greeks are allowed to marry in the chapel, although there are tales of foreign visitors changing their religion for the chance to hold the wedding inside despite there being barely room for half a dozen people inside.

Skopelos holiday visitors might expect the islanders to squeeze as much out of the movie connection as possible but, strangely, this has proved not to be the case.

Take a holiday on Skopelos and you won't find many Mamma Mia! T-shirts, postcards or fridge magnets on sale in island shops.

Apart from a cafe called Mamma Mia! and a few DVDs sprinkled around the stores there is almost no sign of the movie connection, unlike commercialised neighbouring Skiathos which makes loud claims to be Mamma Mia island despite only one short harbour scene being shot there.

The beach bar and jetty that figure in the film were specially constructed on the Skopelos beach at Kastrani but have long since gone; the woodland scenes shot above the beach at Glysteri are virtually inaccessible and many other important scenes were not shot on Skopelos at all but at Damouchari on the eastern Pelion coast of mainland Greece.

The biggest beneficiaries have been the hotel owners. Despite the fact Skopelos can be reached only by a 50-minute ferry ride from Skiathos, visitor numbers have soared.

In the wake of the movie's release hotels were booked up months in advance, bars were buzzing and taverna taking were impressive.

Things have settle down since then but this is still a much more popular Greek Island holiday destination than it once was and the fact is reflected in skyrocketing prices for property.

It is not only the movie link, the island's trump card, which was played to perfection in the film, is the gorgeous scenery of pine-fringed beaches, traditional tavernas and tiny whitewashed chapels.

And just as the moviemakers saw Skopelos as the archetypical Greek Island so it appears in the eyes of the holidaymakers who return here year after year with the picturesque chapel of Agios Ioannis a jewel in the crown.