Thomson Holidays

The Churches of Skopelos Town

The many hillside churches and monasteries of Skopelos Town

The island of Skopelos is noted for the large numbers of monasteries, churches and the blue-domed chapels that dot its lush green hillsides.

The writer and long-term resident of the Greek islands, Lawrence Durrell, once said there were so many churches on Skopelos (more than 360 at the last count) that islanders suffering insomnia would count churches rather than sheep.

Indeed, there are so many of them that holiday visitors never have to wander far to stumble across a church or monastery, especially in the island capital of Skopelos Town.

Quite why Skopelos has so many chapels and monasteries is something of a mystery. Some say most of the chapels were built as sanctuary from marauding pirates who, although cut-throat in other ways, were reputed to respect the holy ground of the Christians.

Others claim that, following the Greco-Turkish War and the partitioning of the Ottoman empire when many Greeks were ousted in a population exchange, many embittered Greeks threw their icons into the sea rather than have them fall into Turkish hands and that, for every icon that made its way across the Aegean, the locals on Skopelos would build a chapel.

It is often noted that almost all the chapels on monasteries on Skopelos are post-Byzantine and some, even those looking rather ancient, have been built relatively recently, often after the Greco-Turkish partition in the early 1920s.

The winding streets of Skopelos Town itself are reputed to have more than 120 chapels, around a third of the number on the whole island, and a staggering 15 monasteries.

Most are found hiding among its narrow, winding streets and whitewashed alleyways. Unfortunately very few are open to the public and they remain private and locked, opening only once a year at best usually the feast day of the particular saint to which they are dedicated.

Still, it's well worth exploring the hillside streets to enjoy the architecture and the sea views as most are perched high on hillsides offering great panoramas. Here are some of the most important ones to look out for.

The most prominent church on Skopelos, and the easiest to reach, is the Panagitsa tou Pyrgou, which sits on top of a rock at the edge of the port.

It's built in the shape of a cross, with a stone tower and white stone dome that rests on four pillars. The inner temple dates from the 17th century and inside a scenes from the Old and the New Testament and a fine collection of icons, many decorated with engraved flowers and birds.

It is from here that steps wind up between the whitewashed houses to the hilltop Chora and the ruins of a castle, a route that is peppered with chapels and churches.

The Church of the Nativity is found in the oldest quarter of Skopelos Town, a cruciform church with a large dome and triple basilica that dates from 1765.

Hanging from the main dome (there is a smaller one above the sanctuary) hangs an extraordinary wooden screen displaying many fine icons that, rather unusually, have been painted on both sides.

Of some historical note is the church tower, part of an older Byzantine church, with a bell that was donated to Skopelos for the part the town played in defeating a Turkish fleet that attacked the island in 1770.

At the highest point of the castle is the vaulted basilica of Agios Athanassios which, with an 11th century date, is thought the oldest on the island, until it was badly damaged in an earthquake in 1965.

Much of the church was restored but a wooden temple and several ancient icons were totally destroyed and the treasures that could be saved were transferred to the Church of the Nativity.

In the centre of the Chora is the gable-roofed church of the Three Hierarchs which has an 18th century temple, some interesting icons and a mural in an alcove at the entrance.

Close by is the 17th century church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (Panagia tou Papameletiou) with a richly decorated wooden temple, and some Cretan icons painted in 1683.

Not far from the Chora is the monastery of Agios Riginos, dedicated to the saint protector and 4th century martyr of Skopelos whose relics lie in a marble-topped crypt in the middle of the courtyard. The original church also suffered severe earthquake damage the building seen today dates from the 1960s.

Among other treasures within easy walking distance are the Church of Agios Athanassios of Athos, a single-aisle vaulted church with a wooden roof with a remarkable portable icon of the Lamentation from the 16th century.

The Church of Agios Georgos of Kyratso has a remarkable ancient temple with frescos of the 12 apostles, many rare icons from the 16th to the 18th centuries and an unusual gravel floor.

Just below the Church of the Nativity is the 17th century church of Agios Michail and Synnades, a complex cruciform domed church with some impressive icons, five Roman sarcophagi and a wall inscription thought to date from the 2nd century BC.

These only scratch the surface of what is on offer in a walk around the whitewashed alleys of Skopelos Town. Indeed it is hard to find anywhere in the Greek islands where a comparable number of interesting churches can be found within such a small area.

And this short tour hasn't even considered the churches an monasteries to be found within a short distance of Skopelos Town in the hills to the south-west which has the in 16th century Monastery of the Transfiguration, the Monastery of the Annunciation with its great views over the island and the monastery of Agios Ionassis not to mention the monastery of Zoodochos Pigis, in the heart of Skopelos Town and home to the famous icon of the Archangel Michaelis, said to be painted by St Luke.