J OUR­NEYS: THE S P I R I T OF DIS­COV­ERY Greece, the movie

Char­lotte Met­calf goes in search of the real Donna onMamma is­land in the warm Aegean

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

O the north of the is­land of Skope­los is a huge rock topped by a tiny monastery. Be­low it lies a bay of sparkling, turquoise sea. It used to be a beau­ti­ful, quiet place to swim. ThenMamma Mia! hit the screens. The monastery was the site of the movie’s big wed­ding fi­nale, so now the bay heaves with boats and the rock swarms with pil­grims climb­ing to gawp at the Mamma Mia! church. All rooms in Skope­los are now booked up two years ahead.

The film was shot partly in Pe­lion, Greece’s heel, and on the is­lands of Skope­los and Skiathos in the north­ern Spo­rades. My hus­band has been hol­i­day­ing on Skiathos since 1962, when his par­ents built a house there. Now we have our own house, so I was cu­ri­ous to see how the film por­trayed the is­land.

I hardly recog­nised the par­adise of de­serted golden beaches, un­spoiled forests and charm­ing vil­lages in­hab­ited by don­keys and smil­ing peo­ple.

Donna, the char­ac­ter played by Meryl Streep, owns a guest­house. She may be strug­gling fi­nan­cially but her life­style is en­vi­able. All her guests are good-looking and fab­u­lously, ex­pen­sively dressed. In her world there are no tourists, sun-red­dened and beer-bloated, who spill off the fer­ries and char­ter flights (on Fri­days alone, 24 planes land on Skiathos, 15 of which are from Bri­tain).

There are no con­crete ho­tels, build­ing sites, over­flow­ing dust­bins, ugly su­per­mar­kets, pool­side bars or crowded tav­er­nas sell­ing egg and chips along­side the tired sou­vlaki and mous­saka. Nei­ther are there end­less tatty shops flog­ging thongs, Li-Los, tawdry trin­kets and sun­tan lo­tion. It never rains.

Tourists who flock to Skiathos yearn­ing for a taste of Donna’s life­style will largely be dis­ap­pointed. Yet, just a few min­utes away from the sea there is a place ap­proach­ing Donna’s hide­away par­adise.

En­ter Christina Ko­fi­nas. Like Donna, she’s a for­eigner on the is­land: the gor­geous, long-legged Dutch blonde ar­rived in Skiathos in 1984, met Fo­tis, a fish­er­man’s son, and fell in love. Fo­tis had a shack on the beach from which he taught wa­ter­ski­ing and sold food cooked by his mother. Christina threw in her high­pow­ered job in The Nether­lands, mar­ried Fo­tis and has been on Skiathos ever since.

Christina laughs when I sug­gest there are sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween her and Donna. ‘‘ Oh, I wish it was so easy,’’ she says. In­deed, the le­gions of ca­pa­ble lo­cal staff who in­habit Donna’s kitchen are a com­plete fan­tasy. Christina rents out rooms and man­ages seven houses, with only a Bul­gar­ian cou­ple to help her. Find­ing a re­li­able cleaner, let alone a babysit­ter or gar­dener, in Skiathos is like strik­ing oil.

The as­pects of Donna’s world that Christina recog­nises are the bro­ken shut­ters, de­fec­tive plumb­ing and the end­less cy­cle of laun­dry and sheer hard work.

Christina rises at 5.30am and tends to her veg­eta­bles, gar­den, chick­ens and goats be­fore start­ing to cook for the shack that Fo­tis still runs on Trou­los Beach. Then she does the laun­dry, makes chut­ney or jam and of­ten drives to the port to col­lect a guest.

At 3pm, she dons a bikini, still looking sen­sa­tional push­ing 50, and drives to Trou­los bear­ing huge plat­ters of food. Then she drives the ski boat. In mid-Au­gust peo­ple are ski­ing in the moon­light un­til af­ter 9.30pm.

Christina and Fo­tis built their house bit by bit and Christina is proud that it is now one of the most beau­ti­ful spots on Skiathos. The rooms she rents are in an Eden of jas­mine-wreathed arches, huge pots of tum­bling gera­ni­ums, fra­grant rose bow­ers, tow­er­ing lilies and vines heavy with grapes. The rooms are fur­nished sim­ply but beau­ti­fully. Her guests tend to come back again and again, keep­ing Christina a closely guarded se­cret.

Skiathos may have been spoiled by greedy de­vel­op­ers but it hasn’t put off vis­i­tors, and I’m not just talk­ing about pack­age tourists. Pierce Bros­nan has re­put­edly

Lo­ca­tion, lo­ca­tion: The view from the clocktower over the old port of Skiathos, one of the idyl­lic set­tings in the hit movieMamma Mia!

Fan­tasy is­land: Meryl Streep, as guest­house owner Donna, in a scene from the film bought a plot of land be­hind Kouk­ounar­ies beach, where Ro­man Abramovich’s twin yachts, with Vladimir Putin on board, were re­cently moored. This Au­gust Charles and Camilla dropped an­chor off Skiathos, cour­tesy of Spiro Lat­sis, the Greek bil­lion­aire.

For all Skiathos’s hur­riedly built shab­bi­ness, there is lit­tle to beat the Aegean Sea for its warm, aqua­ma­rine trans­parency, and boats are a big part of daily life.

On even the tini­est is­lands sprin­kled around Skiathos there are beach shacks serv­ing chilled lo­cal wine and freshly caught sar­dines and cray­fish hot off the grill. What could be bet­ter than to eat lunch while your chil­dren play just me­tres away in clean sea?

Then, if you’re lucky, you can leave the madding Aus­tralian Bal­let exclusive for new re­sort; free nights in Thai­land; cut-price ad­ven­ture; cash give­way with Fiji is­land es­cape; bid for a week­end away. Th­ese and other money-sav­ing of­fers are fea­tured in Travel&In­dul­gence’s hol­i­day deals, up­dated daily:

www.theaus­tralian.com.au/travel/dd

Pic­ture: Photolibrary

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