Skopelos in the spotlight
Mamma Mia! has put this Greek island well and truly on the tourist map
From a distance, everything looks just as it should. The teeny, whitewashed Agios Ioannis chapel is perched 202 steps up a winding path, on top of a rocky outcrop that juts into the sea. It appears windswept, isolated and beautifully peaceful.
But up close, things aren’t quite so tranquil. For starters, the concrete car park below is overflowing. Cars are backed up down the dusty lane and the nearby café is doing a roaring trade.
The steps are alive with a constant stream of visitors, huffing and puffing, and singing Abba songs rather badly.
And the church? Well, it isn’t quite up to scratch either. Indeed, something’s so wrong that the moment most visitors pass through the heavy wooden doors, the singing stops and the recriminations begin.
“It’s tiny!” says Sophie Goodson, 15, from Godstone, Surrey. “There’s barely room for Meryl Streep, let alone the three dads and the wedding guests.”
“We’ve come all the way from Warsaw. This is very upsetting,” says Karl, 28. “They must have used a film set for the inside.”
“A very nice place but not the church from Mamma
Mia!” reads an entry in the visitors’ book.
I am on Skopelos, the tiny Greek island once known for its scented pine trees, olives, dried white plums and peace and quiet ... but now more famous as the place Mamma Mia! was filmed.
Mamma Mia! The Movie is a film based on the successful West End show of the same name and stars Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Julie Walters.
The premise is simple. A raft of Abba hits worked into a cheesy plot about a girl who tries to uncover the identity of her biological father — her mum is played by Meryl Streep — by secretly inviting the three candidates to her wedding on the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi.
It has been just over a year that the film has been released and it’s clear that life will never be the same again for the Skopelites.
The islanders’ official policy has always been maximum friendliness and minimal Mamma Mia! publicity — so there are no
Mamma Mia! T-shirts, postcards, fridge magnets or bus tours. There is no Hollywoodisation of the island, no tasteless tat at all.
Sole markers of fame
The only exception is the desolate Mamma Mia! bar, run by a man called Demetri — who was Brosnan’s driver during the filming. Oh, and a smart signpost at each sacred stop on the Mamma Mia! trail — the church, the bay where the cast danced on the jetty, the trees where Sophie enjoyed a picnic with her three “fathers”.
“Skopelos is more than just Mamma Mia!. We don’t want our island to change because of a film,” says mayor Hristos Vasiloudis. “We have culture, architecture, history and pride. A film comes and goes but we want our island to remain the same.”
This all sounds impressive and, had it been any other film, he might just have got what he wanted.
But besides being horribly cheesy, Mamma Mia! is Hollywood’s most successful musical and the highest-grossing film and the fastest-selling DVD of all time in Britain.
It has also spawned millions of fans around the world — an awful lot of whom seem to be making overexcited pilgrimages to the island.
Despite the fact that Skiathos can be reached only by a choppy 50minute ferry ride from Skiathos, visitor numbers have skyrocketed.
Abuzz with visitors
Hotels have been booked months in advance, the restaurants are buzzing and every couple of hours an enormous ferry disgorges another batch of
Mamma Mia! fans on to the quayside in picturesque Skopelos town, often in full song. Until they realise it’s not quite as it was on the big screen.
“It was disappointing,” says Diana Staveley, 40. “In the film, they arrived at a pretty bay in a tiny boat but we came on a giant ferry into the port and there
were people everywhere.”
While increased custom sounds like good news, it has had a big effect on the island’s tranquillity. The narrow roads are teeming with cars reversing and spinning tyres in the dust. And there’s barely room to sit down at the beaches.
Beach bliss lost
“We have been coming for years but this time it’s different,” says Christina, 34, from Athens. “There used to be four, maybe five, people on some of the beaches. Now they’re full.”
And then there are the weddings. For months, fans have been flocking there to get married Mamma Mia!style in the minuscule church on the hill — only to discover it’s off-limits unless you happen to be a Greek Orthodox.
“There was one Swiss couple who were going to convert to Greek Orthodox and come back,” says Marion Fester, who works for Thalpos Holidays.
Just how silly can you get? Very, it seems, judging by the stream of fans traipsing into Fester’s office to pay homage to a pair of Piers Brosnan’s flip- flops, retrieved from his villa and now firmly nailed to the wall and draped in fairy lights.
“At first, it was just a few children and women. But two days ago, there was a whole group of British tourists — all here to see the flip-flops,” Fester says.
It is credit to the Skopelites’ determination and lack of greed that there is still only one organised
Mamma Mia! boat trip from Skopelos a week — because there must be ten times the demand.
Competition for the 58 places on the Odyssey is feverish and, occasionally, bordering on the violent. Jonathan Stone, who is from London but living in Greece for seven years, leads the trips.
“They are unbelievably obsessed. We had one Swedish woman who had seen the film 198 times. And she was upset when we didn’t play it during the trip.”
And music? “The moment you put on the soundtrack, everyone starts dancing. The engine makes the CD slip so we can play it only when the boat stops. If it didn’t, we would have had to listen to Abba all blooming day. They expect Meryl Streep will be there waiting for them, sunning herself on a sun lounger.”
It might sound like harmless fun but the film has had a more worrying effect on the island. Prices have shot up in the bars, tavernas and supermarkets.
Old ways eroded
“Taverna life is being eroded,” says Neil Durham, 64, from Bangor but now a Skopelos resident. “The Greeks like to spend their evenings enjoying together but since Mamma Mia!, food prices have gone up by 50 per cent and the locals can no longer afford to eat out.
“ Mamma Mia! is also destroying the Greek culture. Even the TV advertisements have changed to cater to the tourists.”
But development is booming too. Property posters flutter in the wind around Skopelos, the island’s first five-star hotel will be completed soon and building sites are being carved out of the empty land between the lemon trees and the olive groves, as foreigners fight to buy a slice of the Skopelos dream.
So what do the Skopelites think about all this interest in their beautiful green island?
There are a few commercial types who think the mayor is mad not to milk
Mamma Mia! for all it’s worth. Generally, however, the locals aren’t interested — particularly outside Skopelos town, where eyes roll at the mention of the film.
The locals do, however, have fond memories of the filming. Besides spending huge amounts of money on the island, the cast and crew were happy to interact with the locals.
They shopped in the gift shops, enjoyed in the bars, danced on the tables and had a brilliant time.
“I had them all in here: Streep, Colin Firth. Brosnan was my favourite — so natural and handsome,” says Peggy, who runs a jewellery shop in Skopelos town.
And many locals appeared as extras. “It was so exciting,” says Sabrina, a 38-year-old travel agent.
There were, of course, a few hiccups. The set builders upset everyone by adding a false front to the chapel and a vicar officiated in the wedding scene instead of a Greek Orthodox priest. But generally, the shoot went like clockwork and the locals have nothing but praise for the stars.
The film company did go to enormous lengths to put everything back as it was when they arrived. It seems the only thing they couldn’t do was restore the peace and quiet.
Simple serenity The quiet life in Skopelos (above); and Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard and Pierce Brosnan in the film (below)
The church of Agios Ioannis, shown in MammaMia! for the wedding scene
Fishing boats along the waterfront in a Skopelos village