Skope­los in the spot­light

Mamma Mia! has put this Greek is­land well and truly on the tourist map

Gulf News - - Retreat - BY JANE FRYER

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.

Re­al­ity check

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.

Mu­sic ma­nia

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.

Manic ob­ses­sion

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.

Fond mem­o­ries

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.

Pho­tos by Corbis

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

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