Pretty Skopelos town, the administrative center of the Sporades, overlooks a bay on the north coast. On a steep hill below, scant vestiges of the ancient acropolis and medieval castle remain. The town works hard to stay charming—building permits are difficult to obtain, signs must be in native style, pebbles are embedded in the walkways. Three- and four-story houses rise virtually straight up the hillside, reached by flagstone steps. The whitewashed houses look prosperous (18th-century Skopelos society was highly cultured and influential) and cared for, their facades enlivened by brightly painted or brown timber balconies, doors, and shutters. Flamboyant vines and potted plants complete the picture. Interspersed among the red-tile roofs are several with traditional gray fish-scale slate—too heavy and expensive to be used much nowadays.
Off the waterfront, prepare for a breath-snatching climb up the almost perpendicular steps in Skopelos town, starting at the seawall. You will encounter many churches as you go—the island has more than 300. The uppermost, located near the castle and said to be situated on the ruins of the ancient temple of Minerva, is the 11th-century Ayios Athanasios with a typically whitewashed exterior and an interior that includes 17th-century Byzantine murals. At the stairs' summit you're standing within the walls of the 13th-century castle erected by the Venetian Ghisi lords who held all the Sporades as their fief. It in turn rests on polygonal masonry of the 5th century BC, as this was the site of one of the island's three ancient acropoli. Once you've admired the view and the stamina of the old women negotiating the steps like mountain goats, wind your way back down the seawall steps by any route you choose. Wherever you turn, you may spy a church: Skopelos claims some 360, of which 123 are in the town proper. Curiously, most of them seem to be locked, but the exteriors are striking—some incorporating ancient artifacts, Byzantine plates or early Christian elements, and slate-capped domes. To gain a unique perspective on Skopelos town, take one of the walking tours offered by Heather Parsons (www.skopelos-walks.com).