Despite its natural beauty, SKÝROS has a relatively low profile. There are few major sites or resorts, and access, wherever you’re coming from, is awkward. Those in the know, however, realise it’s worth the effort, and there are increasing numbers of trendy Athenians and Thessalonians taking advantage of domestic flights – and making Skýros Town a much more cosmopolitan place than you might expect – plus steadily growing international tourism. The New Age Skyros Centre, pitched mostly at Brits, has also effectively publicized the place. There are plenty of beaches, but few that can rival the sand of Skiáthos or film-set scenery of Skópelos. There’s also a substantial air-force presence around the airport in the north, and a big naval base in the south; almost all the accommodation and tourist facilities cluster around Skýros Town in the centre of the island.
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A position bang in the centre of the Aegean has guaranteed the island a busy history: it was occupied from prehistory, with a truly impressive Bronze Age settlement currently being excavated, was a vital Athenian outpost in the Classical era, and an equally important naval base for the Byzantines and under Venetian and Turkish rule, when it was an important staging post on the sea-lanes to Constantinople.
Carnival on Skýros
Skýros has a particularly outrageous apokriátika (pre-Lenten) carnival, featuring its famous goat dance, performed by groups of masked revellers in the streets of Hóra. The leaders of each troupe are the yéri, menacing figures (usually men but sometimes sturdy women) dressed in goat-pelt capes, weighed down by huge garlands of sheep bells, their faces concealed by kid-skin masks, and brandishing shepherds’ crooks. Accompanying them are their “brides”, men in drag known as korélles (maidens), and frángi (maskers in assorted “Western” garb). When two such groups meet, the yéri compete to see who can ring their bells longest and loudest with arduous body movements, or even get into brawls using their crooks as cudgels.
These rites take place on each of the four weekends before Clean Monday, but the final one is more for the benefit of tourists, both Greek and foreign. The Skyrians are less exhausted and really let their (goat) hair down for each other during the preceding three weeks. Most local hotels open for the duration, and you have to book rooms well in advance.
Skýros has a race of native pony, related to the breeds found on Exmoor and Dartmoor. They are thought to be the diminutive steeds depicted in the Parthenon frieze; according to legend, Achilles went off to fight at Troy mounted on a chestnut specimen. In more recent times they were used for summer threshing; communally owned, they were left to graze wild ten months of the year on Vounó, from where each family rounded up the ponies they needed. Currently only about 150 individuals survive, and the breed is threatened by the decline of local agriculture, indifference and cross-breeding. To be classed as a true Skyrian pony, the animal must be 98–115cm in height, and 130cm maximum from shoulder to tail. They’re elusive in the wild, but you can see (and ride) them at the centre opposite Mouries restaurant.