The island has a population just over 17 000, making it the second most populous island of the Dodecanese after Rhodes. It is the wealthiest of the Greek islands overall.
Kalymnos Island is mainly mountainous. The island is pretty barren, except for the two fertile valleys of Vathi and Pothia, where olives, oranges and vineyards grow. These two cultivated and inhabited valleys is sandwiched between three limestone ridges that looks harsh in the full glare of the sun but magically tinted towards dusk. Port Kalymnos or Kalimnos or, as it is locally known, Póthia is the main harbour of this steep volcanic island. It affords good shelter from the Meltemi, and a truly must see place!
Everywhere we have gone to in Kalymnos, people would ask us where we are from. As soon as we mentioned Australia, they will ensure us that we have a connection with them … And in a sense we do! Kalymnos and Darwin are Sister Cities due to the significant number of Kalymnian residents in Darwin. An estimated 10- 15 000 Kalymnos inhabitants have moved to Australia (Darwin mostly as well as Melbourne) over the years, which leaves 15-17 000 of them in Kalymnos and about the same amount living in the USA.
Kalymnos used to be an extremely wealthy and thriving city due to their famous sponge industry In 1986 almost all of the eastern Mediterranean’s sponges were devastated by a viral disease, related to freak warm currents. That resulted in a collapse of the sponge diving industry (from 138 boats to about 30) forcing a lot of people to immigrate and find greener pastures and started their lives in Australia and the USA mainly. Another tragic victim as a result of this was the massive airport that is still unfinished.
There are still a lot of sponges sold that is nowadays mainly imported from Asia and the Caribbean and some diving still happens around the islands of Sicily and Malta.
Sponge diving is and has been such an integral part of Kalymnos, that I feel it is worth leaving you with a little bit of the history of this industry. It is a part of history that has filled the Island with so much wealth but also left behind so much sorrow.
When diving or snorkeling one often sees the black sponges around, but they are impossible to clean or shape. The softer ones are in 30-40 + meters waters and is more pliable lighter in colour and easier to clean/ bleach.
The crew went out into the Mediterranean Sea in a small boat, and used a cylindrical device with a glass bottom to search the sea floor for sponges. As soon as he spotted one, a diver went overboard to get it. Free diving, he was usually naked and carried a 15 kilograms (33 lb) “skandalopetra”, a rounded stone tied on a rope to the boat, to take him down to the bottom quickly. Depth and bottom time depended on the diver’s lung capacity. They often went down to about 30 meters (100 ft) for up to 5 minutes …that is a long time!
With the industrial revolution, divers were fitted with heavy, insulated suits and a breathing apparatus filled by an air-feed line connected to a primitive hand operated compressor and allowed them to go down to as much as 70 meters. This unfortunately resulted in a lot of Bends cases (nitrogen embolism) from rising too quickly. We have seen a few shuffling old men walking with difficulty and often with a cane or crutches – the obvious signs of Bends (due to nerve damage to their feet and legs that has affected their sensation in the limbs and their balance.)
From the late 19th century till well into the 20th century, roughly half of the sponge-divers who left with the fleets, never returned – buried at sea or in a lonely grave in some isolated islet buried up to his neck in the hot sand to give some relieve of the excruciating pain of nitrogen bubbles in the joints. Sadly, many of the “lucky” survivors were paralysed, deaf or blind! The first decompression chamber in Greece only came to use in the 1950’s
Nowadays with the latest and greatest technology, the seabed can be ruthlessly stripped of sponges and divers continuously have to go to further hunting grounds to find sponges and stays away from home for much longer stretches.
A little hint: Remember that the light yellow sponges are bleached (with nitric acid which weakens the fibres) and is not as durable as the natural brown ones.
The massive amount of boats that fell in miss-use after the industry’s collapse, were converted into deep-sea fishing boats which are dominating the industry around the nearby island.
Kalymnos is still one of the wealthiest cities/islands in Greece due to tourism and their new status of a world renowned rock-climbing venue. Since 2000, Kalymnos has become one of the premiere world destinations for rock climbing. At last count, there were almost one thousand sport routes on the superb limestone crags. The routes are almost entirely bolted (sport climbing) with fixed anchors, most featuring lower-offs. A 60m rope will suffice but more and more routes that are being put up (including many of the well-worn classics) require a 70m rope. It has become a rock-climbing holiday destination par excellence!
Our first encounter with the island was Emporios bay. We overnight in the small tranquil bay right in front of the beach, church, pub, restaurants… all within a stone throw away from us and all within 50 meters of each other! A lovely small little village, where it was great to stop and swim and relax before we take on the docks (meaning no swimming) and the fast life of Kalymnos City or Porthia as it is called by locals.
The next morning early, we made a quick detour on our way to Kalymnos and stopped at Telendos village on the little volcanic island with the same name! Telendos was once part of Kalymnos, but split off after a major earthquake in 554 AD and is now separated from Kalymnos by a channel of water (about 800 m wide). It is a deep channel and will be hard to dive there, but apparently a whole city lies sunken beneath the deep waters there that was swallowed during the earthquake!
We arrived at the little village and decided to have breakfast there and try and get some ice to keep the drinks cold in the cool-box. We have been running so low on ice that either an only slightly chilled beer had to do or you will have to add ice cubes to it!!. The ice-maker could provide for drinks but not for our cooling facilities! The one street village with its 15 permanent inhabitants must have been the smallest we have been to and the friendliest! This car-free quiet little place with some magnificent 6th century ruins not far from there, could very well be the perfect place to get away from it all ! Well, we were on a mission and had a wonderful omelette, bought two bags of ice and had to make our way to Kalymnos if we want to get a berth (first come first serve!)
Porthia … or the City of Kalymnos: The main port of the island.
Porthia is not the stereotypical picturesque Greek settlement that we have seen on all the other islands. The striking high cliffs in the horseshoe shaped bay with the houses stacked in tiers up against the sides of the cliffs, splashed with colour makes it something special. It is noisy (motorbikes passing you every minute!) has a wonderful vibe to it and is authentically Greek! A walk through the town… which is more like a hike and a climb through town, going up about 50 stairs to the next level of streets and houses, made us realise how many mansions have just gone to ruins…. Deserted …was probably left without selling it and the owners could not bother to go back and get rid of it. The houses around them are often well restored in a fresh modern but still Greek style, and left the old, once magnificent buildings with their rusted rod iron lacework and trellises to tell the tales of a wealthy but sad history of the town of Porthia.
As soon as the sun sets and turns the cliffs into a deep yellow glow with the houses now in vibrant colour splashes against it… the noise of the motorbikes quiets down and the streets becomes alive with people looking for food, drinks, company and music! So did we.
We ended up in a wonderful restaurant packed with locals with live Greek music, much free Ouzo (unfortunately) and people dancing all night! The only thing I missed was the braking of plates while I was dancing away the Zorba with the locals! ?
It was a great evening in fabulous company (thanks Mel and Phil!!! You made it super special … I hated you the next day or two though for the great time we had! 😉 ), divine Greek cuisine, awesome local wine and feet stamping Greek music! Really great music!! What is pretty heart-warming, is to see the young men in their early to late 20’s still playing authentic Greek music! I Love tradition! It is something I have been missing for way too long now.
The night went on into the early morning hours, with toasts made with the Blood of Zeus (Ouzo), the atmosphere lifting just that tag more, the music getting a little more vibrant and the dances more vigorous! I am sure I could still see the Blood of Zeus “ouzing” the next morning from the eyes of the participants! It was a great night, and just as well, as we only realised the next morning it happened to be our last night out with Mel and Phil. We could not get an extension of our stay in the marina at Kos, had to clear customs there and then and had to leave them behind in a hotel room in Kos to recover in peace before going back to London 2 days later! I know now that Ouzo is potent enough to affect even the spectators! We were feeling pretty ordinary for at least two days afterwards and needless to say, we could not stomach any more Greek Mythology! It was a sluggish start of the day to get going to Bodrum … with rest periods slightly longer than the watches … but we made! And so we learned our lesson (or not?).