Despite its size and beauty, the island of KÁLYMNOS has long been overshadowed by Kos. Kálymnos fought in the Trojan War as a vassal of its southern neighbour, and to this day its tourist industry remains largely dependent on the overspill – and the airport – of Kos.
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In most respects, however, Kálymnos is very unlike Kos. It’s much more mountainous, consisting of three high limestone ridges that fan away from the continuous rugged cliffs of its west coast, to create two long sloping valleys that hold most of its settlements and agricultural land.
The island’s capital and largest town, the busy port of Póthia, faces Kos from the midpoint of its southern shoreline. Most visitors head instead for the west coast, where a handful of small resorts have struggled to survive the collapse of a short-lived experiment in mass tourism. The pick of the pack, Myrtiés, stands close to some attractive little beaches. This craggy shoreline has found deserved fame among climbers and hikers, who keep businesses ticking along in the cooler spring and autumn months.
For a beach holiday, you’d do better to head for the separate islet of Télendhos, (a spectacular sight at sunset), or further north up the coast to Emboriós.
The prosperity of Kálymnos traditionally rested on its sponge industry, but blights have now wiped out almost all of the eastern Mediterranean’s sponges. Only a few boats of the island’s thirty-strong fleet remain in use, and most of the sponges sold behind the harbour are imported from Asia and the Caribbean.
The towering pyramid-shaped islet of TÉLENDHOS, silhouetted at sunset a few hundred metres west of Myrtiés, was severed from Kálymnos by a cataclysmic earthquake in 554 AD. Car-free, home to a mere handful of year-round inhabitants, and blissfully tranquil, it’s the single most compelling destination for Kálymnos visitors, and the short row of hotels and restaurants on its east-facing shore makes it a great place to spend a few nights. Regular little boat-buses shuttle across the narrow straits between Myrtiés and Télendhos (every 30min 8am–midnight; €2); it’s said that somewhere far below, an ancient town lies submerged.
It only takes a few minutes to explore the little built-up strip that stretches in both directions from the boat landing. A narrow beach of reasonable sand runs along the straight seafront, and the calm shallow water is ideal for kids. Kayaks and beach toys are available for rent, while tousled tamarisks provide shade.
To find a more secluded beach, simply keep walking. A few hundred metres north – head right from the boat landing, and keep going after the paved coastal roadway peters out to become a dirt path – nudist Paradise beach is peaceful and sheltered, but at its best in the morning, before the sun disappears for good behind the mountain. A ten-minute walk southwest of the village, following a footpath over the ridge, will bring you to the pebble beach at Hokhlakás, a scenic but more exposed spot where the sea tends to be much rougher.
While all the shoreline buildings are of modern construction, abundant ruins are scattered slightly further afield. Closest to the village, north of the boat landing, a seafront field holds the ruined outline of the thirteenth-century monastery of Áyios Vassílios. On the hillside immediately above Hokhlakás, Ayía Triádha was originally an enormous basilica, though now just a few stones survive. Further up the slopes, wherever you look, giant Cyclopean caves burrow deep into the foot of the central massif.
Setting out to hike right round Télendhos would be a mistake; it’s a long and exposed walk with little reward. Devote an hour or two, however, to investigating the islet’s southwest corner, a little low-lying afterthought. Follow the footpaths through the woods, signed to “Early Christian Necropolis”, and in addition to some intact arched sixth-century tombs you’ll come to a perfectly sheltered sandy cove that’s ideal for swimming and snorkelling.
Sponges and sponge-diving
Sponges are colonies of microscopic marine organisms that excrete a fibrous skeleton. The living sponges that can be seen throughout the Aegean as black, melon-sized blobs, anchored to rocks in three to ten metres of water, are mostly “wild” sponges, impossible to clean or shape with shears. Kalymnian divers seek out “tame” sponges, which are much softer, more pliable, and dwell thirty to forty metres deep.
Sponge-fishers were originally free divers; weighted with a rock, they’d collect sponges from the seabed on a single breath before being hauled back up to the surface. Starting in the late nineteenth century, however, divers were fitted with heavy, insulated suits (skáfandhro). Breathing through an air-feed line connected to compressors aboard the factory boats, they could now attain depths of up to 70m. However, this resulted in the first cases of the “bends”. When divers came up too quickly, the dissolved air in their bloodstream bubbled out of solution – with catastrophic results. Roughly half of those early pioneers would leave with the fleets in spring but fail to return in autumn. Some were buried at sea, others, it’s said, buried alive, up to their necks in hot sand, to provide slight relief from the excruciating pain of nitrogen bubbles in the joints.
By the time the malady became understood, during World War I, thousands of Kalymnians had died, with many survivors paralyzed, deaf or blind. Even though the skáfandhro was banned elsewhere as the obvious culprit, it remained in use here until after World War II. After the first decompression chambers and diving schools reached Greece, in the 1950s, the seabed was stripped with ruthless efficiency, and the sponge fleets forced to hunt further from home.
Even the “tame” sponge is unusable until processed. The smelly organic matter and external membrane is thrashed out of them, traditionally by being trodden on the boat deck, and then they’re tossed for a day or so in a vat of hot sea-water. Visitors to Póthia’s remaining handful of workshops can still watch the sponge-vats spin; in the old days, the divers simply made a “necklace” of their catch and trailed it in the sea behind the boat.
To suit modern tastes, some sponges are bleached to a pale yellow colour with nitric acid. That weakens the fibres, however, so it’s best to buy the more durable, natural-brown ones.