Rising from the deep
Kalymnos, Greece


The flaking plaster on a crumbling house makes a neat metaphor for the Greek island of Kalymnos’ history. The peeling paint is blue, the colour of Greece. Under Ottoman rule, the Turks would come to inspect the island and, finding blue houses, would make the islanders repaint it brown. When the Ottomans left, the islanders painted everything blue again. Layer upon layer, over centuries.

Layers – historical, social and geological – sum Kalymnos up. Ancient roots can be discovered in Mycenaean bronzes and pottery, Byzantine frescoes, medieval castles, Hellenistic sculptures, Roman tombs and submerged ruins. Testament to more recent history are Mussolini-era municipal buildings from the interwar Italian occupation, whose consequent famine drove thousands of Kalymnians to Australia. Many of their descendants later returned to drive the modernisation of Kalymnos, giving rise to one of the island’s many charming quirks – many evidently Greek waiters, taxi drivers and restaurant owners will greet you in a broad Aussie drawl.

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Kalymnos’ defining story, though, is its centuries-long and once world-famous association with the sponge trade, a dangerous and highly specialised business that once brought the island great wealth, and which withered with the advent of synthetic sponges and a devastating marine virus in the 1980s, threatening the island’s economic future.

Today, Kalymnos has found a new way forward in a unique tourism offer which to the classic Greek island formula of sun-baked beaches, friendly hospitality and hearty traditional food adds niche scuba and rock-climbing scenes. Its location in the Dodecanese group, close to the Turkish coast on historic Mediterranean trade routes, means its crystalline depths are rich in shipwrecks – not to mention some 6th-century ruins submerged by an earthquake – which draw divers from all over the world. Meanwhile, a visit from honeymooning Italian rock climber Andrea de Bari in 1996 triggered a new global audience when he spotted the massive potential of Kalymnos’ dramatic and wildly varied geological features. Working with the then mayor, he returned later that year with an Italian climbing crew to establish routes up the limestone cliffs, caves, inclines and ledges which have since made the island world-renowned in the sport-climbing community. Today, there are so many routes a climber can tackle ten a day for a year without ever repeating one.

Actively authentic

Like its relaxed, friendly and utterly pretension-free islanders, Kalymnos’ hospitality offer has carved its own lane, shaped more by a homely passion for the island’s distinctive cuisine, rich culture and leisure options than aspirations to internationalised luxury trimmings. That said, some family-run hotels are now cultivating an alluring boutique vibe and Airbnb owners are upping their game with a characteristically simple Mediterranean aesthetic. The brand-new, beachside Kalymnos MK, meanwhile, is one of a handful of villas starting to push design aspirations that bit higher. And when it comes to dining, when the taverna fare is delicious and inspires your palate with new flavour combinations, what could be more indulgent environs than a balmy evening sea breeze and sand between your toes? Active travellers and those seeking a tranquil twist on the island-hopping theme are the forces that have shaped Kalymnos’ new tourism paradigm, and their tastes and pleasures map harmoniously with the locals’ characteristic pride in their home’s many assets.

With roots that can be traced back to the Bronze Age, Kalymnos’ sponge trade was so pivotal to the island’s fortunes that the highly stratified social structure it created is still tangibly present. Sponges were to be found all over, or rather under, the Mediterranean, but it was said that only Kalymnians were brave enough to dive to the dangerous depths where the best were found. Because of their skill, Kalymnians found work diving for sponges from Gibraltar to the Libyan Coast, often hanging out in North Africa for months between trips to swerve the punitive taxes levied by the Ottomans. Later, they ranged as far as Florida and the Bahamas, where many stayed on, part of a worldwide diaspora of remarkable breadth for such a tiny home community, which informs a surprising worldliness of outlook on the island today.

Kalymnos’ intriguingly diverse architecture remains a monument to the social strata the trade established. Its grandest mansions and villas were the status homes of sponge merchants, who owned the ships, sold their wares around the world and became rich beyond dreams. Below them were the ships’ captains, who too stood to grow wealthy from the trade and built fine traditional houses. Bottom of the hierarchy were the divers – brave young men who risked their lives every day, on every dive, for modest reward. Their courage made them folk heroes – but also took many lives, and dealt life-changing injuries from the bends to many more.

Ladies’ night

Did I say bottom? In truth, that rank went to – surprise, surprise – the island’s womenfolk. Wives and mothers would wear white to see off their husbands and sons so as not to worry them, then changed into black clothes – either until their men returned safely, or for the rest of their lives. This was one of a litany of hardships Kalymnian women took in their stride, such as, when heavily pregnant, carrying birthing stools up into the mountains as they gathered firewood, sometimes giving birth, then carrying stool, wood and new-born babies back down to their villages before cooking the family evening meal.

I learned all this from Irene Skylla, director of the charming Kalymnian House folk museum, on the road from the capital Pothia to Vothini, which recreates a traditional family home while telling many of the island’s stories. I discover too that the artefact-packed museum was founded by Irene’s mother Faneromeni, and before I leave, persuade Irene to crowdfund the publication of Faneromeni’s book on Kalymnian love songs – ditties of exile, loss, death and new birth.

Another staunch female presence I met is Evdokia Passa, owner and chef at the much-loved Harry’s Paradise Garden restaurant in laid-back beach town Emporios. Evdokia cooks with exclusively fresh local and often home-grown produce, and, shunning written recipes, prepares whatever she is inspired to by the best ingredients of the day, adding cosmopolitan modern twists. Intuition also guides her tending of the restaurant’s lush, eponymous garden, a riot of trees, shrubs and flowers that seemed always packed with a mix of hungry climbers refuelling after a morning’s vertical workout and loyal locals. That inspiration had also recently moved her to take a kayaking trip in the Arctic, which came up quite by chance in our conversation.

I came to see a celebrated ancient sculpture in Pothia’s Archaeological Museum as emblematic of the understated female fortitude that seemed everywhere on Kalymnos. Given pride of place in this treasure trove, eulogised by no less a classicist than Mary Beard, the Lady of Kalymnos is a monumental Hellenistic bronze statue of an imposing woman that was by chance resurrected from the sea in a local fisherman’s nets in 1995. Experts have speculated she was probably lost in a shipwreck on the way to Rome, and may date from the 3rd century BC. She is rare in the world, as full-size bronze statues typically ended up melted down – and her gender makes her truly unique. Representation of a powerful woman, striding the earth as man’s equal, was practically unknown in the context of iconography which typically venerates passive ladies of unearthly purity. It’s a miracle that Kalymnos was able to keep this extraordinary creation here.

Such is Kalymnos’ tininess, visitors can be within easy reach of all its signature experiences while choosing to stay in any one of a small but diverse handful of villages, or its most bustling option Pothia. Massouri is both climbing central and the island’s most progressive-boho postcode, with yoga classes, Tibetan prayer flags, cute boutiques and good energy created by the typically well-travelled, low-footprint visitors that powers a chilled but vibey evening ambience. Emporios meanwhile offers a quiet secluded bay and Vathys an impossibly pretty scene in the shadow of two high mountains – albeit punctuated by boozy day-trip boats from neighbouring Kos – with bobbing fishing boats, a crystalline, freshwater creek and kayaks for exploring the bay.

If a little more polish is your preference, Kantouni is the island’s Hampstead or Upper West Side, lined with pre-war villas mostly belonging to ramifications of the island’s nobility, and boasting a sandy sweep of beach with sunset views. But to immerse yourself in the rhythms of local life, an evening in Pothia is indispensable, as its rather grand waterfront takes on a twinkling glamour, and the main square’s Mussolini-era edifices evoke the pre-Surrealist paintings of Greece-born Italian artist de Chirico. Amid the inviting lights of bars and restaurants, the timeless main event remains the locals’ evening passeggiata, when young folk check each other out from a distance with a view to right- or left-swiping, the old-fashioned way. Its Greek name? Nimfobazari, which literally translates as ‘bride bazaar’. And as local folk musicians break out the bouzoukis, keep an eye out for Pater Ilias, the island’s famously fleet-footed dancing priest.

Ileana von Hirsch is the founder of Five Star Greece, which offers a wide range of luxurious villas in Kalymnos and the rest of Greece for OutThere travellers looking for ultimate privacy.

www.kalymnos-isl.gr | www.visitgreece.gr

Photography by Thom Frijns, Rasmus Andersen, Steffen Hillenbrand, Ileana von Hirsch and courtesy of Kalymnos Experience

Get out there


… visit Irene at the Kalymnian House folk museum. It brims with old photos, cribs, costumes, embroidery, Limoges porcelain, festive undergarments, cheese-making equipment, diving helmets, chamber pots, looms, dolls, baskets and glassware.

support the island’s historical trade, today an artisanal cottage industry. Kalymnos Sponges’ Warehouse not only sells sponges of sizes and shapes you never dreamed of but is also a mini-museum tracing the industry’s history.

… visit teeny-tiny Telendos island, population less than 100, to clamber up this pyramid-shaped chunk of rock across the narrow strait from Myrties – or just chill at one of the mellow beachside tavernas with a glass of ice-cold mastiha liqueur.


forget to visit Vlihadia, just outside Pothia. It’s a sheltered creek whose two pretty pebble beaches with clear calm water are wonderful for swimming. On the first, the Paradisio restaurant right on the water has seriously good, imaginatively presented food and cushy beanbags on the beach.

miss the monastery of Agios Savvas, a grandiose new hilltop church overlooking the port. Its soaring domes are painted with all sorts of unique scenes like the ‘miracle’ of the horses who were beheaded and whose heads were then reattached – but to the wrong bodies!

sleep on the seafood, it’s exceptional here. Head to the picturesque waterfront taverna Anna’s in Melitsachas, where the must-try dishes are sea-urchin salad, tiny Kalymnos shrimp and fried whitebait.

The inside track

Michalis Gerakios and Sevasti Chalkiti

Michalis Gerakios and Sevasti Chalkiti run the activities company Kalymnos Experience. Both abandoned the rat race to help develop the climbing industry on their beloved island and are excellent guides, organising climbs, hikes, boat trips, yoga, and other experiences.



In sport climbing, there are two kinds of people – those who have visited Kalymnos already and those for whom it’s just a matter of time. Our island is a rock-climbing heaven, a stony, shining jewel in the Aegean sea, with every kind of ascent including plenty of climbs in shade for the hottest summer months.


Walk along ancient trails only really known to Kalymnian hunters and shepherds. The 100km/62-mile Kalymnos Trail can be done as a continuous hike or in sections over ten days. You’ll see mountaintops and monasteries, old ruins and beaches, and soak up the surrounding nature that varies with the seasons.


Among the many yacht trips available, visiting the volcanic island Nisyros is outstanding. You can walk in an active volcano’s crater and visit cliff-hanging villages. According to legend, Nisyros was created when the god Poseidon separated a piece from Kos island with his trident while chasing the giant Polyvotis.