A portrait of Pothia, Kalymnos

Posted by admin | October 31, 2010 0

Kalymnos draws you in and so do the Kalymnians with their heightened sense of solidarity forged in adversity from earning a hazardous living from the sea and land and from asserting their culture, religion and Greek nationality in the face of 700 years of occupation by Crusader Knights of St. John, The Ottoman Turks, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and more benignly the British before Kalymnos was finally unified with Greece in 1948.

The Convent of All Saints overlooking Pothia. It is dedicated to and 

contains the remains of the Patron Saint of Kalymnos, Agios Savvas


The harbour of Kalymnos is confusingly called both Kalymnos and Pothia (“The Port”). Originally the capital of the island was 4 miles further inland at Chora (“The Town”) which huddled up close to the fortress of the Knights of St. John, Pera Kastro. This was not by choice. Before the island was ceded to the Ottomans and the forces of Suleiman the Magnificent in January 1523 after the Fall of Rhodes the whole of the Mediterranean was terrified by pirate raids both by Christian and Muslim Corsairs. It was only with the relative peace of the Ottoman years who in the tradition of the Empire in return for loyalty showed tolerance to the Orthodox faith and left Kalymnos largely to its own devices that people gravitated from Chora down to the sea and built houses in Pothia, the port area. What grew up was largely unplanned so today we see a typical port layout of narrow alley ways heading up the valley which Pothia is built in from the port with many handsome stone built houses of the merchants, captains and artisans involved in sponge fishing and sea trade as the port and trade grew.

The “main street” of the island is the harbour front of Pothia (The Port) which has a dramatic setting in a natural amphitheatre facing towards Kos, some 10 miles distant. The life of the island revolves around this harbour front with fishing boats; inter island ferries and visiting yachts and pleasure boats providing a continually changing spectacle. The harbour front is best viewed from the sea where the domes of the Orthodox churches on and overlooking the harbour, the Italianate public buildings from the Italian Occupation (1912 – 1944) and the whitewashed houses rising from the harbour front provide a charming vista leading the eye onwards as far as the Kastro, the 14th Century Castle of the knights of St. John who occupied these islands from 1308 to 1522 when the forces of Suleiman the Magnificent conquered them.

Pothia itself is a bit like a Monet, looks better from a distance but not so good close up. It has a bustling harbour front but the traffic is heavy with the buzzing of young exhibitionistic Kalymnians on scooters penetrating everywhere. If you see somebody with a helmet they are likely to be a tourist, indeed if they are a tourist they are also likely to be insured as well! It is difficult to know what the police do here other than stay in their station and keep cool! Pothia is bustling but with little evidence of proper planning or indeed traffic management.

In the 19th Century this was the centre of the world sponge industry and still an important festival takes place one week after Easter just before the sponge fleet departs for its four-month expedition to the waters between southern Italy and the north coast of Africa. Known as Sponge Week, the weeklong celebration is feast of food, drink, and dance. The dances depict the relation between the Kalymnian people and the sponge (the Kalymnian “Gold” as it is often referred to) and recount the joy and the tragedy of this incredibly dangerous deep-sea endeavour. Known as the “Dinner of Love” in former times it was a poignant affair as roundly 20% of the divers would either be killed and not return or be crippled by the “bends”.

For the sponges which made Kalymnos famous and wealthy were both a blessing and a curse. Originally the sponge divers dived naked with a rope and a weight and a net to collect the sponges. As they used natural lung power they could only stay down for a few minutes each time. When the diving suit with an airline came in towards the end of the 19th Century the productivity and the harvest increased but there was no understanding of the bends and no decompression facilities on the ships when things went wrong. So a terrible toll was taken each year with some years perhaps one in five of the sailors who took to sea each April either not returning or coming home crippled. When the fleet departed the Kalymnian women donned their black “widows weeds” until they saw their husbands again. Often having lost a husband a widow would have to send their child to sea with the fleet the next year for otherwise the family would starve the next winter.

This is a story ably told by an English woman settled on the island, Faith Warn in her book “The Bitter Sea”. It tells of the wealth and lavish lifestyle brought by the golden harvest to a few traders and dealers. The incredibly hazardous diving methods used to gather the sponges – and their terrible toll on the Kalymnos men folk and the sudden catastrophe of the virus destroying the Mediterranean sponge beds and the founding of new Kalymnian communities in America and Australia. In Greece, Kalymnos was known as “The Island of Widows.” Today tourists and day trippers from Kos are brought to “sponge factories” but in truth there are few Mediterranean sponges in Kalymnos.

Today this is a very “Greek” Greek island with its own distinctive cultural and musical traditions and little trace that for 640 years until 1948 it was separated from Greece proper. The reasons it maintained its Greek identity are to be found in its language and religion. Overlooking the harbour at Pothia on a hill is the Covent dedicated to St. Savvas, Agios Savvas, the Orthodox priest who led the opposition to Italian rule and the latinisation of the island and who died in 1948, the year Kalymnos was reunited with the motherland.

Arriving, as most visitors do, by sea in Pothia your eye is drawn to the handsome Venetian style harbour front buildings framing the Orthodox Cathedral. Beyond in the distance you can make out on a height the ramparts of Pera Kastro, the fortified town of the Knights of St. John. On the left of the harbour you will see the silver dome of the cathedral size Church of Agios Nikolas, built by the sponge merchants who fell out with the Orthodox Bishop in the 19th Century and towering over the harbour on a crag to your left is Convent of All Saints, dedicated to the Patron Saint of Kalymnos whose body can be viewed there.

St. Savvas the New, Icon and picture

St. Savvas the New is the patron of Kalymnos, where he lived during the last twenty years of his life as the priest and spiritual father of the nuns of the Convent of All Saints. He is regarded by Kalymnians as a great ascetic, confessor, iconographer and miracle-worker. He is one of the recently recognized saints in the Orthodox Church. Illuminated at night the Covent provides a beacon over the island whilst down below in Pothia the rows and rows of café’s lining the harbour front provide an open air drawing room for the island, albeit a noisy one due to the moped madness which infects the island.

Pothia’s various Municipal buildings were constructed by the Italians between 1930-35 in a Venetian style on either side of the Orthodox Cathedral and Bell tower and they adorn the seafront along with a variety of shops and cafes. Pothia is built in a natural amphitheatre and the eye is drawn inwards as you approach the harbour to the satisfying composition of the buildings with their domed corner turrets, arcaded colonnades and balconies and the bell tower providing the visual exclamation mark.
Up close there are stucco cartouches with a lyre representing the unique musical tradition of this island and ceramic arms of the House of Savoy. The building on the right of the Cathedral has on the first floor the Mayoralty but the ground floor was a covered market with a central courtyard shaded by palms. Kalymnos is a badly administered island and 10 years or more ago they decided to “modernise” the market. Well many years later it is still being modernised but in the process they have subdivided the building destroying its architectural integrity. As well as being architecturally inept the harbour front really needs a venue such as the Merkato on Kos where the many day-trippers and visitors to Kalymnos could savour and purchase the produce of the island so the current mess is a big loss to the island.

The harbour front bustles all year round for even in winter the returnees from the Kalymnian Diaspora to Tarpon Springs in Florida and Darwin in Australia return so the cafes and restaurants bustle all year round and English is widely spoken, albeit with an American or strine accent!

Sitting in a café on the harbour front of Pothia at night surrounded by the hustle and bustle of this busy town with its illuminated churches and watching the ballet like motions of the implausibly large inter island ferries which enter and exit the harbour in less than 15 minutes you absorb something of the pride and spirit of this ancient crossroads which is uniquely Greek. Not for nothing does the English language have a word “idyllic” meaning to wander happily amongst the islands. Despite everything, Kalymnos and its wayward, noisy, crowded, maddening but endearing capital Pothia has drawn you in.

See; Kalymnos, Island of the Sponge Divers


A Lunch on Kalymnos


The harbour front at Pothia, Kalymnos


Pothia from the Convent of All Saints

Telendos, a place apart


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