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The International Writers Magazine: Kalymnos: Greece

Kalos Ilthes stee Kalymno (Welcome Back to Kalymnos)…
Julia Reynolds

Even the First Visit Feels like a Homecoming

The whole journey commenced with an inconceivably drunken fourteen-hour ferry ride from Athens to Kalymnos, a Greek island situated close to Turkey’s west coast about 300km southeast of Athens.

With a year-round population of approximately 15,000, it is an island relatively untouched by the rampant tourism thriving on many of the islands scattered across the Aegean with an economy based on sponge fishing and the modest tourism it receives. This relatively recent influx of travellers consists primarily of climbers making the pilgrimage from far and wide to lay temporary claim to a small percentage of the island’s world-renowned sport climbing routes.
I was travelling with two English guys and one American and we had, in the spirit of unsullied holiday revelry, begun our well-intentioned, health-conscious climbing trip swilling Greek wine from 2:00 on throughout a prolonged lunch in the port of Pireaus, Athens. Before the reader passes premature judgement, bear in mind we were merely erecting the necessary barrier of alcohol (I suppose a moat would be more scientifically accurate) between our collective sanity and the interminable boredom of an overnight ferry ride. We found ourselves in the position that has become all-too-familiar to me in my shambolic travels, namely running for our 5:00 ferry in the hot sun with heavy rucksacks and a bag containing two 1 and 2 litre plastic bottles of wine we had, in our admirable foresight, ordered takeaway from the taverna where we ate lunch.

I have never been as bewildered in my entire life as I was upon waking at 5:00AM in a bunk bed in what initially appeared to be an uncommonly cramped hotel room. After stumbling to the door and stepping tentatively out into the narrow hallway I came to the realization that I was, in fact, still on the boat. It was with the aid of this illuminating insight that my brain groggily retrieved the memory of the previous evening when I had wandered off for one reason or another and a compassionate member of the ferry staff had taken pity on me and escorted me to a cabin where I would not be a danger to myself or others, probably concerned with the possibility of my toppling overboard thus causing a bothersome delay.

Upon our arrival in Pothia, the port in Kalymnos, at sunrise we procured a taxi to transport our bedraggled selves (I was bedraggled, the boys may actually have been floor-raggled) to Massouri, a village in the closest proximity to the highest concentration of climbs on the island. We made inquiries about rooms of several bleary-eyed proprietors of studios in the area but there wasn’t much available in climbing high season. After three or four misses a woman working at what we later came to refer to as "Nice Lady Restaurant" phoned a friend of hers who was renting a couple of double rooms for eighteen euros each, per night. It was just across the road from Sakis Studios (popular with climbers though I’ve heard the hot water is sporadic at best) and conveniently above the fresh spring water source.

The hotel didn’t have an actual name, so as one must climb quite a number of white cement steps to arrive at the accommodation we christened our new abode the "Stairway to Heaven Hotel". I can highly recommend the establishment as the balcony frames a remarkably picturesque sea view, consistent hot water, and a warm and hospitable owner that resides just above the rentals and might even surprise you with the privilege of her homemade pound cake if you’re fortunate and well-behaved.

After breakfast served by a very nice man at a restaurant/bar we began calling (after dipping a ladle into our infinite well of creativity) "Nice Man’s Bar" and a couple of hours of recovery time on the beach we semi-enthusiastically gathered our climbing gear and made the sweaty twenty minute scramble up to Poets Corner. I’ll admit I may have emitted a few phrases that could be construed by the unsympathetic listener as hung-over whining during the hike as the previous evening’s white wine seeped from my pores, diluted only by a coffee and the milk in my cornflakes that morning, which persisted right up until the moment I reached the top and caught my breath. I turned in a slow circle looking around at the rows upon sparkling rows of bolted climbs on pale limestone, its golden striated layers dripping with stalactites like huge icicles of glistening rock and nearly leapt into my harness. It was at this excruciatingly inopportune moment that my left shoe, as I rushed to pull the bruised and battered thing on, ultimately decided that enough was enough and the rubber above the heel gave up the ghost, basically exploding in accumulated consternation at its abysmal mistreatment. To my good fortune Gavin’s shoe size wasn’t too far off from mine and he donated to me in his impeccable gentility a second pair he had packed.

Gavin was climbing at a higher grade than me but not insufferably faraway, and John and Charlie were virtually equivalent in their climbing level, so we ended up pairing off that way for most of our climbs, with John and Charlie putting up top-ropes on more advanced routes for me and Gavin to struggle and curse our way up. The first route we did at Poets was a beautiful introduction to the Kalymnian rock, which is similar to that of the Krabi region in Thailand minus the frustration of polished, overly trafficked limestone. The atmosphere is distinct as well; absent of the cacophony that resonates distractingly in the highly concentrated clamour of jam-packed crags one can appreciate the rarity of stillness.

Most of the climbs in our vicinity were labelled at their starts in spray paint and the names were predominantly in English, Spanish, and Italian, despite the gentle request of the originators of sport climbing on the island (particularly Aris Theodoropoulos, the current editor of the guidebook) that future climbs, even those christened by foreigners, at least bear some reference to Greek history or mythology as a token gesture of respect to the native culture. Though this deviation is somewhat disappointing, it is hardly shocking given the usual ratio of Greeks to foreigners on any given day spent in the climbing areas on Kalymnos. Having spent a substantial length of time in the Greek islands myself in the past couple of years, my impressions of the Greek culture do not reflect a society that tends to embrace the fitness ideology popularized in the late twentieth century, preferring in general activities such as cigarette-smoking, ouzo-sipping, and playing endless games of rapid fire backgammon to more physically strenuous leisure pastimes.

That first afternoon climbing until the sun drifted lazily down behind Telendos (the diminutive island opposite Kalymnos) in a sky painted in sweeping furls of pink and gold reflecting on the face of the rock like a translucent layer of watercolour, all four of us were transfixed with the undeniable wonder of Greece. For my part the moment inspired a rediscovery of that magic both through their eyes and the reopening of my own. There was not even any need to speak; it was one of those elusive moments whose essence defies verbal communication…we did, though, of course; we’re nothing if not blasphemously irreverent.

We made our way in the last of that deep golden light beginning to saturate the evening down a trail that meandered as frequently as the minds of toddlers (and not unlike those of my gallant companions, I might add) and stopped at "Nice Man’s Bar" for a few well-earned beers. I must admit here somewhat abashedly that I am genuinely unaware to this day of the proper name of this noble establishment, but I’m certain it begins with an "F" and is directly opposite a bar owned by an English couple called "Claro’s".

One of the many nice things about Nice Man’s Bar (the owner’s name is really Sakis but the moniker "Nice Man" just suits him so perfectly) is that Nice Man himself or Nice Man’s Daughter (Petrula for those of you sticklers concerned with accuracy) will bring you a little bowl of peanuts with every round, which after a long day climbing are like salty little morsels of heaven.

After drinks and the shower I insisted upon for myself every night despite the bitter and gradually escalating protests of the men folk (is it really such an unreasonable request that I be allotted twenty minutes to scrub the grime, blood, sweat and tears from my person before sitting down in a restaurant?) we had a delicious meal at "Brimley Girl Restaurant" (a later favourite actually called Prego, I won’t even bother to elaborate) and collapsed shortly after into our little angels’ nests at the top of the Stairway to Heaven.

The next couple of weeks were composed of more of the same, breakfasts on our huge and blissfully private balcony gazing out at the sea, its azure blue splendour overlapping the bloodshot mist of our eyeballs to form a pleasing lavender hue, followed by long days of some of the best and most varied climbing I have experienced to date finished with that sublime Greek cuisine with Mythos beer and local white wines to wash it all down.

One afternoon we had the brilliant plan of beginning a five pitch multi-pitch at quarter past five in the evening which, shockingly enough, expanded into something of an epic. I will stubbornly mount the highest horse I can find here and contend that I was adamantly opposed to the entire scheme from its germination, and despite knowing that the concerned individual may very well read this account at one point or another, you heard it here folks: I blame Charlie for everything, the tenacious, adventurous bastard. Should I be changing the names at this point to protect the (albeit dubiously) innocent? He and I were forced to bail at the start when I couldn’t get up the first 6B pitch; I swallowed this shortcoming like a bitter pill not fully aware at the time that I would be regurgitating it with a large degree of humility and a small degree of humiliation at a later date. More cognizant of my own starring role in the failed endeavour I really could not be.

Charlie and I enjoyed another glorious sunset and relaxed chatting on a couple of rocks as we awaited John and Gavin’s heroic return, apprehension only setting in after the last of the daylight had long seeped from the sky and we were picking out constellations and wondering if the light they were emitting would be sufficient to illuminate a treacherous down-climb, admitting reluctantly that it categorically would not. As the night crept on I began to acknowledge along with my concern for the boys’ welfare a distinct gratefulness for my failure to complete the first section of the multi-pitch, thereby avoiding whatever pratfalls John and Gavin were undoubtedly encountering somewhere above us in the dark.

After what seemed like an eternity (in all honesty it passed with relative ease; we had plenty of cigarettes and good conversation) we spotted our comrades descending, their headlamps creating falling stars cutting a jagged line in the tarry blackness as they lowered. They regaled us with tales of a sparsely protected third pitch of doom, anchors that tickled brevity with the creeping fingers of doubt, and razor-sharp and generally distasteful climbing throughout. To top it all off (literally) there was apparently a nightmare search for the lower-off, bearing in mind that Gavin’s "headlamp" was in reality a flashlight clutched in a lockjaw provoking death grip while making his way first up the last pitch and then along a nearly nonexistent path to the elusive top anchor.

A couple of days later we took a charter boat across to the island of Telendos to climb with fourteen others, the expedition having been arranged in advance by an extraordinarily garrulous English woman whose path seemed to coincide with ours at a frequency of which we were not entirely comfortable. The climbing was spectacular there, despite an unpleasant encounter Gav and I had with a hornets’ nest inhabited by particularly ornery residents at the top of our second climb of the day. First Gavin was stung while trying to clip the anchor ("Lower!! LOWER FASTER!!!") followed by my quick-draw rescue attempt failing as two of the reprehensible little beasts alit on my cheek and a third circled threateningly around my head. The whole ordeal ended on a comic note with John valiantly making the ascent to retrieve the quick-draw in distress with his pants sealed shut with finger tape and a Polartec fleece zipped to his chin on a particularly hot and sunny afternoon.
The tempting proximity of the sea rendered it impossible for me to resist a refreshing post-climb skinny dip during which the aforementioned loquacious British climber happened to pass, even stopping for a casual chat as she made her way back to the boat. Predictably by the time I arrived (fully clothed) at the charter every other passenger had heard tell of my brief aquatic indulgence. The boat ride back from Telendos as the sun melted in the pale blue stained-glass panes of the dusky sky was not soon to be forgotten, if ever, and should be listed as a requisite before one exits this unique circle of jewel-like islands, or island-like jewels of Greece.

One of the only negative aspects of time spent in Kalymnos is that it does, for most of us, eventually have to come to an end. As we prepared to depart John and Charlie had accomplished the majority of their climbing aspirations and accomplished even more comprehensively their secondary goal of smoking as many cigarettes and drinking as much beer as possible. Bravo boys, bravo. John did fail to attain the harness tan lines of which he had daydreamed back in the gloomy UK, and Gavin left glowing the exact shade of paper white with which he had arrived, but on the whole enough war stories, sweat jokes, and tales of tragedies averted had accumulated to entertain even the most discerning of listeners. Kalymnos is a destination to which one will undeniably be drawn to return again and again, not only for the astounding array of exceptional sport routes and stunning scenery, but for the beautiful, embracing characteristic of a community of locals, arms overflowing with bend-over-backward hospitality and boundless generosity.

When I left the Stairway to Heaven Hotel on my final day on the island and rang the doorbell to give the owner, Roula, a hug and a kiss goodbye, she didn’t inquire as to whether I would be returning to the island at some point. After she bade me a fond farewell and thanked me she said simply "Tha se tho tu chrono, kukla", which means "see you next year, honey"…and she will. How could one help but want to re-experience such a place year after year? I ask only this of the potential reader…if you get there before I have a chance to revisit, send my love to Nice Man and Brimley Girl.


© Julia Reynolds December 2008
juliareynolds1982 at yahoo.com

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