Discover more from Sailingwriter
Kalymnos, Greece is Dy-no-mite!
Wayne, the pups and I are almost starting to feel like locals here on the Greek island, Kalymnos - it’s a curiously fascinating place. Most people when they think of Greek islands might be able to list Mykonos or Santorini, or the bigger islands like Crete or Rhodes or Corfu. I’d never heard of Kalymnos before last month, but we have come to call this place home for a while.
This is our sunset view looking across the harbor to the main town of Pothia from our vantage point aboard MÖBIUS tied along the outside breakwater. Or our night view below- notice the little church on top of the mountain. More on that later.
Kalymnos is one of the Dodecanese Islands, on the far eastern side of the Aegean, and quite close to Turkey, though farther north of our old home base there, Antalya. You’ll find the island of Kalymnos on the upper left sector of the map below.
Every morning, the Pirate-themed day-tripper boats arrive from the bigger adjacent island of Kos and disgorge hundreds of tourists into the little town. The waterfront is mostly restaurants and tavernas, and they fill up with the pinkish tourists already sporting the jaunty hats they bought on Kos, and ready for their Greek lunch on the waterfront.
I’ve been wandering the streets of this island for weeks now, mostly on my trusty e-bike, and there are so many amazing little quirky sights. The town, like many Greek towns, is built on the island’s steep hillsides, so in addition to having to build stairs everywhere, they have some pretty serious gutters for allowing the rain to flow downhill.
And the churches! Tiny or big, they are everywhere.
The island was once the center of the sponge diving in Greece, an industry that dates back to Ancient Greece, as sponges were mentioned in the writings of Homer and Aristotle. Early divers tied themselves to stones and walked the ocean bottom collecting the sponges into baskets.
At one time there were reports of over 300 sailing ships in the Kalymnos sponging fleet. In 1865, they started using the hard hat diving suits, which sadly caused the deaths of hundreds of sponge divers throughout the next hundred years.
The two world wars stopped the sponge trade in the Med, and it never really came back due to pollution that has nearly destroyed the sponges. Sadly, the sponges they sell on the island today in shops like the one above are mostly imported from Asia.
This monument was built on the waterfront in 2019 to honor “the anonymous Kalymnos sponge diver who struggled in the depths and the waves of the seas, against incredible difficulties and dangers. He has forged and supported for many decades, life on our island.”
But this isn’t the only bronze sculpture I’ve seen here in Pothios.
The sculptor who created these works was born on Kalymnos, Sakellarios Koutouzis. His works are in galleries all over the world, but today he resides back on the island and has his studio here. Bet they don’t tell ‘em that on the pirate ship!
I got to know the town pretty well, so I decided to ride my e-bike farther afield. I bought this Alba e-bike in Turkey, and it has 8 speeds and 5 levels of pedal assist. It’s awesome and I call it my freedom machine. Even recovering from my meniscus tear knee surgery, I can go up hills like you wouldn’t believe. I visited the Archeological Museum of Kalymnos and then ventured halfway across the island to the ruins of the Basilica of Christ of Jerusalem.
Just like we used to find all over Turkey, ruins in this part of the world are always layered. This church was built in the 5th century using many of the stones and inscribed marble that came from the original temple of the Delian Apollo, the patron olympic god and protector of Kalymnos which had been built more than a thousand years earlier.
However, when I decided to ride up to see this castle built by the Knights of St. John, I had the bike on the lowest gear and highest level of pedal assist, but the super steep gravel road slowed me down slower and slower until I just toppled over like that guy on Laugh-In (if you don’t get that reference, you are too young, which is a good thing). I fell into a small ditch on the side of the road and cracked my head on some 2,000 year old rocks. But not to let that darn hill beat me, I brushed myself off and limped my way up those stairs to the gate.
The view at the top was worth it. If you follow the yellow grass down, you can make out two towers which are actually the bases of old windmills.
By now you may be wondering what the story is with the title to this post - Kalymnos, Greece is Dy-no-mite!
One of the most intriguing events on this island is these occasional explosions from dynamite. You know immediately that this is not just some M-80 firecrackers. The first time we heard it, even across the harbor on the seawall, I thought it sounded like bombs or missiles from war. Your body feels the impact, and even the boat would shudder in the water.
What the heck is going on? we wondered. I’m not sure we’ll ever understand the complete story, but this is what I have learned. There are men on Kalymnos who just live for the thrill of lighting and throwing dynamite off the top of a rocky mountain.
Here’s how it started. Before the First World War, Kalymnos was part of the Ottoman Empire. After that war, they were under Italian occupation from 1914 until 1948 when they became part of Greece. The men on the island, most of whom are fishermen, are fiercely independent, and they began to harvest the dynamite from the mines and torpedoes they found on the sea floor. The explosives were used to fish for years before that was outlawed, but they also used them to set off explosions from the two mountains on either side of Pothia.
Initially it was to demonstrate their resistant to the occupiers, but today it is part celebratory ( they do it mostly at Easter, but also for weddings, engagements, funerals, holidays, and greetings for visiting dignitaries), part to demonstrate their unique individualism, part competition, and part thrill. Apparently, there are two secret groups on the island, and they are mostly made up of fishermen and construction guys, but there are all ages and occupations involved. Each of the groups “owns” one of the two mountains as their dynamite throwing spot. Kalymnos is the only Greek island that does this, and even here, the island is evenly divided between those who hate it and those who do it. The haters want the island to develop more and attract more tourists. The dynamite throwers are very proud here that this island has not totally succumbed to tourism as their way of life, and they will continue to resist and follow their fishing heritage. Judging from the number of boats in the many harbors around the island, I’d say every Kalymnian family owns a fishing boat.
On the writing front
Lest you think I spend all day every day out exploring the island, I am working on a new book. At last. Between not wanting to have to write about the Pandemic and being surrounded by so much history, I have decided to write a historical novel. My Shipwreck Series books were semi-historical, but this one is totally set in Florida in 1941-42, and it concerns the civilians who ventured out aboard their own power and sailboats to patrol the waters of the Florida Straits searching for U-boats. Many Americans don’t know it, but German submarines were blowing up ships within sight of the Florida coast for months, and the mangled bodies were washing up on those white sand beaches.
I’ve been having so much fun doing the research and inventing the characters. I think it is my most favorite part of writing fiction. If any of you have any stories from friends and family related to this period, I would love to hear from you! Please share them in the comments.
Stay safe and healthy everybody.