Pothia, the Vathys Valley and the south of the island

The island’s port, Pothia, which grew in the 19th century from a small fishing village into the island’s capital, has a noticeable sense of compression as if the space between the stark limestone slopes to either side were not sufficient to contain its vibrant activity. Here—as in Ermoupolis on Syros—the productive everyday business of a large local population is first and foremost, and tourism is just a small and incidental addition to it. None of the introspective lassitude that has overcome Symi after the demise of its sponge-trade is to be found here; commercial activity has simply moved on and concentrated itself in different fields.
   Viewed from an arriving boat, the city is dominated by the huge standing cross and modern convent of Aghii Pantes, often called ‘Aghios Savvas’ nowadays, high up on the southwestern mountain; on the slopes below it is the older, Ottoman and 19th century commercial quarter of the town—a network of narrow streets bordered by balconied stone buildings, with pedimented windows and sternly rusticated corners. Across, at the opposite north eastern side of the bay, are the old boat-yards and chandlers’ shops of the area of Lafassi. Just inland of there, and slightly to the west along the foot of the hills to the north, is the main residential area of stately, 19th century mansions—some with gardens—known as Evangeli­stria. In between these two poles stretches the waterfront, punctuated at its centre by the low domed mass of the former Kalymnos Administration Building’, originally built between 1926–28 by the Italian colonial masters, and then significantly enlarged in 1934. The difference between the two campaigns of building is instructive: the early part, put up in the 1920s by Florestano di Fausto, is the main block (west) standing further in from the harbour front, designed in whimsical style with serifed arches and decorated ceramic panels; by contrast, Armando Bernabiti’s addition of 1934 to the east, with its more severe lines and squat cupolas, dates from a period when the Italian regime had begun to flex its totalitarian muscles. Contemporary with Bernabiti’s addition and in similar style is the market building, just to the north, de signed by Rodolfo Petracco.
   The rest of the waterfront is a heterogeneous assemblage of buildings of different periods, including a few well-preserved neoclassical façades with wrought-iron balconies. One interesting building towards the southern end of the front, is the former Anagnosti­rion (reading room) ‘Ai Musai’ built in 1904: above the Ionic pilasters of its entrance are three bronze panels depicting scenes of Kalymniot life by the local artist, Michalis Kokkinos (1900–90): the interior (which is now an unpretentious kafeneion) preserves many of the paintings and portrait busts of the original decor. Other works by Kokkinos can be seen at several points along the waterfront: (from west to east) a Poseidon; the Sponge-diver; a Nike on a plinth decorated with relief panels of Scenes of sponge-fishing. The bronze portrait statue of the academic and doctor, Skevos Zervos (1875–1966), who was an important political fighter for the emancipation of the Dodecanese, is the work of Kokkinos’s daughter, Irini. This stands in front of the south side of the Kalymnos Administration Building. On the north side of the building is a square, bounded to the north by the church of the Metamorphosis (1861): the great iconostasis (1877) in gilded grey marble from Tinos designed and carved by the Tiniot sculptor, Giannoulis Chalepas (1851–1938), dominates the interior— majestic, if lacking something of the three-dimensional relief so fundamental to the classical spirit the artist was seeking to revive. In the exterior of the south wall are immured two interesting pagan spolia: a small piece of a marble stylobate (preserving the circular mark of where it formerly supported a column), carved with an inscription and a dolphin; and an attractive, late Hellenistic grave stele.
   On the south side of the square is the Nautical Museum of Kalymnos (Open 10–2, except Mon) an interesting and sometimes moving exhibition of the island’s trades and history, and above all of the life and tribulations of the sponge-divers. There are examples of the ‘sink-stones’ used by the early, naked divers, and of the infamous skaphandro diving-suit, which led the divers to go to depths at which they contracted appalling maladies and physiological problems. Early studies and photographs of these diseases are exhibited, as well as the sponges themselves, and the tools and processes used in preparing them for sale and exportation. There is a wealth of fascinating photographic documentation. Some of what is exhibited here can be complemented by a visit to a functioning sponge factory. There are a couple still operating in Pothia, where it is possible to see the processes of cleaning, preparing and grading sponges: one (indicated with signs) lies behind the corner at the west end of the waterfront; another is to the left of the road out to Vathis, at the eastern side of the port.

Already in Ancient Egypt and in 13th century bc Mesopotamia, sponges, impregnated with opiates and then humidified, appear to have been used for anaesthetising patients during elementary surgery; Roman soldiers carried them to hold lightweight liquid refreshment, and Roman civilians used them as a kind of washable lavatory paper; in Ancient Greece they were kept for bathing and washing; artists of the Renaissance experimented with them in fresco-painting; the Ottoman Sultan’s harem ordered them for cosmetic purposes; and potters throughout all these ages have used them as an aid in throwing and finishing a pot. Jesus on the Cross was offered vinegar on a sponge; and defeat is finally conceded by a pugilist when his second ‘throws up the sponge’. The properties of sponges lend themselves to all kinds of situations, and their use is as old as history. For millennia, the total world demand for sponges never exceeded the supply guaranteed by the trained bands of sponge-divers who worked in the warm waters of the southeast Aegean—principally around Symi, Chalki, Astypalaia and Kalymnos. Their island waters produced sponges of the very best quality.
   The Industrial Revolution changed all that—both the supply and the demand. A rising urban female bourgeoisie in Europe and America developed an insatiable appetite for sponges; at the same time, the development of a deep-water diving suit—the ‘skaphandro’—revolutionised the quantity and whole method of sponge collection. (See ‘Sponge diving’, under Symi, in vol. 6 of this series.) The sponge lost its ‘specialness’ and became an industrially culled commodity; the sponge-diver, too, became little more than an instrument of the productivity locomotive. This undoubtedly brought wealth to the islands which, on Symi and Kalymnos in particular, gave rise to elegant new towns with grand middle class houses and public buildings. But the boom was to be short-lived: war broke out in 1914; the Italians moved to limit sponge-fishing severely during their occupation of the Islands in the 1920s; the first cheap, synthetic sponges appeared around 1930; a bacterial disease hit Mediterranean sponge beds in 1938; and a gradual awareness grew that the crippling or fatal effects of rapid decompression upon the diver as he rose to the surface in the skaphandro had for too long been ignored in the interests of profit and productivity. The industry collapsed, and those whom it sup ported in the Islands emigrated—mostly to Tarpon Springs, Florida, where they plied the only trade they knew, and set up there what soon were to become the largest sponge farms and factories in the world.
   The sponge is an animal—but only just. To the lay man it seems like a plant, unable to move and with no muscular, digestive or nervous system. Curiously, however, it can reproduce in two different ways: either by budding and fragmentation, like many plants (for this reason, proper harvesting actually promotes colony-size, rather than depleting it); or it can reproduce sexually, like an animal. Sponges are hermaphroditic, and at certain phases of the moon, release sperm and eggs into the water fertilising one another (not themselves) within a limited colony. They live by pumping water through their internal chambers and filtering out micro-organisms for food. When they are cut, they are exposed to the air to die; all the organic material withers, and the black skin or pellicle which covers its fibres is washed out in a subsequent re-immersion in salt-water. The sponge is then beaten to remove all the dead organic material, and the flexible skeleton (dried and bleached) is what re mains for use. ‘Wool sponges’ are the softest and used for washing and with cosmetics; ‘grass sponges’ are rougher and are good for painting; the flat-shaped, durable, ‘elephant-ear sponges’ are those favoured by potters for throwing and finishing. The cycle has now almost come full-circle and natural sponges are sought in small amounts, for specific needs, valued once again for the individual qualities that made them special in Antiquity. These are still harvested by a small fleet based in Kalymnos.

One of Kalymnos’s richest and most successful entrepreneurs, and the first to begin wholesale international exportation of sponges, was Nikolaos Vouvalis (1841– 1918): the highly decorated and furnished Vouvalis Mansion, in the Evangli­stria area inland of the north of the water-front, where he lived can still be visited (open 10–2, except Mon). It houses a small number of the artefacts destined eventually for the New Archaeological Museum which is being built on the adjacent plot. Only three rooms in the mansion may currently be visited: Vouvalis’s study, which exhibits two small 4th century bc marble heads (one male, one female) on his desk; and the dining-room and upstairs drawing-room, which are fascinating for what they show of the prevailing obsession in 19th century Mediterranean bourgeois taste, for highly ornate French gilt and glass objects, and for chinoiserie. They are further mixed here with the animal skin rugs and full-length portraits typical of an English country house. There is a marked absence of any point of contact with local culture. Vouvalis, who had been a generous philanthropist to his native island and constructed its first hospital, long pre-deceased his far younger wife, who nonetheless kept in constant touch through a me dium with his embalmed corpse in the bedroom, until it finally had to be removed from the building. The garden has a pleasant gazebo covering a scattering of Byzantine stone fragments; near the entrance gates is a collection of pagan altars, architectural fragments and inscriptions, awaiting transfer to the New Museum. One of the centrepieces of the new collection’s display will be the important and magnificent bronze head with hat (or crown), possibly representing a Hellenistic king, which was recovered from an ancient shipwreck on the sea-bed near Kalymnos in 2002 by a local fisherman. The piece is remarkably well-preserved, with the original glass-paste eyes still in place.
   The area of Evangeli­stria around the Vouvalis Mansion contains a vibrant mixture of architectural styles. Small popular houses, built of stone, often with a walled avli­ (courtyard) and painted in white or a variety of pastel blue and green colours, jostle with larger stone mansions in neoclassical style and more sober ochre colours. A particular speciality of the island is the fine iron-work of the balconies, half-moon door-lights, and railings, which, combined with the carved volutes and door frames, lends a lightness and nobility to the buildings. The area takes its name from the Early Christian basilica of the Evangeli­stria at its centre. Only the floor plan of the basilica remains, raised to height of almost 2m on a solid terrace, with a dwarfed modern chapel over its sanctuary area. Below and around the east end are the huge blocks of the podium of the apse: there is similar ashlar-block masonry at the southwest corner which be longs to a preceding pagan building, possibly of the early Classical period.

Detour. At the end of the Bay of Pothia, 2km southwest of the town along the shore-line road, is Therma, a now defunct hydrotherapy spa built during the Italian occupation and refashioned in the 1950s. The natural hot water (37Β° C) now emerges by the rocks below.

Kalymnos Island is part of the Dodecanese Island group
Pothia, the Vathys Valley, and the south of the island.

Random information you might what to know about Kalymnos Island
Kalymnos first settlers
Hellenistic Fortress of Kastri


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