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Under the Lights of Kalymnos


Before the sun goes down in the Greek town of Pothia – often called Kalymnos Town –  Eleni always hangs up a lantern in front of her stall where she sells little wonders from the bottom of the sea: sponges, shells and corals.

Pothia in the daytime

Pothia is the capital of Kalymnos, one of the Dodecanese islands. On the flagstones of its harbour, Eleni’s elegantly arranged merchandise looks like a work of art. Her flawless English makes customers talkative, mostly tourists from the beach resorts on the west coast. The daytrippers, her main customer group, have left by now. So Eleni also takes time to tell Greek travellers about the Kalymnian gold, natural sponges.

If unable to answer a tricky question, Eleni then asks her husband who just came to help her pack all the wares into their blue stall, nothing but a big box, really. Despite his young age of 31, he’s no great help, physically, since the job as a sponge diver has disabled and partially paralysed him.

Romantic Lights

The lamp-lit town is an amphitheatrical sight, especially if enjoyed from the Hotel Panorama which is situated on the western mountainside, at the top of which a church and a giant cross do catch the eye; they’re bathed in artificial light. While holidaymakers make for the harbour, the locals carry on with their doings. The carpenter is still busy behind his cosily lit windows. More brightly lit is the karate school next door where the training goes on with wide open doors.

A Kalymnos Cafe

On the harbour, cars keep whizzing past like luminous comets and roaring mopeds keep trying to break the sound barrier. Apart from the pleasure craft Nidri Star, this part of the harbour is frequented by excursion and fishing boats. Cafes lie side by side on the promenade, partly hidden behind palms adorned with an undergrowth of red and white hibiscus. The promenade is very romantically lit, not only by the street traders’ lanterns, but also by ball-shaped lamps hanging on upturned hooks, two in every lamp post.

Each cafe sports chair covers in its own individual colour – yellow is most striking, white undoubtedly smartest, blue most common though. Whether people choose the Elysee, Neon, Maiami, Cove or Aktaion depends on their favourite colour and choice of light level. Pizza Porto has no sense of suitable lighting; theirs is definitely too strong, exactly as it is in the small hut opposite, the Tourist Information.

Dangerous Trade

The Italians have left their mark on the central part of the harbour, in the form of grandiose municipal buildings. The first one, beige and somewhat dilapidated, is the courthouse. More well preserved is the nearby town hall. The main road out of town, identical with the shopping street, starts here and so do the busses. Ordinary shops are closed tonight, only their shining windows are accessible. The shopping area ends on an uptown square, normally filled with waiting taxis.

Spongeworkers pictured in the Museum

Inevitably, one becomes fascinated by sponges in Pothia, and a visit to the Nautical Museum, between the town hall and the court, is a must. The light is on in the dark rooms even during daytime. The history of sponge diving is also dark: greed for money far outweighed the primitive fishing methods and diving equipment, with death and paralysis as a result. After diving suits were introduced in 1869, being a sponge diver became so dangerous that less than half of them returned in the autumn. The rest had died from decompression disease.

Even in our days, a group of sponge divers leave Pothia right after Easter, heading for harvest grounds all around the Mediterranean, but they are few and far between. There are less sponges now, and like other living creatures, they are at times struck by diseases. The majority of the sponges processed by the local factories nowadays, have been imported.

The sponge trade made some citizens immensely wealthy, like the merchant Nikolaos Vouvalis. Museum signs in the shopping street will lead you to his house. A friendly guard is ready to let you into the rich man’s drawing room, his study and dining room, all containing an abundance of art and antiquated luxury. The guard is going to be careful, though, that you don’t misuse the cheque book still lying about. Mr. Vouvalis died in 1918.

Lighting Effects

Towards the end of the harbour, beyond the Italian buildings, the overall style is simpler and the street lighting traditional. Here, the fish taverns dominate the scene. A dog munching a bone indicates that there is meat on the menu as well. In decorating their taverns, the owners have almost gone over the top with imaginative lighting effects and maritime details.

Local lighting effects

Several taverns have a primitive extra section at the edge of the sea, a frail frame with bamboo roof, decorated with masts and rowing boats edged with strings of fairy lights. Foreign flags flutter in the breeze, in competition with curtains made of twine and decorated with starfish, octopus and prawns. A fish-shaped light hovers in the air, high above two boys who accompany their singing and bouzouki-playing fathers on drums.

Eleni is off tonight because the promenade is being used for this summer’s final outdoor concert. Children and young people, dressed in blue shirts, sing in a choir at the top of their voices while anticipating the scheduled fireworks. Tomorrow, Eleni and her colleagues will be back, and if you question them, they’ll tell you the tale of a terrifying profession – about adventurous and totally fearless divers whose lives were worth very little.

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