Imagine a noble and beautiful lady, haughty, grand and dominant in appearance, full of poise and dignity – and made of bronze. Her empty eye-sockets intensifying the sense of mystery and distance, she stands, more than life-sized, one hand raised in front of her face as if in warning, admonition or thought, the other hidden underneath the folds of the heavy garment wrapped around her body. This is the monumental bronze statue known as the “Lady of Kalymnos”, dragged from the seabed in 1994 and one of the most significant among the many treasures that have been added to Greece’s immense wealth of archaeological finds in the last two decades.
She dominates one room in the Archaeological Museum at Pothia, the remarkable capital and harbour town of the Greek island of Kalymnos in the Northern Dodecanese. In spite of its proximity to the major tourist hub that is Kos, Kalymnos remains rather off the beaten track for most travellers, especially for mass tourism. Only in one particular niche market has the rocky island developed a prominent position, a place “on the map”: it is considered one of the world’s best destinations for rock climbing.
But there is more to Kalymnos. When we visit it, on three of our itineraries (Cruising to the Cyclades, Cruising the Dodecanese and Cruising the Northern Dodecanese), it tends to turn out a highlight, in spite of not being a “big name”, such as Santorini, Kos or Rhodes. The island is characterised by a rugged beauty and a surprising succession of very different but invariably spectacularly beautiful and highly memorable vistas, as if the creator was trying out his panorama program when designing it. It has retained a very authentic, laid-back traditional atmosphere and a warm, genuine hospitality. Furthermore, it is full of very interesting places.
With a size of 110 square km (43 sq mi), Kalymnos is relatively small, but its coastline measures 96km (60mi), indicating its complex formation, made up of promontories and peninsulas, bays and inlets: a great place for sailing boats and lovers of remote beaches! The island essentially consists of four chains of mountains sticking out of the Aegean, separated by very narrow valleys and including the towering cliffs that attract climbers from all over the world. Due to the lack of plains, the island’s recently inaugurated airport had to be built along a mountaintop…
Although Kalymnos was never a very important place, never a centre of power, its history is rich, long and varied and thus rather typical of the Aegean islands. It was first settled some 6000 years ago. In the Archaic period it was settled by mainland Greeks from the Peloponnese, but probably found itself under Persian (or Carian?) rule until the Second Persian War (479 BC). Afterwards, it was a quasi-independent city state, allied with Athens throughout the 5th century BC. In 204 BC it joined in a political union with nearby Kos, and later became part of the Roman and subsequent Byzantine empires. It appears to have thrived in the Early Christian era, but must have suffered from the Arab pirate raids of the 7th century and later. After the sack of Constantinople in 1204, it fell first to Genoa, and then to the Knights of Rhodes who held it from 1313 until their defeat by Suleiman the Magnificient in 1523, starting nearly 400 years of Ottoman occupation. Along with the rest of the Dodecanese, it was occupied by Italy in 1912 and finally joined the Greek state in 1948.
All of those periods and occupations have left visible traces on Kalymnos, ranging from prehistoric caves via Classical ruins and Early Christian churches to medieval castles, traditional villages and Italian Colonial architecture. With all those features, Kalymnos does not just a invite a short visit: it rewards intense exploration.
I do not mean that figuratively. When I was exploring the island a few years ago, a whole assortment of friendly locals kept popping up wherever I went, offering me advice on where to go or whom to ask, and even more often offering me water, coffee, sweets or fresh fruit. I really was being rewarded for my interest!
Rural Kalymnos has many archaeological highlights to offer. The most striking is the veritable plethora of Early Christian Churches. Remains of at least eight are visible in the island, chief among them the vast Basilica of Christ in Jerusalem, with very fine mosaic floors. Supposedly founded in the 5th century AD, it occupies the site of the temple to Apollo Dalios, the island’s main sanctuary during ancient times. Nor far away is the much more modest church of St. John at Panormos, with a lovely mosaic floor and a truly grandiose panorama of the nearby islet of Telendos. On the east coast of Kalymnos, the valley and bay of Vathy offer a great opportunity to have a long and leisurely walk, passing several more Early Christian churches, as well as remains of ancient fortifications, more of which are found elsewhere in the island.
Also stunning are the two medieval fortifications, each of them Byzantine in origin, but reinforced by the Genoese and especially the Knights of Rhodes. The smaller one, Chrysocheria (“the Golden Hand”) is in a prominent location on a steep hill above Pothia town. The second, and much larger one is Pera Kastro, occupying a sloping plateau in the centre of Kalymnos, with views commanding the surrounding areas, entirely encircled with walling. What is now a bare and rocky landscape inside was a bustling city in the 16th century. What survives are no less than nine little chapels and churches, all lovingly restored recently.
A main highlight of Kalymnos is Pothia itself. The harbour town, attractively set in a theatre-like formation open to the sea, is surprisingly large: at nearly 16,000 inhabitants, it is the second most populated settlement in the Dodecanese (after Rhodes Town), but it has the feel of a traditional island port: friendly, a little chaotic, authentic and quite relaxed. There is much to discover here, too, as the town’s architecture ranges from very simple one-or-two-roomed dwellings of the 1800s, via two-floored variations of the same type, often including outdoor verandas and courtyards as well as open-air stairways, to more complex and ornate mansions in the Neoclassical style.
They reflect the 19th and early 20th century wealth of Pothia, then an affluent city of traders, sailors and most of all sponge-divers. There is still a small sponge-diving fleet here, and along the seafront, one or two original sponge washeries can be visited, alongside many other old-fashioned shops. Of course, there is also a large variety of traditional cafés, where the old men play tavli (backgammon), and tavernas, mostly specialising in fish, as well as local Kalymniot myrmizeli salad (including tomatoes, cucumber, aubergine, anchovies and barley rusk).
But the most striking, the most unique, thing Pothia offers the visitor is the remarkable Archaeological Museum, reopened after long renovations in 2009. It is simply superb, and in that regard it is part of a great and largely untold and unnoticed story: the first-rate reinvention of Greece’s archaeological museums that has taken place over the last 15 years or so.
Kalymnos Museum is just one example, perhaps the most impressive, of the efforts made by the Greek Archaeological Service in the Dodecanese, where many small islands have recently been embellished with superbly displayed archaeological exhibits, among them also Nisyros, Leros and at least the prehistoric part of the great museum in Rhodes. Each of them is well-presented and interesting in its own right, but Kalymnos has been blessed with a truly spectacular collection, ranging from early prehistory to the Byzantine era.
It has two main attractions, both of them the result of fairly new finds. The first is a large collection of sculptures recovered from the ancient sanctuary of Apollo Dalios (Apollo of Delos). Although it was hardly on a par with Delphi or Samos, that site appears to have had some supra-regional importance, as indicated by rich votive deposits, including painted pottery from the 600s BC onwards. More spectacular, however, is the range, number and quality of the sculptures recently recovered from the sanctuary. Apparently, a whole cache of marble statuary was hidden in a drain during Roman times, to protect them from defacement, reuse or the lime-kiln, and providing us with a major collection of Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic works, ranging across more than half a millennium. The most striking pieces are a miniature kouros (statue of a nude young man) of the 530s BC, typically Ionian (Eastern Greek) in being partially clothed, and a colossal Hellenistic Asklepios (god of healing) of the 2nd century BC. There are nearly two dozen further statues, including depictions of Athena and Apollo, as well as athletes and children.
That collection would by itself make for an exceptionally fine exhibition on a small island, but it is eclipsed by the truly breathtaking exhibit, in another room, of a small collection of well-preserved Hellenistic bronze statues or fragments thereof that were discovered on the bottom of the sea around the island. They most likely formed part of the cargo of various ships wrecked in the area.
They include a rather funny bronze dolphin, the sombre and imperious head of a Hellenistic ruler wearing a peculiar hat or crown, the astonishingly accurately modelled legs and sandalled feet of an equestrian statue and most importantly the 4th century BC Lady of Kalymnos herself, dragged ashore by a fisherman in 1994 and subsequentially donated to the Greek state on the condition that it would be displayed in the island. She was then carefully restored in Athens before returning to her island home. Completely or near-completely preserved bronze statues of this format are exceedingly rare, not least as bronze can be melted and reused, a fate that befell many major sculptures in late antiquity. We cannot be sure whom this stately figure depicts, but she is almost certainly the representation of a goddess. Nor do we know which sculptor is responsible for this wonderful work, or from where and to where she was travelling on her final voyage.
What we do know is that in her, Kalymnos has gained an attraction worthy of the Louvres and Metropolitan Museums of this world. The Lady of Kalymnos would make for a cherished centrepiece in any of the world’s prominent museums. If thousands of people travel to Paris every year to see an oft-reproduced portrait of a young lady with a strange smile, it would seem to make sense that Kalymnos should attract its own crowd for its own special lady!
You can visit the Lady of Kalymnos on several of our itineraries: Cruising the Northern Dodecanese, Cruising the Dodecanese (a spectacular tour we reintroduce for 2014, ranging through eleven islands from Samos to Rhodes) and Cruising to the Cyclades. And you should!