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Rock Climbing : Articles : Trip Report : "Kalos Ilthes stee Kalymno" (Welcome Back to Kalymnos)

"Kalos Ilthes stee Kalymno" (Welcome Back to Kalymnos)

Submitted by Juliareynolds on 2008-11-30 | Last Modified on 2008-12-14

Rating: 12345   Go Login to rate this article.   Votes: 9 | Comments: 9 | Views: 7941

by Julia Reynolds

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John Williams
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Charlie and me, Panorama
Gavin Shepard
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John and me, "Stairway to Heaven" Hotel
Gavin Shepard

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 and 100km northwest of Rhodes. 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. Its economy is based largely on sponge fishing and the modest tourism it receives. A relatively recent influx of travelers 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 two o’clock on throughout a prolonged lunch in the port of Pireaus, Athens. Before you pass 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 that has broken the spirit of many a stronger traveler than we. We found ourselves in a position that has become all-too-familiar to me in my disorganized travels, namely running for our five o’clock ferry in the hot sun with heavy rucksacks and a bag containing two on-and-a-half-litre plastic bottles of wine that we had, in admirable foresight, ordered from the taverna where we ate lunch. Said foresight did not, however, extend to obtaining any nutritional sustenance, the results of which were a dinner of the first three litres of wine and another three 750ml bottles purchased on the ferry for dessert.

I have never been as bewildered in my entire life as I was upon waking at five o’clock in the morning 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 sluggish brain groggily retrieved the memory of the previous evening. 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.

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 about fifteen minutes from the port by taxi and thirty minutes by local bus and which is 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 the high season for climbers. 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 (nine per person), 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 Maria’s Mini Market and the fresh spring water source.

This hotel doesn’t have a name; it is one of what is referred to generally as domatia (a word just meaning “rooms” in Greek), where a homeowner lets out a few rooms for a supplemental income. 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, fully equipped kitchenettes, 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.

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more Carpe Diem
Charles Jefferson
Climbing Carpe Diem. Photo: Charles Jefferson.

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 an unsympathetic listener as hung-over whining during the hike. The previous evening’s white wine seeped from my pores, diluted only by a coffee and the milk in my cornflakes that morning. This 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 rock that begged to be straddled for amusing photo opportunities. I was filled with nothing but joyous awe and I 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 I was able to borrow his. They were a little too big for me, but pulled tightly as possible they were fine for the day. He later donated to me in his impeccable gentility a second pair he had packed that was too small for him and nearly perfect for me.

Gavin was climbing at a higher grade than I, but not insufferably far away, and John and Charlie were virtually equivalent in their climbing level, so we ended up pairing off that way for most of our climbs. John and Charlie put up top-ropes on more advanced routes for Gavin and I 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 labeled at their starts in spray paint (a practice the credibility of which I am not entirely convinced) 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 the names of Greek poets, gods, goddesses, or references to Greek 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. During two weeks of near daily climbing on the island we encountered a grand total of two Greeks, and even those two were Athenians rather than Kalymnians. Having spent a substantial length of time in the Greek islands 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 we climbed 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, the boys for their very first time. For my part the moment inspired a rediscovery of that magic both through peering 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… Of course, we did, anyway. 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 for the boys and a dangerously refreshing glass filled with the “hair of the dog” for yours truly. 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,” is directly to the left of a café called Drossia and sits 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 of drinks, which after a long day climbing are like salty little morsels of heaven. They are also complimented unexpectedly well by a crisp, dry white with a light bouquet. Who knew?

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” (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 and finished with 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 climb at quarter past five in the evening which, predictably 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 set 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. We admitted 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 actually 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.

Even I was happy to forgo the requisite shower that evening, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich I had consumed nine hours earlier having long ceased to sustain me, so we staggered into “Fountain Restaurant,” AKA (to those not in the know) Noufaro, around quarter to ten, depositing all of our gear in an untidy heap outside the entrance and collapsing around the closest table, probably not presenting our usual olfactory gift to passers by of the scent of wildflowers and summer rain.

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 with his pants taped and a Polartec fleece zipped to his chin on a particularly hot and sunny afternoon, the route this third time around being remarkably devoid of its previous evil population.

The tempting proximity of the sea rendered it impossible for me to resist a refreshing post-climb skinny dip during which, somewhat regrettably, 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.

It is this type of experience that those on a rock-climbing holiday to Kalymnos should take the time to relish along with the obvious joys of the beckoning limestone. Rest days on the island are usually spent in blissful repose on the beach (helpful hint for the ladies: a discount on the lounge chairs is easily finagled when topless) and drifting in the rejuvenating waters of the Mediterranean Sea. 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.

When that day came for us we reminisced about our far-too-brief retreat and what we would take away from the experience. 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 during their time in Greece. 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 all in all, 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, the simple, fresh, and wonderful cuisine, 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. Kalymnos is a peaceful and sun-drenched island paradise for climbers and non-climbers alike; 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.


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Nice TR. Kalymnos is a great place. Sweet unpolished limestone, good Greek food, and some of the friendliest locals of anywhere I've been.
We got there really early in the season and the people took us in like family. They opened the hotel just for us, cooked us breakfast, because nothing was open yet, and one ladies son took us to the store so we could buy food.
I can't wait to get back there when it's a little warmer.
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5 out of 5 stars Excellent. Very well written. Makes it easy to imagine the view from the balcony as I stare out onto a dreary and rainy winter day.
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Its actually "tha se do tu chronu kukla" ;) Glad to read you had a good time. It amazes me thought that you found the place quiet. Kalymnos is usually way too crowded for what we (= greek climbers) are used too (to the point that many people stopped going there). Just out of curiosity time fo the year did you visit?
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Wow. This thing read like a college essay.
Glad to hear you had a good time!
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Went there back in June of 2003, absolutely gorgeous. Sadly my friend broke his ankle on the third day there and had to go back to the states for surgery (it was bad). Needless to say, much like his ankle, our moral and desire to climb was in ruins. One day we'll go back and get our revenge.
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"More matter, with less art, Polonius."
Other than that, a nice TR. Kalymnos is definitely on my tick list.
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3 out of 5 stars A very enjoyable trip report. I can identify with your want to play with words and voices in your writing style, but this report would be three times as good with a third fewer words.
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Nice TR, well written, kept my attention; now I have to visit.
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Your story and all the references took me back to when my husband and I visited Chaminox, Mallorca and Kalymnos on our honeymoon! We loved Kalymnos and will definitely go back again one day! Thanks for your story!

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