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Kalymnos: a Greek island out of season.

Sometimes it is not a good idea to read guidebooks before leaving home. The admirable Rough Guide to Greece remarks that 'there is scant possibility of finding a room amid the package-holiday paraphernalia of Myrties and Massouri. The Eyewitness guide to the Greek Islands calls them 'noisy tourist centres'. Maybe I should have read them before I booked the holiday.

Ten years ago, I remember Myrties, admittedly in the heat of August, as a thriving tourist strip, flanked not by big hotels but by apartment buildings, souvenir shops and busy tavernas. That, though, had been in August, and I was arriving this time in June.

Kalymnos is a small island, around fifteen thousand people on an island 25 kilometres long and, at most, eleven wide. With the north largely inaccessible by road, its attractions are concentrated to the south and west of the island. Myrties or rather its adjunct, Melitsahas, offered the most attractive deal and the first view of Melitsahas was staggering, if a little on the picture postcard side of beautiful. The road leaves the main road from the main town at Myrties, twisting steadily downwards towards the sea. The final bend opens out to reveal scattered tavernas and studios overlooking a small beach, the whites and blues forming a striking contrast with the dull brown and green hillside rising up behind them. The beach is small, crowded only by contemporarily ugly white slatted sunbeds. It did look rather idyllic; most of all, it looked so peaceful.

Melitsahas, which rather cornily means 'honey beach', is a small group of studio apartments, tavernas and bars nestling between hills and coarse sand beach. It was, in effect, self-contained: a mini market, run by one of those little old ladies with legs bowed from years of fetching and carrying, could provide all the supplies likely to be needed over a fortnight; the tavernas, the food; the beach, the place to rest. There would be no need to leave this small hamlet, especially with a balcony taking the sun for all but two hours of the day.

How quiet it would be would be found out over time, and the night immediately brought two rather wonderful things. The first was the sunset over Telendos, the island sitting in the bay across from Melitsahas and its companion villages, once connected to the mainland until an earthquake separated the two nearly two thousand years ago. Boats run from the jetty at Myrties every half an hour, shuttling backwards and forwards until late at night. The second was the lack of noise from the taverna below: after eleven o'clock, the only sound was that of the waves lapping against the beach.

A huge white house stood on the hillside overlooking Melitsahas and Telendos. Each night, seven lights would blaze from the forecourt and windows of this, a miniature Dallas - like South Fork, its owner appropriately rumoured to have made a fortune from oil. Other people would say something different, like 'frozen food'. Everyone I asked, though, did agree that he stayed there only two or three weeks out of the year.

It was an inappropriate sign of wealth, a manifestation of conspicuous consumption, on an island otherwise not particularly rich. Some part of me felt socialist pangs, and I asked one of the waiters at a seafront taverna whether it did not upset him, all that wealth lit up every night. 'Doesn't bother me. It's up to him how he spends his money'. So much for my paternalistic concern about the Kalymniot working man.

Whoever lived there, however briefly, would have to be rich. It became my daydream, imagining what could be happening within that house, how it was furnished, how many rooms it had. I was a little jealous but, no doubt, that was the point. Whatever the line of business, no one could ignore the wealth of its owner.

Melitsahas, Myrties and Massouri form a chain of settlements, about two and a half kilometres long, running up the west coast. Melitsahas merges with Myrties, though there is a gap of two hundred metres or so between Myrties and Massouri. Just walking the road from Melitsahas, through Myrties, to Massouri was to pass from relative tranquillity to relative commercialisation.

Massouri was qualitatively different from the places to its south; it was the place to be for that necessity, the 'all day full English breakfast' at Kelly's Bar, or satellite sport at the Pink Elephant ('visit the bar, buy the T-shirt'). Loud English voices filled the air, joining with the cicadas in punctuating the Greek stillness.

Even in late June it was fairly busy. Shops print the design of your choice onto the colour T-shirt of your choice; the only disco in the area is there. The bars are just that: bars rather than tavernas, pumping music out into the late night air. This was the world of the guidebooks, and it was not yet the middle of July. Massouri was the place for the fun-loving: I entered it with trepidation and left it with relish. It was hardly the Kalymnos I sought.

Myrties is both geographically and spiritually at a mid-point between Massouri and Melitsahas. It is little more than a long main street and a harbour. Whilst English breakfasts and burger bars characterised Massouri, Myrties offers more sophisticated eating places. There was still the occasional bar with satellite sport round the grandly-named square, which is actually a combination of taxi rank and bus stop, but basketball could still be viewed from the street on living-room televisions.

Mostly, the food in the restaurants and tavernas is unexceptional; with so much imported, choices of produce are limited, and even the restaurants in Myrties buy much of their ingredients from the local supermarkets. Consequently, there was not too much variation between the main dishes, no matter where I stopped to eat. The better tavernas can usually be identified because they are nearly always full; the only safe time to expect normally to get a table is early evening. Not so in Myrties in late June and early July: nine o'clock was still early. The only way to separate the good food from the bad was to try it.

Two thousand drachmae was about the going rate for anything above and beyond burgers, moussakas and spaghettis. The pound, last year, was doing really well against the drachma. As for one of the larger restaurants, there had to be some time in the season when those hundred and more tables, on three levels, were more occupied than they were with one diner and two waiters.

There was much celebration one night when the restaurant at which I dined gained entry into some guide for the islands. It deserved it: it was international cooking but only a true idealist would expect to find all, and only, the traditional dishes in a Greece not buried in the hills.

Blissful in my unexpected tranquillity, I decided not to travel much, though connections between the island's focal points was straightforward and cheap. One road connects all the main population centres, so theoretically it is impossible to get lost: just get to the end of the line, turn round and go back again.

Pothia, the island's capital, looks charmingly small and picturesque when viewed from the ferry coming over from Kos. It is only when you either get into the hills above it, or travel through it, that its size becomes apparent. It straggles backwards from the harbour through flat, winding streets, until the houses, cubist small, start to rise up the hillside. The view from the sea foreshortened all of this, giving the impression of sea front and hillside, with little in between.

Buses run every hour, or thereabouts in Greek time, between Myrties and Pothia, a journey of around fifteen minutes. Showing typical Greek decisiveness, tickets were purchased at supermarkets. This had been tried earlier in the season but had been found not to work; it was changed back to paying on the bus; and then reverted to the ticket system. Whilst I was there, it was back on tickets. The bus drivers treated it all with disdain: people still got on the bus, no matter what. I would hate to have to predict future developments.

Everywhere, especially in Pothia, there are sponges; the tourist currency of Kalymnos. Every April, the sponge fleet leaves the island, to trawl the depths, returning in October to much festivity. There is a dedicated museum in Pothia itself, but sponges, loose and packaged, are everywhere, as characteristic as T-shirts with 'Kalymnos, Greece' printed on them. Anyone wanting to buy a souvenir or a present would need to look no further.

Whether all of these were actually caught by the Kalymniot fleet must be open to debate, but it would be a rather petty one. 'Sponges 'R' Us' has to be a motto for an island with otherwise little on which to hang its promotional image. There can be little doubt that the trade, though not as dangerous as the days when diving suits were donned to plunge the depths, is still a less than pleasant one.

Sponges were also readily available in orange-groved Vathy, to the east of Pothia. The view of Vathy is the most spectacular on the island: a collection of hamlets, sitting at the bottom of a long inlet, hills on either side and to the rear, it is too small, too geographically restricted, to be ever anything other than peaceful. Tourist guides debated whether it was more spectacular by bus or by boat, plumping invariably for the sea entrance. Whether that decision was influenced by the excursions they were selling I did not know, but I remain convinced that the view offered down on the village from the road would be virtually impossible to better.

Other islands were accessibly cheap to reach, particularly Patmos and Leros. St John the Divine wrote the Book of Revelations on Patmos: the mark worn into the stone from his head is said to be still visible. Leros was even closer and allows a tour to the grave of Rupert Brooke. Whichever the sea crossing, there was a more than good chance that the captain would be a cross between something out of Hemingway and Kazantzakis: Zorba the Greek meets The Old Man and the Sea. As unchanging as time itself, totally ageless, he had the same grizzled short grey beard ten years ago, the same muscular squatness, the same tattoos. More worryingly, he has maintained the same level of derring-do on the ocean.

No one should expect to remain dry when he is at the helm. He is a captain who has realised that the sea is, by its very nature, wet and wishes to share this intimate knowledge with everyone he carries on his boat. He will steer into waves, stop and start the engine, overload the boat. This nameless, fearless hulk of a captain would arrive safely at his destination, but no one travelling with him would forget the experience.

From what I saw, the furthest most people travelled was to Telendos. Melitsahas, in particular, was not a place people really wanted to leave, at least not out of high season. There would be little need. Another taverna, however, was under construction. More business must be expected in the not too distant future. Already, there was one bar that remained shuttered and closed; another that did very little business. Somebody undoubtedly knew a little more than I did. The trade would be there, it was just a matter of when it would arrive.

I left in early July, and it was already appreciably busier than it had been a fortnight earlier. Out of season, it was beautifully restful. All those fears about crowded beaches and noisy tavernas had been proved groundless. However, the middle of August could be more than a little different.

Dr Paul Fryer writes on popular culture, sport and travel for a variety of publications.
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Author:Fryer, Paul
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jun 1, 1998
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