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It’s late afternoon. The sun bounces off the stonework to create a golden, almost theatrical light as children play in the square and, one by one, window shutters are opened to let in the cool evening air. As night falls, this seemingly timeless place collides with modern life: a moped judders along the cobbles and speeds around a bend, a fashionable wine bar opens its doors. Music, both live and traditional, rings out along an alleyway, mingling with smells of fresh seafood and exotic herbs emanating from a taverna kitchen.

Periklis Sirimis, alongside his father Basilios, is a painter of traditional Byzantine icons using natural pigments mixed with egg yolk, vinegar, holy water and 24-carat gold. ‘To be a painter you usually copy something from nature,’ says Periklis, ‘but Byzantine artists were afraid to paint the holy people and so we try to paint their spirit instead. We try to make something that’s between here and the sky.’

Their studio, overflowing with colourful, stylised religious icons of every size, is hidden away next to one of the ancient fortification walls. ‘I like that the people who are interested come to see,’ Periklis continues. ‘We don’t need to be like the tourist shops where people are around us all the time. I want to be in a secret place.’ In the ancient, maze-like Old Town, his secrets are guarded well. 

Where to eat
Mandala offers modern Mediterranean dishes, like pasta with red pesto and walnuts, and a well-stocked bar (mains from £9;  

Where to stay: Marco Polo Mansion
The magic of the Old Town has found its way to this restored 15th-century house in the old Turkish quarter. A rustic atmosphere sits comfortably with plush décor and warm colours. Have breakfast in a private garden with views of nearby minarets and the city’s walls. With just a few rooms, preference is given to guests staying at least a week (doubles from £80;

Further information

Kalymnos: Best for life by the sea
Curve around the island of Kos, heading northwest on a 3-hour speedboat trip from Rhodes  

A boat chugs into Pothia harbour, colourful paint peeling from its railings and the taste of salt heavy all around. It’s the perfect vantage point to see the spirit of Kalymnos bursting forth at its most lively. The air is filled with the sounds of fishermen unloading their boats, of dishes banging at the waterside cafés, and of mopeds zipping past at full throttle. Ashore, the colours begin their assault: the deep reds and bright blues of the buildings, the orange of drying octopi, and the brown and stark white of sailing masts piercing the sky.

Sponge diving has been the main industry of Kalymnos since the days of Plato and, at heart, the people here still belong to the sea. They are instantly recognisable as hard-working and downto- earth, ensuring that island life here remains at its most authentic.

Each afternoon, next to Pothia’s harbour, sponge divers haul in their catch. Facing the sea, backs leaning against the dazzling yellow cathedral, they pull the sponges from large nets and lay them to dry with an ease born of incalculable experience.

Many of these sponges find their way into Nikos and Aphrodite Papachatzis’s shop, filled with sponges sized from tiny balls to flutes large enough to lose an arm in. Since the 1980s, the industry has flagged, but Aphrodite believes it is integral to the island’s identity and remains hopeful for its future. ‘There’s no formal training – divers learn from father to son – and you have to go very, very deep. But I hope more young people will go back to the traditional ways.’

Boats are everywhere – from elegant schooners to colourful, bobbing fishing vessels. Swaying with the waves, salty and sun-soaked captains tell tales of Kalymnos and of what lies beneath the big blue.

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