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Kalymnos, Greece: An August to Remember.


Welcome to the enchanting island of Kalymnos, nestled in the heart of the Dodecanese, Greece. Join me on an immersive journey spanning eight days, where we'll delve into the vibrant celebration of Panagia Kyra Psili on August 15, unravel the island's traditions, and meet its warm-hearted locals. This article chronicles my experiences, from chance encounters with sponge divers to the exploration of folklore and the island's rich cultural tapestry.

Kalymnos, Greece: An August to Remember, by photographer George Tatakis
Kalymnos, Greece: An August to Remember

Exploring Kalymnos: A Hidden Gem of Greece's Aegean Islands 🏝️

The first time I visited Kalymnos island was maybe four years ago. I was staying on the nearby island of Kos and the friend I had there, wanted to show me a nice beach on the island of Telendos. To visit Telendos we had to take the ferry to Kalymnos, and drive through the island to the other side and take the ferry to Telendos from there.

This short drive through Kalymnos was enough for me to appreciate the island's beauty and want to go back again sometime. This was the time. I've heard about the celebration of the monastery of Panagia Kyra Psili (The Tall Lady Virgin) on August 15, so this was a good chance for me to go visit the island.

Kalymnos is world-famous for its sponge divers, so I wanted to meet at least one. I have been told that they were supposed to be difficult-to-reach people, but I had a different experience. As soon as I arrived, I met Antonis after only five minutes. He was selling his sponges on his boat by the harbour. He used to be a sponge diver, but now he retired.

I asked him whether he had a warehouse where we could go together. He was surprised and told me that there was not much to see or photograph in his warehouse. He gave me directions to more modern ones. When people say things like that to me, I know that this is the place I will probably be photographing. However, I took the time to go and see the modern warehouses, which I didn't care for too much, photographically speaking. Just by chance, I saw Antonis wandering around and bumped into him. I asked him again if we could go to his warehouse. It was not far away, so he said well why not, let's go.

As I had expected, his warehouse was a feast for my eyes. It was just what I had in my mind. I wasted no time and asked him to take his photo.

Antonis Kampourakis at his warehouse. Greece. South Aegean. Kalymnos. © George Tatakis
Antonis Kampourakis at his warehouse
 

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The Lyceum of Kalymnos and shooting for Caryatis.

Venturing into the heart of Kalymnos' cultural tapestry, my next destination was the Lyceum of the Hellenic Women, an invaluable organization dedicated to preserving Greece's rich folklore.

Conveniently situated in the island's capital, Pothia, the Lyceum houses a captivating Museum of Folklore, offering a deep dive into Kalymnian heritage.

Inside, I eagerly sought information and had the privilege of a phone conversation with the Lyceum's president. She graciously connected me with Xanthippe, the wardrobe manager, who not only assisted in securing a traditional outfit but also enlisted her daughter, Christina, as a model for my photographic journey.

Despite my initial attempts to find a suitable model, the stars aligned when Xanthippe's daughter stepped in on short notice. Together, we explored various picturesque locations across the island, capturing the essence of Kalymnian tradition through a lens crafted by my passion for storytelling.

Post-shoot, Christina graciously invited me to her authentic, traditional home. Surrounded by warmth and hospitality, her mother treated me to Greek coffee, fruits, and sweets.

This encounter marked the beginning of a series of delightful experiences, a testament to the genuine hospitality that Kalymnos has to offer.

Christina in the traditional urban dress at her home Greece. South Aegean. Kalymnos. © George Tatakis
Christina in the traditional urban dress at her home.

On another occasion, I encountered Antonis's granddaughter, an active participant in the family's sponge-selling business. Intrigued, I discovered that she, too, possessed traditional attire and willingly posed for my lens. Our exploration extended to charming island locations and an ancient church, providing a glimpse into a rarely-seen facet of Kalymnos.

As we traversed the island, the sight of traditionally adorned women garnered positive reactions, even from locals not accustomed to such attire. A spontaneous visit to an elderly villager's home, warmly welcomed, added an intimate touch to my cultural odyssey.

Meeting a Sponge Diver on Kalymnos

At long last, I had the incredible opportunity to meet Dimitris, an authentic sponge diver and owner of a diving school situated on the stunning Therma beach on Kalymnos. Dimitris employs state-of-the-art equipment in his everyday work. The only Kalymnian twist is that an air compressor is used instead of traditional oxygen bottles. This distinctive setup, connected to the divers through a flexible tube, allows them to breathe underwater efficiently, essential for the extended periods they spend submerged.

What fascinated me most about Dimitris was his possession of a traditional diving suit, perfectly embodying the essence of Kalymnian divers. Determined to capture this authenticity, I convinced him to don the vintage suit for a photoshoot. Initially, we planned to shoot at the shipping yard, but the sheer weight of the 50kg suit and the need for additional helpers made it impractical given Dimitris' tight schedule.

Adapting to the circumstances, we successfully created captivating images near his school. This unforgettable encounter not only resulted in stunning visuals but also marked the genesis of my best-selling photograph. Featured prominently on HBO Max's 'The Flight Attendant' and displayed in the lobby of Varoulko Seaside, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Athens, Greece, this photograph encapsulates the rich maritime heritage of Kalymnos.

The Celebration of Panagia Kyra Psili

August 14th dawned with the anticipation of a nationwide celebration in Greece—the Dormition of Mary. I find this celebration intriguingly oxymoronic. The occasion marks the memorial day of Mary, Jesus' mother, ascending to Heaven after her earthly life. It is quite common in Greece to celebrate the sad events of Christianity with music and dancing.

In the spirit of togetherness and celebration, communities across the country unite. The optimism surrounding Mary's heavenly transition justifies the festivity. Intrigued, I delved into the island's rich traditions and discovered two celebrations that captured my interest—the Monastery of Panagia Kyra Psili and the Panagia of Telendos island.

Opting for the former, I embarked on a morning journey, contemplating whether to linger on Telendos or return to Kalymnos for Kyra Psili's celebration. Telendos charmed me with its scenic beauty, morning Greek coffee, a refreshing swim, and a delightful lunch. Yet, my heart leaned towards Kyra Psili, pulling me back to Kalymnos for an enchanting experience.

Waiting for the ferry to Tenendos island Greece. South Aegean. Kalymnos. © George Tatakis
Waiting for the ferry to Tenendos island.

Navigating the road to the Monastery presented challenges—steep, and narrow, with a perilous cliff on one side. Yet, the journey, albeit daunting, was reminiscent of many Greek terrains. A touch of prayer along the way seemed fitting.

Upon reaching the path, a less-than-a-kilometer walk led to the Monastery. The uphill trek, exacerbated by the summer heat, was shared with fellow pilgrims and work donkeys. The Monastery unfolded with monastic cells, a chapel nestled in the cliff rocks, and the main church in the courtyard.

Hiking to the Monastery Greece. South Aegean. Kalymnos. © George Tatakis
Hiking to the Monastery.

When I reached the Monastery, the priest had already been there and people had started to gather. I took some time to look around the Monastery, wandering around the monastic cells, the small chapel and the main church in the main yard.

At one point inside the cliff, there was a small and narrow cave where water was dripping at its end, creating a small pond. Pilgrims would squeeze themselves inside to go and drink some of the water as they believed that it had some miraculous properties.

The small cave inside the Monastery Greece. South Aegean. Kalymnos. © George Tatakis
The small cave inside the Monastery.

The evening Mass had started very late at night, much later than standard times around Greece. I think it was around nine to ten at night, compared to five or six when most of the evening Masses take place.

They had a long Mass and then carried out a eulogy at the small chapel inside the cliff and the two ceremonies finished at around eleven or half-past eleven as I remember.

The celebration soon started with traditional instruments (bagpipe and lute) and people started dancing. Many of them had brought mattresses, blankets, and sleeping bags, either to get comfy or even to spend the night at the Monastery.

The surreal part of the celebration was that just outside the Monastery's door, there was a cart with grilled souvlaki and sausages. The cart was equipped with a small stereo speaker, playing dance music. Apart from having music that had nothing to do with tradition or the beautiful place that we were in, the Orthodox are not supposed to be having meat on this day as there is a fast. So I called this the cart of anarchy :-)

I may have sinned on that night, but having the souvlaki and a beer under the beautiful starry sky was an experience to remember.

I had spent this night in the car by a beach as I had found no place to stay until the next day. Next time I must remember to get some mosquito repellent!

The starry night sky outside the Monastery Greece. South Aegean. Kalymnos. © George Tatakis
The starry night sky outside the Monastery.

Meeting with Nikitas in his tavern on Kalymnos

One of the following days, I found this nice tavern next to Pothia's port. I wanted to go inside as there was a big interesting folklore painting on the wall with the city of Pothia and a huge sponge diver at the front looking like a spirit in the sky, overlooking the city.

Inside, there was Nikitas, the owner of the tavern with an interesting tattoo of St. George on one of his arms. I met with him and heard his story.

It was easy to spot his tattoo as he had no shirt on, while he was working and preparing the place for the evening. I asked him to make a coffee for me and got his trust gradually. When I first got inside, he didn't want to have his picture taken.

After some time he felt better about it, so I took some pictures of him and his interesting place.

Nikitas at his place Greece. South Aegean. Kalymnos. © George Tatakis
Nikitas at his place.

My second visit to Kalymnos

During my second visit to Kalymnos, I journeyed from the neighboring island of Kos, where I was lodging. Invited by Xanthippe to stay overnight in their home, I eagerly embraced the opportunity.

Xanthippe treated me to a delightful culinary experience by preparing the traditional dish "Fylla," featuring stuffed vine leaves with a savory blend of minced meat and rice. Amidst the warmth of her kitchen, she graciously posed for snapshots both inside and outside her residence.

My exploration extended to meeting Xanthippe's neighbor, Irene, an inspiring octogenarian captain who, to this day, actively tends to her fishing boat—a testament to her unwavering strength.

Capturing the essence of the household, I crafted a portrait of Xanthippi's husband, Dimitris, a former vessel accountant. His profound and encyclopedic knowledge left me thoroughly impressed. The portrait was taken as he relaxed in his chair beside the piano, where he enjoys Greek coffee post-lunch.

Despite my attempt to play the piano, its off-tune state thwarted my musical ambitions. Nevertheless, met with the family's applause, the curtain closed on this memorable night in Kalymnos—at least for now.

Dimitrios Kouremenos at his place Greece. South Aegean. Kalymnos. © George Tatakis
Dimitrios Kouremenos at his place.

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