This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of our print edition.
It was the perfect escape. Six thousand, three hundred twenty-four miles from the doldrums of my cubicle was paradise, and I was going. Twelve days of dreamy limestone caves, glorious cuisine, and a sun-kissed coastline—the holy trinity of travel for climbers—awaited me on the Greek island of Kalymnos. I must be the luckiest person on the planet.
Still, guilt plagued me. I pay attention to the news. I saw the photo of the drowned Syrian toddler whose body washed up on a Turkish shore. I knew refugees were flooding into Greece, a country whose own economic status was one big question mark. I was escaping my cushy life to go climb rocks and eat too much hummus while another type of Kalymnian visitor was escaping tyranny and the real possibility of death. Two wildly different motives, one shared sanctuary.
Stepping onto the tarmac at the Kalymnos airport and breathing in my first gulp of non-recirculated air since leaving Denver 30 hours before, I felt the Mediterranean give me a warm and slightly sweaty hug. I wanted to sit in one place and let the buzz from the constant motion of travel subside. A man named George greeted us at baggage claim with his left hand outstretched. This must be the standard handshake in Greece, I thought, making a mental note. He showed us to a pocket-size rental car that very well could have been powered by a hamster running on a wheel.
We followed as George zipped around the one main road on the island, driving his scooter—typically a two-handed job with the brake on one side and the accelerator on the other—with one hand. Later we found out that a childhood accident had rendered his right arm useless, making him “not the best climber in the world,” he would say with a laugh. This George, who we affectionately called George I, was the liaison for the tourist office, and he was taking us to meet George II, the head of Kalymnos tourism. A few hours later we would meet George III, the gregarious owner of our hotel, Elena Village, followed shortly by George IV, the reserved proprietor of the Aegean Tavern. Georges II and III had invited us here to attend the Kalymnos Climbing Festival, three days of climbing, slideshows, music, and a display of local traditions.
“You will come and climb, and I will show you everything Kalymnos has to offer besides the rock,” George II said when we met him at the tourism office, “because there’s so much more than just climbing.”
A gentle wind rose off the water below while I searched for holds hidden behind bulging tufas.Laughter echoed off the cave’s walls. We were in the Grande Grotta, an image of which you’ve undoubtedly seen if you’ve seen anything about climbing in Kalymnos. It’s a dramatic cavern where arching rock overhead meets sloping ground underneath, and the empty space between forms a perfectly shaped human eye. Look through that eye and a mesa-topped island called Telendos makes its stand in the middle of the Aegean Sea. The image is classic to the point of cliche, but there’s a reason it’s become so intertwined with the identity of the whole island. It’s the quintessential setting: Gangly tufas drip down toward the ground and pinch-perfect pipes line steeper than steep walls, creating enduro routes that climb high above a cerulean sea.
Kalymnos is the ultimate vacation spot for climbers, and I do mean vacation. Endless beaches, fresh bread with olive oil, limestone, and liters of cold Mythos beer sweating from the temperature difference of the sweet golden liquid inside and the muggy warmth outside. Even the grades are considered “vacation grades,” meaning they’re a bit soft so you feel just as satisfied by your climbing day as you do from your plate of moussaka, a fried casserole of eggplant, potato, and minced meat.
Despite the endless sunshine and carefree lifestyle, there’s an undercurrent of turmoil in the country, and this 42-square-mile island is no exception. Following the 2008 implosion of Wall Street, economic chaos took hold of Greece in 2009 when the Greek government stated it had been misreporting its budget deficit figures for years. With the financial markets already struggling to recover, global lenders were hesitant to give the country money, sending them toward bankruptcy. Greece received billions of euros in three bailouts over the next five years, but it’s been a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.
More than a quarter of Greece’s workforce is unemployed, and many people are leaving for places like Australia and Florida where the climate is tropical and the economic opportunities are abundant. Tourism during the summer sailing season is the island’s main industry, but in reality, Kalymnos is overshadowed by more luxurious, resort-filled isles like Mykonos, Crete, and Santorini. Concrete skeletons line the Kalymnos coast, construction projects that were started before the recession and will be completed “when the owner gets the money.” Even though we visited in October, a popular time for climbers, the streetside cafes were largely empty, with only two or three groups of patrons filling the two dozen tables of each eatery. Of course it benefitted us: The restaurant owners were ecstatic to have the business and paid us close attention.
Just as the locals are trying to get out, the refugees are trying to get in. A chain of seven Greek islands, including Kalymnos, serves as the first stop for refugees fleeing the Middle East via Turkey. According to The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), more than 856,000 refugees made it to mainland Europe via the Mediterranean in 2015, and almost 150,000 have traveled these routes in the first three months of 2016 alone.
Men and women with worried looks huddled on the sidewalk in the main town of Pothia. One bumbling tot too young to know what was going on attempted to play with her older sister, who at 7 or 8 more closely resembled the somber adults at least 20 years her senior. I felt a split-second urge to run over and help, or at least show them that someone cared. But how do you do that when you don’t share a language, cultural customs, or anything besides the ground you’re standing on? The next day the group was gone—taken where and by whom it wasn’t clear, but within 24 hours a new group was gathered in the same spot.
In August 2015, Kalymnos tourism released this statement on Facebook:
“A word about REFUGEES. We are receiving around 40 a day in Pothia. They are technically under arrest and may not leave. They hang around near the port police and are processed then shipped to Athens 2x a week. They make no trouble. Syria is not a 3rd world country and many of them are well educated and prosperous – many choose to stay in the local hotels and almost all have smart fones it seems. No crisis here on Kalymnos [smile emoticon] Thankfully WE do not need to flee our homes to avoid being killed. We many have a financial crisis in Greece but we live in peace and safety. [sic]”
The refugees weren’t welcomed with open arms, but they weren’t being kicked out either. I learned after the fact that groups of volunteers, called “solidarity networks,” were helping organize food, clothes, and transportation for the refugees, stepping up at a time when their own government refused to acknowledge the issue—or perhaps was too inundated with its own problems to lend a hand. Two weeks after we left, a boat carrying refugees sank off the coast of Kalymnos, and a helicopter and eight boats, both private and military, rescued 138 people. Nineteen people died, 12 of them children.
As visiting climbers, we woke up every day with the same kind of choice: Do we go to the easily approached Ghost Kitchen for a wide variety of grades and climbing styles, or do we head to Panorama Wall for neverending tufa pipes and quick access to a post-climbing beer? But a much graver choice had led the island’s other visitors here. Do we stay in our home country and face death, or do we pay dishonest smugglers to take us to an unknown future? It felt selfish to grapple with spindly rock formations when there were people nearby who had given up everything they knew just to survive. I wondered what would happen to those solemn faces we saw on the sidewalk.
The 25-minute approach to the Secret Garden and its all-day shade, refreshing wind, and nice range of routes on countless tufa blobs was just enough time for me to construct an elaborate fantasy. I would forego climbing on the rest of the trip and spend my time helping refugees. But where would I start? What would I do? Would I just be in the way? I pondered those questions until we rounded the last bend and came into view of the vast crag. About 60 more motivated climbers were already there, with a serious gear explosion of neon pink, green, blue, and yellow running the entire length of the 100-yard cliff. I supposed the Secret Garden wasn’t so secret anymore.
If we were in the States, I would have done an about-face and headed back to the car, chalking it up as the perfect excuse to take a rest day. But not here. Although there were plenty of people milling around and laughing at the bell-wearing goats trying to take food out of unattended packs, there were only about a dozen people on the wall and four times that many routes available. After a few days, we realized this was the case with most crags, so we settled into taking second shift, showing up just before lunch and staying till dark when everyone else had long disappeared to one of the many tavernas by the beach.
The globules of limestone protruding from the slightly overhanging wall dotted the first 25 to 30 feet of the face, creating jugs I could wrap my whole arm around. I pulled on to Ballos (5.11d/7a) and found the movement exhilarating; it was the right combination of gymnastic and technical, and I lunged upward, knowing I could always find a jug if I turned my wrist just the right way. Eventually I moved past the blobs and stemmed between two tufa fins so distinct I felt a lump of emotion rise in my throat. This was techy stemming at its best, just hard enough for me to have to rev the engine but not so hard that I was intimidated. A few moves of pump-induced awkwardness and I was at the anchors all too soon. I clipped the chains and began to lower off. That was the best route I’ve ever climbed, I thought.
Climbers have been traveling to Kalymnos since 1996 when Italian Andrea Di Bari discovered the area’s potential on vacation with his wife. He returned the next year and bolted 47 routes. Now the island boasts more than 2,600 lines, and there’s still more potential, particularly for those who have access to a boat. Major events like past climbing festivals, which were sponsored by The North Face for a few years, and the Petzl Roctrip have contributed a lot of harder development to the island, and in better economic times, the tourism group provided hardware to equippers. The 2006 Roctrip established the stunning Sikati Cave on the northeast coast, a gaping hole in the hillside that drops down a few hundred feet, with dozens of angles and formations offering some of the island’s hardest lines, up to 5.14d.
There are some local climbers, and the few of them who do put up routes are quite proud of it. On our way to Palionisos for a seaside lunch after a morning of climbing, a man with wild hair flagged us down on the dirt road and motioned for us to pull over next to his house.
“Oh he’s gonna try to sell us something,” I cynically said as my travel partner rolled the window down.
“Come in, come in!” the man said excitedly. “Come, sit!” We didn’t really know what to say, and we weren’t in a hurry, so we parked the car. Surrounded by a haphazard but cozy garden with green vines overtaking every vertical surface, we sat and listened to Nikolas tell stories of the travelers he had met over the past few decades. There were the Scots, the Germans, the British couple who visited him every year. His wife shuffled around in the kitchen of their restaurant-slash-home, only acknowledging her babbling husband when he asked us, “Coffee? You want coffee? On the house!”
Cats weaved through our legs as he showed us old newspaper clippings; he had helped develop some of the climbing near his home, and he wanted us to know that he, too, was a climber. “Nothing harder than 6b, though!” he laughed.
After a half hour of chatting—well, listening to Nikolas prattle on—we got up to leave. I slid 5 euros under our empty cups. A herd of 30 goats had surrounded our tiny Nissan Micra, so we got in and waited for them to disperse.
“No charge! This is yours!” Nikolas said as he ran out waving the paper money. I told him that I wanted to thank him for his hospitality.
“Take your wife out for a drink,” I said. As we pulled away, I could see his mischievous grin.
Kalymnian generosity became a theme of the trip. Free croissants were slipped into our bag of food when we visited Ethereal Cafe in Masouri for our daily chicken pies, spanakopita, and frappes. One restaurant owner, who manned the grill himself, capped off a particularly amazing meal of grilled prawns when he placed a few unsolicited beers on our table. We enjoyed complimentary yogurt, fruit, cereal, and eggs each morning while gazing up at the Grande Grotta, which overlooked our hotel, and George III would tell the staff in a booming voice, “Take care of them like you take care of me!” Freshly squeezed orange juice would appear on our table within a few minutes. I couldn’t help but think that perhaps this nonchalant approach to profit is part of what led the Greek economy to its current predicament.
At first I figured this was done just to keep us money-wielding tourists happy and coming back. But it became clear that the capitalist mentality is not prominent in Kalymnian culture. Kalymnians don’t seem to be concerned with the bottom line or how much they’ve got in their bank accounts. If a bill was 42 euros, the cashier (who was usually the shop owner), would gladly accept 40 euros and not think another thing about it. The kindness shown to us felt genuine, like they cared about us as people and not mere customers. Many of the businesses are passed down from generation to generation, and Kalymnians enjoy living life day to day, making enough to eat and survive and not concerning themselves with much else.
On the eastern coast lies Vathi village, a micro-town with some farms, restaurants, and a small deep water soloing cave that’s perfect for climbers new to DWS. The cave tops out at about 35 feet, the falls are safe, and because it sits on the edge of an inlet, waves and tides are not a concern. We spent a day basking in the sun, playing around on the routes that range from 5.10b to 5.12+, and cliff jumping, but it wouldn’t have happened without the helpful spirit of some locals.
Following the Greeks’ lead by lingering too long over morning coffee, we arrived well past the 10:30 departure time of the water taxi that was supposed to take us to the cave. We knew there was a trail to get there, but we only had flip-flops, and no map. I approached a woman who stood in the doorway of the restaurant closest to where the taxi departs and asked if there was another boat.
“I think they have all left,” she said. When my smile dropped and my shoulders sagged in disappointment, she said, “but I will call them,” the same way one might cheer up a disheartened toddler. “Sit down, sit,” she instructed us, even though we clearly weren’t there to patronize her restaurant. She asked my name as she dialed the phone, then a minute later I heard her mention it in the middle of rapid-fire Greek. “I am sorry, but they will not be coming back any time soon,” she said. We thanked her and headed toward the faint path that we assumed went to the climbing. After about five minutes of hiking, we saw a boat coming into the port, and a few people on board were waving and whistling. They had come back for us! What would have been a 45-minute slog in unforgiving sun turned into a pleasant five-minute boat ride.
Like most climbers, food is my second love, but Kalymnos ruined me. After experiencing the mouthwatering bifteki (grilled burger), octopus, souvlaki (skewered meat), saganaki (fried cheese), and loukoumades (honey-drizzled doughnuts), my once favorite home-cooked meals tasted like prison slop. Our favorite spot was the Aegean Tavern where each night a member of the Pizania family showed us to a table overlooking the water. We feasted on bread and olive oil, hummus, and seafood fritters while a half-dozen cats kept us entertained, a common sight at most restaurants. A waiter walked around with a desk-size platter of fresh fish to show us what had been caught that day, and we would sit for a few hours talking about that day’s climbing and anything else that struck our fancy.
We filled one rest day by visiting the various museums that extoll the archaeological, historical, and cultural stories of Kalymnos and its people. We learned of the island’s sponge-diving past, its main industry until the late 1980s when something in the water turned the sponges black, and how the men would go off for nine months at a time to harvest sponges. It is Kalymnian tradition to have big families of 12 and 14 kids—everyone sleeping in one bed—and since the men were gone, the women were left with the brunt of the responsibilities. When a pregnant woman went into the hills to gather daily herbs, she would carry a pair of scissors, just in case she gave birth.
Kalymnos was a lesson in contrast, the troubles of a country butted right up against the sunny, tourist-friendly parts. But that’s exactly why we travel, to experience a place fully and completely, in a way that pictures and videos don’t do it justice. To match our imagination to reality, even a reality that’s just as bleak as it is wonderful.
Kaylmnos, Greece Climbing Beta
How to Get There
For cheaper airfare, fly to Athens then to Kos where you can take a ferry to Kalymnos. You can fly directly to Kalymnos from Athens, but there are only a few flights a day and they’re pricey.
Where to Stay
Masouri is the climber’s town, with plenty of restaurants and shops within walking distance to many of the hotels. You can find an inexpensive Air bnb in the area, but sometimes the amenities aren’t as promised or the location is far away. Elena Village (60 euros per night) offered full suites with kitchenettes, free breakfast, a pool, Wi-Fi, and it’s within walking distance to Odyssey Wall and the multiple crags near Grande Grotta, which is directly above the hotel.
How to Get Around
You can get by with walking, but many crags, like the Secret Garden and Sikati Cave, are driving distance. You can rent scooters by the day, but the curvy, steep roads can be difficult to navigate with a tippy scooter and a heavy backpack. Renting a car is affordable and makes everything easier.
Where to Spend a Rest Day
Check out the Maritime Museum, Archaeological Museum, Sea World Museum, and the Folklore Museum; you can see all in one day. Visit the many beaches, tavernas, and villages; charter a sailboat; or head to the capital of Pothia, grab a coffee, and people watch as visitors arrive. Telendos is a quick boat ride away and has plenty of climbing to keep you busy for a few days, but there are no vehicles allowed on the island.