Why should I buy a Greek sponge?
Think of it as a present with a pedigree, for the humble sponge has played a dramatic part in the social and economic history of Greece.
My bathroom is cluttered enough as it is without all that history.
Well, concentrate on the practical qualities of the natural sponge. One hundred per cent organic, it's perfect for cleaning newborn babies, soothing skin problems and gentle exfoliation. It's soft enough for sensual massage and strong enough to clean your car; as a gift it is so light and malleable you'll never have any problems fitting it in your suitcase.
Enough of the sales pitch, where can I pick one up?
You can buy sponges all around Greece but to learn more and seek out the best I would suggest you do a little island hopping around the Dodecanese.
And go where?
First to the island of Symi, two hours from Rhodes by boat.
What awaits me?
The ferry ride into the historic harbour is worth the price of the ticket alone; it is like sailing into an enormous opera set. The neoclassical merchants' mansions are stacked on top of each other to form a giant pastel amphitheatre - and all this architectural grandeur stems from the sponge trade.
Was there a boom?
In the 19th century Europe went sponge crazy; Britain, Russia, Scandinavia, Germany, Spain and France couldn't get enough of the stuff. Greek sea captains mopped up with the introduction of the new diving suit, and the traders made fortunes from the international big business. Decline came with over-fishing and the introduction of synthetic sponges, but the domestic monuments to the generated wealth remain.
OK, I'm off the boat. Where should I go now?
No further than the water's edge. There are several established shops around the harbour that are all worth a visit. Dinos, close to the bridge, is the oldest, and the Aegean Sponge Centre has the best demonstrations, but the star of the block is Nikolaos Psarros at Symi's Sponge Centre. He is a trained marine biologist who delivers a lecture on the history of the Symi sponge twice a day outside his shop.
Sounds a little dull.
Far from it, the effervescent Nikolaos produces a riveting show in a style that can best be described as Benny Hill meets Jacques Cousteau with a little Homer tossed in for good measure. He uses audience participation, Aristophanic dialogue and some old-fashioned preaching to get his story across. And it works. By the end of the 30-minute performance you will look at that modest piece of bathroom kit in a totally new light.
He sells you one, of course. The enchanted audience simply cannot leave the island without one of his products.
Are all the sponges the same?
No, each is unique and there is a confusing range of sizes, shapes and types on offer.
So what should I be looking for in a good sponge?
As Nikos says, there are as many secrets to a sponge as there are holes.
Well, give us a clue.
A good sponge should retain a lot of water without dripping all over the place. Find one that fits comfortably in your hand. Then test it out with one of the buckets of water that are dotted around the shop. The soggy sponge should sit there like a portion of steam pudding drenched in syrup.
The bright yellow sponges look nice in the bathroom but have been treated with chemicals and don't last as long as the dark golden natural sponges. Generally, there is a big difference between a decorative and a cleaning sponge, so decide which you want.
Look for the honeycombed variety (kapadiko, in Greek). Densely packed with small hexagonal holes, they are the original high-quality species that brought fame to the area.
How much do they cost?
Expect to pay 23.4 euros (£14) for a quality large hand sponge, and 13 euros (£8) for a decorative one of the same size.
How should I look after it when I get home?
You can wash the natural sponge in a washing machine on a 40C setting. Keep it out of direct sunlight, rinse it regularly and hang it up to dry to stop it going slimy. With a little luck it should last at least five years.
Is there anywhere else that I should visit on my sponge odyssey?
Yes, go to Kalymnos, "the sponge diver's island", north of Kos. It is much more of a working island than the majestic Symi, and the only place in Greece that still practises commercial sponge diving. Here you will gain a better understanding of the gritty side of collecting, cleaning and grading. There are two good museums on the island: Sea World Museum in Vlihadia and the Kalymnos Nautical and Folklore Museum in the port of Pothia. Also worth a visit is the Astor Sponge Factory, where they demonstrate how the natural black sponge is transformed into the golden spongy ball we know and love.
I'm about to get into the shower. Yes. Read Bitter Sea (www.guardianangel-press.com) in which Faith Warn tells "the real story" of sponge diving. You will never be able to take your sponge for granted again.