Wander the labyrinth of the Medieval walled city of Rhodos Old Town, getting lost and found in this thriving community that links modern tourism with 2500 years of history.
Note: Since my 4-month backpacking trip around Greece too many years ago, I had been longing to return to this magical land of myth, history, and dramatic landscapes. I recently made a fabulous 3-week return trip there, to research additional settings for my novel-in-progress, THE ARIADNE DISCONNECT. My first post in the new series, on September 30, gives an overview of my rambles with my husband Thor from Athens to the islands of Rhodes, Santorini, and Naxos, and finally a pilgrimage to the ancient center of the world at Delphi.
Thor and I are old-school travelers who don’t rely on GPS, and we get to meet interesting locals by stopping to ask for directions. Anyway, I’m not sure if navigating with an app would have worked in the warren of narrow cobbled lanes, historic buildings, and odd cul-de-sacs of Rhodos Old Town. We enjoyed wandering and stumbling into quirky discoveries on our way to “must-see” destinations. So today I’ll highlight features both grandiose and humble in this beautiful World Heritage site, with more detailed attention to important historical sites in future posts.
As I mentioned earlier, the island of Rhodos has been inhabited since Neolithic times, with significant history for at least 2400 years. Since the island lies on major traditional shipping routes connecting Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, its culture and architecture have been a fusion of influences from those regions. Rhodos Town was established around 408 BC in the Classical Greece era, with ruins of temples within the Medieval walls and outside on an acropolis. The Colossus of Rhodes, a bronze statue reputed to stand 100-130 feet tall and one of the wonders of the ancient world, was erected near the harbor to celebrate Rhodian victory over the Macedonians in 305 BC. (It was made from the melted weapons of the besiegers.) It almost certainly did not straddle the harbor entrance, as portrayed in popular images, and sadly was toppled by an earthquake in 227 BC. Apparently it took 900 camels eventually to cart away the scattered remnants of the statue, which were melted down to make coins.
The entrance to the harbor today (also top photo) is guarded by the town’s signature stag and his mate atop high columns:
After the Romans conquered the island, Rhodes became part of the Byzantine Empire and continued as an important trading center. Eventually the Knights of St. John, Crusaders who had guarded the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, bought the island from a Genoese pirate and relocated to the site of the current town. They built the massive walls with fortifications and held the island from 1306 to 1522, when the Ottoman Turks seized control. Venetians later had their day, so the town today features buildings with these many influences.
Old Town is surrounded by moats and 2.5 miles of Medieval walls, some of the best-preserved in the world. Eleven gates pierce the thick stone walls.
The moats now have paths and greenery, with tours available around the walls:
One of the major attractions to visit is the Palace of the Grand Master, the fortress-within-a-fortress that was the last defense of the Knights before they fell to the Turks. It was badly damaged, but was restored by the Fascist Italians who controlled the island in the early 1900s. (I’ll take you on a tour of the Palace interior and artifacts next time, along with some pithy comments on the reconstruction by author Lawrence Durrell, who lived on Rhodos from 1945-47.)
Near the Palace is the Street of the Knights, lined by the several Inns of the Tongues, which were the headquarters of the different groups of knights, according to their different nationalities and languages.
A doorway to one of the Inns:
A nearby cobbled lane:
A glimpse into someone’s courtyard, with more of the distinctive island paving-mosaics of black and white pebbles, called choklakia:
The small guest-house, Camelot Hotel, where we stayed was a restored 14th-century building, with this beautiful mosaic in the open courtyard. Our sweet hostess Nina, who gave us wonderful Greek yogurt, fresh spanikopita, and home-baked muffins for breakfast, warned us repeatedly about the steepness of the “14th-century stairs” to our upper room. I believe the round objects may be antique cannon balls (we saw some later in the museum), but I forgot to ask her!
One more small mosaic at a restaurant, with another of the island stags:
One of the many things I love about Greece is the presence of cats, and the way the Greeks seem to adore them, feeding friendly strays who wander into the open-air restaurants.
One of our meanders opened up into Plateia Ippokratous, a central square with a medieval fountain. Again, the old and new nestle together:
We were a bit disappointed to see that part of the heritage city was crowded with tourist-trap trinket shops and overpriced tavernas. We fell for a minor scam when, hot and tired, Thor ordered a beer and somehow ended up with this enormous boot-shaped glass with way more than the two of us could drink, at a steep price. We never did figure out why so many of the tourist spots offered these boots full of beer. Anyone know if it’s some kind of tradition?
And certain of the streets were crammed with trinket shops, including what appeared to be this season’s rage: “Splats.” Sadly, it seemed to be mostly young refugee men with blank faces who sat in doorways hawking these odd squishy toys that they would drop over and over onto the pavement to demonstrate the “splat.” I’ve read that such jobs are common for the many African refugees in Europe trying to eke out a meager living.
We did admire some of the offerings in the “tourist bazaar,” like these hand-decorated ceramic plates. The finer examples are intricately geometric or incorporating stylized flower images, with raised “bumps” as part of the designs.
The Turkish influence–hookah cafes:
Our hotel was near the Gate of the Virgin and ruins of Her church:
The gateway also leads to the edge of the Jewish Quarter, which was heavily damaged when the occupying Nazis were driven out at the end of World War II. History is still unfolding here.
The Greeks have good reason to hate the Nazis, as so many Greek communities suffered atrocities under the Occupation. In July of 1944, the Nazis ordered the deportation of over 1600 Rhodian Jews including men, women, and children. 1200 of them died at Auschwitz. The Square of the Jewish Martyrs, below, is sheltered by beautiful spreading plane trees behind a memorial fountain:
Join me and Thor next Saturday for a tour inside the Palace of the Grand Master, including gorgeous, ancient mosaic floors looted by the Italians from the island of Kos!
You will now find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection. It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?” The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from a research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect. Sign up for her quarterly email newsletter at www.sarastamey.com