Saturday, 2 November 2013

The Rhodian project

Tout with his parrots in the Square of the Jewish Martyrs, Rhodes Old Town

What they sell most of in Rhodes is sunshine and play
If Marmaris is a brassy tramp, selling her wares cheaply to any and all, then Rhodes is an old whore who's sure of her worth. She's been on the game a long time. She's packaged up her 300/365 days of sunshine and sold them and her beaches off to operators and developers whose ambitions have defiled miles of coastline. And she's given over the main streets of the Old Town to mass-manufactured souvenir shops and thick-skinned souvlaki hustlers. But you've got to hand it to her. Tired as she is, Rhodes still has the goods.

We weren't expecting that. The size or the gravity of this fortified medieval city took us completely by surprise. Its 15th century fortifications make those built by the same Knights of St John at Bodrum and at Kos look makeshift in comparison.

The Palace of the Grand Master

Coats of arms on an inn in the street of the Knights

There are nine gates through the walls into the Old Town

The moat between Rhodes' two rings of fortifications

The entrance to Mandraki Harbour - legs over the water
Not only are the scale and proportions of the Old Town's double skin of walls and gates imposing, but within those walls are buildings and monuments, artefacts and sculptures, which reflect Rhodes' continuous occupation over 2400 years. Ancient Rhodes, built in 408 BC, possessed one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a bronze statue of the sun-god Helios (he who is still worshipped on the beaches) which straddled the entrance to Mandraki harbour and was so massive that tall-masted warships passed between his legs as they came in from the sea. The Colossus of Rhodes was felled by an earthquake, and in the modern maritime era  Mandraki harbour is famous only for being so over-crowded that in peak months yachts are squeezed into spaces much narrower than their beam. Work began on a new Rhodes marina 10 years ago, but things being as they are in Greece, its completion date is a local joke.

Looking up the street of the Knights

The Inn of France is the most elaborate

The courtyard of the hospital, with pyramid of siege balls

The Ottomans captured the city from the Knights of St John in the mid-1500s, and ruled Rhodes for 400 years. They left some handsome mosques and fountains, and typical wooden Ottoman modifications to houses which in Turkey itself are not that easy to find.

But it's the Knights whose put their stamp on the town most forcefully. What remains of those two warmongering Crusader centuries besides the massive walls and their gates and moats are a palace for the Grand Master (re-built by the Italians), an austere street of knights' lodges,  a magnificent hospital (now used as an archeological museum), and around these and other large buildings, a tangle of narrow arcaded streets and pebbled alleys.

The Knights did lovely stonework, but they buried a lot of ancient Greek blockwork when they built their town. It peeks through in places. Look through the first-floor windows of the city's modern (sort of) art gallery, and you'll see the ruins of a temple of Aphrodite, smack up against parked cars. Then  follow the traffic as it flows out through the Marina gate towards the harbour and around to the new town where people are doing what people have always done.

Reverie by Orestis Kanellis (1910-79) in the Rhodes Modern Greek Art Museum
Habitue of Mon Cafe, Old Town

The Marina gate, and harbour traffic

New Town 

Epicurus rules
For all its exterior solidity, the internal boundaries of Rhodes town seem porous. We were waylaid by bad company as soon as we got off the ferry. Patrick, who once taught philosophy in Brussels, runs a kind of Epicurean salon for ex-pat idlers at Mon Cafe. Espresso is the least of his attractions. Each evening we decided (again) to eat at Yianni's taverna where the food was honest and the sense of humour a hybrid of Brooklyn, NYC and the southern Aegean. At night we slept at Spot Hotel, just up the road from the Jewish martyrs' square. Rhodes' Jewish quarter used to have six synagogues, but of 1604 Jews who were deported to Auschwitz in 1944 only 151 survived. So now there's one synagogue. It's the oldest in Greece, built in 1577 (under Ottoman rule, one deduces).

The only synagogue in Rhodes

Jewish quarter

Looking across to Lindos in eastern Rhodes 
If we ever get to Lindos by sea, we'll know where to anchor. The water in the harbour is so clear, and the depths so shallow, that you can see the sandy bottom quite easily. But forget it by land. The place seethes, even in late October. We took a wide circle around the island and found a lot not to like, but also some stretches of inland and coastal road where you could imagine the idyll evoked in pre-1960s (even pre-historic) memories of the island.

Monolithos castle, on the west coat of Rhodes

There's always a goat....

Rhodes is just "over there", but I doubt that we'll be back again. We've taken our measure of the old girl, from top to bottom, and once was enough.

The ferry back to Marmaris

The cameraman


  1. Just awesome. That balcony over the street reminds me of Sana'a, another Ottoman city... Keep the posts coming!

  2. And you keep safe and sound on passage to NZ. Look forward to Galactic making landfall.