Rhodes is a sunny isle in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea. As the largest of Greece’s Dodecanese islands, Rhodes is best known for its uninterrupted sandy beaches, ancient ruins, and its occupation by the Knights of St. John during the Crusades that left behind the fortified Old Town, one of the best preserved medieval cities in the world. Later captured by the Ottomans and then held by the Italians, the Old Town is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Surrounded by the calm, crystal waters of the Aegean and peppered with craggy hills and green valleys, Rhodes is a beautiful Greek island to get lost in and we did just that.
THE OLD TOWN
The ancient city of Rhodes began construction in 407 BC. It soon developed into a key centre of seafaring and trade. It was here that one of the infamous Seven Wonders of the Ancient World could be found. The Colossus of Rhodes, a towering bronze statue of the god Helios, stood more than ninety-feet tall over the city. It fell after an earthquake in the year 226 BC, scattering gargantuan limbs across the harbour. The Roman philosopher Pliny described the statue in its glory: "Few men can clasp the thumb in their arms, and its fingers are larger than most statues."
Rhodes fell into decline after the Roman era, but in 1309 the Knights of Saint John conquered Rhodes and built fortifications around the ancient city in order to use it as a strategic site in their Crusades. In 1523 Rhodes was conquered again, this time by the Ottoman Turks. New buildings were constructed within the Old Town, mainly mosques and Turkish baths. In 1912 Rhodes was seized by the Italians. As part of their occupation, the Italians refurbished the city with extravagant buildings, wider roads, and squares. Today the Old Town and the New are a mixture of cultures accumulated across the centuries. Exploring these fascinating and historic streets is to open a treasure trove of culture, colour, and human experience.
From the medieval buildings to the bastions of the fortress, from the walls, gates, and narrow alleys to the teetering old houses, fountains, and busy squares, the Old Town is both a labyrinth of treasures and also a curious time-warp. The Palace of the Grand Master dominates it all. Originally a Byzantine fortress, it was converted in the early 14th century by the Knights of the Order of Saint John into the residence of the Grand Master. Later re-constructed by the Italians, today it is a vast museum telling the story of Rhodes.
The Old Town of Rhodes is walled in by medieval fortifications. These walls, originally built by the Crusaders, tell a story of medieval life and conflict.
The fortifications are miles long and are linked by a series of gates and towers. What is especially remarkable is that the fortress is a fully intact medieval structure that is still populated by residents to this day.
HOSPITAL OF THE KNIGHTS
The Knights of St. John built their hospital next to the Street of the Knights, not far from the Palace of the Grand Master. Gothic in aesthetic and structured around a courtyard with a double portico, this building would have been a place to treat the sick and injured. Today the building is used as the Archaeological Museum of Rhodes, hosting a varied collection of findings that date from the Mycenaean era to the Christian time and includes the medieval arts of the Knights.
Outside, cobbled roads and meandering lanes lead onto wide squares. Between the shops, restaurants, and old houses, there are ancient ruins and yet more historic buildings around each corner. The medieval structures sit alongside unearthed Greek and Roman ruins, Turkish baths and the spires of mosques, ruined churches, and fountains in the Jewish and Turkish quarters that make up the mosaic of culture that is Rhodes.
The old, winding streets are filled with colourful shops and tavernas. Between the archways, alleys, and clustered buildings, the market stalls overflow with goods. Selling hand-made crafts, woodwork, art, and beauty products, you can just as easily spy medieval memorabilia and souvenirs among these stalls. Every few steps throws up a new place to eat or to stop for a drink. Whether you are looking for a glass of wine or an iced coffee, if you are peckish for a traditional Greek dish or just want to cool down with a creamy gelato, there is something for everyone.
IN THE LABYRINTH
The back alleys of the Old Town are a labyrinthine network of cobbled lanes and crooked buildings. The colours and textures burst to life in the sunshine. Empty buildings, peeling and decayed, sit alongside alleys bustling with tourists browsing the home-made wares of the residents and side-stepping the mopeds weaving through the streets. Keep an eye out for the endless parade of stray cats climbing the walls or lazing in the sun.
The port of Rhodes at Mandráki Harbour, a small marina with Rhodian deer statues at its entrance and lined by old windmills, is an idyllic slice of pure blue. During the day this is best enjoyed by taking a stroll and viewing the luxury yachts and quaint sailing vessels. Harbour cruises explore the clear waters of the marina and glass-bottomed tours offer the chance to see centuries of history collected on the harbour floor. There are plenty of bars and restaurants to sample some delicious Greek cuisine, espeically fresh seafood. At night, the harbour is a spectacle with lights illuminating both the city walls and the boats bobbing in the marina.
A long wave-breaker stretches out into the waters at Mandráki Harbor. Along the way there are three medieval windmills. These were once working windmills that ground the grain unloaded from merchant vessels in the harbor. Past these remnants of Rhodes's trading history, you find yourself at the Fort of St. Nicholas. Built to guard the military harbour of the Knights, this was expanded into a stronghold and remains a fine example of coastal defence. The original tower of St. Nicholas - named after the patron saint of sailors and around which the stronghold was built - eventually became the lighthouse that can be seen today.
Lindos, a village of sugarcube houses that tumble toward the sea, surrounded by achingly blue waters, and topped by an ancient Greek acropolis, is one of the must-see sights of Rhodes. Lindos proves to be a maze of little alleys with bars, restaurants, and markets squeezed between white-washed medieval walls and pebbled floors. Situated on the east coast of Rhodes, Lindos has the distinction of being the hottest place in Europe. The highest temperature ever recorded here was 42°C. Between the cool walls of the village, donkeys can taxi the residents up the steep incline to the acropolis above. The world famous Lindos Acropolis, set high above the town, is reached by climbing steps to the top of a rocky outcrop overlooking the bay. The Acropolis, the Doric Temple of Athena, the Propylaea of the Sanctuary, and a Hellenistic staircase are all to be found here, as well as influences from the Turkish and Italian rulers.
There are three beaches in Lindos. Megali Paralia and Pallas beach provide pure stretches of sand and a small marina, where sail boats float in these calm waters. Each are well-served by beach side tavernas. The final beach, St. Paul's Bay, is to the south of the village. This tiny, picturesque harbour is named after the apostle. With aqua-marine waters and golden sands, this little cove is a gem of the island.
Rhodes, with its golden beaches and enchanting history, makes for a relaxing and romantic adventure. Surrounded by the hypnotic waters of the Aegean and never-ending horizons, this is a place that soaks into your soul. The rest of the Aegean islands are calling to me. There is more adventure to be had yet.