Love and Loathing on a Sun Soaked Island: Rhodos Part One

We have a complicated relationship, Rhodos and I. It began with what could only be described as love at first sight but then it went down unexpected Rho(a)des. It was the first time I had arrived in Greece by way of water, which could seem odd for a country so fundamentally defined by its seas, but these days we all just fly in, carbon footprint guilt drowned in plentiful glasses of ouzo. Greece’s blue skies are crisscrossed by budget airlines dumping their planeloads on scorching, windswept stretches of tarmac. Often I have been one of the many to knock on Greece’s fabled doors in a glorified seaside hangar. But this time around we came by ferry, from the Turkish Aegean coast. A short ride from Fethiye, it was supposed to be, but the sea was moderately choppy so we arrived behind schedule. An ulterior foray into Lawrence Durrell’s Reflections on a Marine Venus revealed that approaching Rhodos had been an even more perilous, and approximative, affair in the past, so we were probably fairly lucky. You’ll hear again about Durrell, be warned, as it’s one of my great passions to explore unfamiliar places guided by an idiosyncratic and mostly obsolete book.

The first thing to admire in the port is an absence. That of the Colossus, of course. Two deer are perched delicately on columns guarding both the entryway and a motley crew of fishermen trying their luck in the shallow, crystal clear waters. This is where the Colossus may have stood. Also, it may have not. Perhaps it was straddling the entry to the port, but, most likely, it wasn’t. Accounts of exactly how it looked, and what it was made of, are often contradicting one another. We know it represented the sun god Helios, and, in its complete and unscathed form, existed for a mere 54 years, until serious damage was inflicted on it by an earthquake, in 226 BC. Locals refused to rebuild it on a warning from the Oracle of Delphi, as you did in those days. The last remains of the colossus were carried away by Arab invaders in 653 AD. Today, the Colossus is a tantalising tale of may have beens, a thrilling historical puzzle to unwrap, or the perfect subject of a daydream. All that, plus a fanciful decoration on fridge magnets, ash trays, bottle openers, kitchen towels, wrapping paper, soap boxes, tablecloths, medallions or dog bowls.

On the other side of the island’s northern tip lies a beach, often somewhat wavy, and always packed. Elli beach comes complete with an eclectic centre piece, a domed building completed by the Italians in 1938. Durrell thought little of the Italians, which makes sense, since he arrived on the island as WWII ended, the Italians having lost control over the Dodecanese islands, which they had held since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Italian architectural interventions of this period are held in questionable regard by most, given that they were all too often expressions of Fascist ideals, but more on that later. Let us now focus on the waters of this beach. They are blue. Not just one, solid shade of blue, but many, ranging from the green that is almost blue to the blue which is so blue it hurts. The blue which is the definition of blue, even when we know that we don’t know what blue is- very Greek, very philosophical, but evidence does tell us that ancient texts were very confused when describing shades of blue and green, and often interchanged terms for the two. Seeing this beach is like seeing the quintessence of a beach, so I gazed over it, enveloped by the scents of fresh fish, ouzo, salt and spit fire, and felt Rhodos and me, we had a connection.

Alas, the initial infatuation was to be brief. For the next thing I was acquainted with was the Parthenon Rhodos Hotel. A good, solid name, I felt, the pictures looked promising. I didn’t read the reviews though, and if there is one thing you take away from this piece, let this be it: always read the reviews. The Parthenon is, in its unassuming fake marble splendour, the embodiment of everything that is wrong with mass tourism. Every nook and cranny of the building creaks, evidence of shoddy construction and years of unmitigated overuse. The room décor (slightly optimistic name for it, all things considered) looks like the items were sampled from a yard sale, randomly, by a blind person, or perhaps their guide dog. While efforts were made to keep a semblance of cleanness, curtains and sofas had stains that looked like being made by bleeding mammoths in the Holocene. The fact that the two rusty chairs on the balcony, overlooking the Balmoral Castle, did not come accompanied by a table should have hardly registered, but the unfased man at the reception, Cheshire cat smile plastered over his unblinking expression, seemed fixated on the topic. So the Madam (that would be me, feeling more like all the snakes on the head of the Medusa by this point) needs a table on the balcony. Yes, I would, I would need one. But what for?! To write, I said, shrieking like a stabbed gorgon while also trying to feign a modicum of composure. But write what, he insisted. A novel that will change the course of literary history, if all goes well, but as a very first step, a vicious putdown of your hotel on social media, mister, what else. My insistence that ‘one of their finest rooms’ was, in fact, not one of their finest rooms, paid off. For the remainder of our stay, my passage through the reception area was watched with polite apprehension by the staff, my every move suspicious, as if I were Nero on his way to set Rome on fire. Our upgraded room was in a marginally better condition, but, alas, considerably closer to the kitchen of the Balmoral Castle. Which, you might have inferred, is not THE Balmoral Castle but a rather questionable English themed pub, with a kitchen seemingly specialised in overly fried meat patties. As images of the Queen’s memorial service flashed on the screen of our TV (one of the few functioning amenities in the room), the irony of our predicament was all too evident.

But then, of course, Rhodos snuck its way back to my heart. It definitely won’t be my favourite Greek island, which is quite alright, because it’s a very quirky one, at that. It only became part of modern Greece after WWII. Before that, it was the Italians who held the Dodecanese, the group of islands that Rhodos belongs to. Dodecanese would mean twelve. There’s fifteen of them, but let’s not get bogged down by that. Before the Italians, the island belonged to the Ottoman Empire, and the old town is dotted with fine examples of Ottoman architecture, most notably the pink hued Mosque of Suleiman, built in 1522 to commemorate the conquest of the city by Suleiman the Magnificent’s troops. Greek flavoured Turkish speech can still be heard in Rhodes- as the island belonged to Italy during the 1923 population exchange, the local Turks were not subject to it, and automatically became Greek citizens in 1947. Most of them stayed. The Ottoman Empire also encouraged Sephardic Jews, expelled from the Iberian Peninsula, to settle on the island. Their community flourished in the neighbourhood known as Juderia, the outlines of which are still discernible today, up until the tragic events of WWII, which destroyed the community and displaced the few who survived.

Before the Ottomans, the island had some unexpected overlords: the Knights Hospitalier, freshly evicted from Jerusalem, conquered the island from the Byzantines in 1310. They built the medieval fortifications which serve as the backbone of today’s old town. Among them, The Palace of the Grand Master, amply tampered with by the Italians, still dominates the landscape with its bulky majesty. Before the Knights, history had flown in its familiar course: Roman and Byzantine rulers. Even earlier, in the mists of ancient time, the islands welcomed waves of Greek settlers, Minoans, Myceneans and the Dorians who built the three famed cities which can still be glimpsed today in an array of collapsed temples and acropolises: Ialysoss, Kameiros and Lindos. Why Rhodos then, you will ask. Legitimately, and for a while the island was known by the name of its, at the time, principal city, Lindos. The most widespread theory considers Rhodos to have come from the Greek for rose, rhodon, of which there are plenty on the island. One is prone to such musings when walking down the deserted Street of the Knights at dawn, when the rays of the sun rising over the sea suddenly enter the alley straight on, as if the walls were built as a perfect conduit for the light. This is sound travel advice, to wake early on a Greek island. Most locals and tourists won’t, so you’ll have the streets to yourself. More sound advice, and less rambling, in the next instalment.

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