Knights, Beaches and Negronis: The (Almost)Practical Guide: Rhodos Part Two

The old town of Rhodos is an open air museum in itself. Work on the fortifications that we see today was begun by the Knights Hospitalier in 1309, the year when they finished the conquest of the island. The different portions of the wall were guarded by the different Langues of the Knights- the langue, French for language, was an administrative division based on the language of the Knights who belonged to it. The four langues of Rhodos were the French, the Italians, the Spanish (including Portuguese knights) and the German (which, excitingly for the later geopolitical landscape of the continent, included both German, and English knights). The fortifications proved very efficient and resisted several sieges, including a forty day siege by the Mameluke sultan of Egypt and a 90 000 strong army sent by Mehmed the Conqueror. To put things into perspective, Mehmed’s siege was repelled by an army of no more than 5-6000 men inside the fortress walls. The fortifications also survived a devastating earthquake in 1481, but the island ultimately fell, in 1522, to the armies of another famous Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. The Ottomans went on to preserve the fortifications without modifying them significantly, thus ensuring that Rhodeo fortress remains, to this day, a unique glimpse into the passage of medieval fortification systems towards modern ones.

As with every task that requires orientation, my perambulations within the walls were often quite random, at one point, I even entered the moat, confident that I was walking into the old city itself. I do recommend the moat, though, as a great glimpse into how these impressive fortifications worked. Should you correctly locate Liberty Gate, which is theoretically not hard, since it is the gate which faces the port, you will soon reach the Archaeological Museum of Rhodos. It is housed by the hospital of the Knights, built in the second half of the 15th Century and packed full of spectacular artifacts from Ancient Rhodos, and the surrounding islands. As such, each space has information on what the room served for within the structure of the hospital juxtaposed with older layers of the island’s history. The collection is so rich that perhaps the best way to explore it is in several takes- a one day visit descended from the initial excitement of trying to tell different types of ancient receptacles apart scientifically to final yelps of look, another cute pot! (The hedgehogs are the cutest.) Some notable items include the Crouching Venus- she who inspired Lawrence Durrell’s book title, and the Head of Helios, which became a niche celebrity within the Vaporwave movement as it was featured in the cover art of Macintosh Plus’s 2011 album Flower Shoppe.

The other ‘big hitter’ is, of course the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodos, often referred to as Kastello for the sake of brevity. Archaeological evidence points towards the existence of an ancient shrine to Helios, the sun god, and protector of the island, in the same location, and, as such, it is a more likely spot for the Colossus to have stood than the entry to the port. The outlines of its current structure were born in the late 14th century, resulting in one of the few examples of Gothic architecture to be found in Greece. Its current iteration is, however, very much the result of 20th Century Italian meddling and looks the part. It is not as much a Gothic castle as a romanticised fever dream of how a Gothic castle should have looked. Durrell, fresh from the trials and tribulations of WWII, was appalled by the Italian interventions, feeling them to be a Fascist appropriation of ancient culture- he was not very wrong, as the Palace was meant to be Benito Mussolini’s summer residence, a project cut short, sadly for Benito but thankfully for us, by the outcome of the war. It is definitely a more monotonous experience than the archaeological museum, as it is made of a series of quite similarly splendid ceremonial halls, but some of the smaller rooms have spectacular views of the port, looking like the perfect spot for a Medieval scribe to illuminate some manuscripts before repelling an Ottoman siege.

The remnants of neighbourhood once known as Juderia lie towards the eastern end of the Old Town, grouped around Dosiadou street. The bulk of the Jewish population of Rhodos was made up of Ladino speaking Sephardic Jews, who received shelter in the Ottoman Empire after being expelled from Spain, in the 16th Century. The community flourished up to the 1930s- in 1938 the Italian rulers passed anti-Jewish legislation which led to about half of the community fleeing the island. Those who remained met a tragic fate. In 1943 control of the island was surrendered to the Germans, who sent over 1500 people to several concentration camps, most notably Auschwitz. Of the island’s synagogues, only the Kahal Shalom survives. Services are occasionally held during summer, when many descendants of the local community return to the island, otherwise the synagogue functions as a museum of the Rhodian Jewish community. The custodian on the day of our visit spoke lovely, French inflected English- he was born in the Congo, the son of Rhodian exiles.

(Ladino has a similar relationship to Spanish as Yiddish has to German, if anything, it is even more intelligible to a Spanish speaker than Yiddish is to a German speaker, with a very similar pronunciation, but a considerably adapted orthography. As Ladino speaking communities flourished in the Ottoman Empire, their traditional music is an intriguing mix of Western European language with Eastern sounds.)

Ottoman buildings are also preserved in a way that is not typical of other parts of Greece- as such, Rhodos is a glimpse into how the urban landscape of the Aegean might have looked, on both the Greek and the Turkish side, if the population exchange of 1923 had not taken place. The main street, Sokratous, is overlooked by the Mosque of Suleiman, built after the successful siege of 1522, and reconstructed in the 19th Century. Across the street from the Süleymaniye is the Hafiz Ahmed Agha Library, surrounded by a lush garden and ‘protected’ by a crew of large, well fed, and visibly very content felines. Hafiz Ahmed Agha was born in Rhodos and rose through the ranks of the court to become the Chief Equerry of the Sultan. In 1793, he founded the library, with almost 2000 manuscripts covering religious and scientific topics. Of these, many remain in the library to this day, including Persian miniatures, a Koran from the 16th Century and a manuscript detailing the history of the 1522 siege. Outside the old city walls, and close to the marina, lie the Murad Reis Mosque, adjacent cemetery and the Villa Cleobolus, where Durrell lived during his stay on Rhodos, and where he wrote most of Reflections on a Marine Venus. Yes, I am a little jealous of his arrangement.

Back in the old city, the Dorieos square is a distillation of the Rhodos feeling: on one side, the medieval church of Saint Phanourios, on the other, the Mosque of Reçep Pasha and its ritual fountain. In between, secular trees and the terraces of tavernas. Speaking of tavernas: while there are, as in all touristic areas around the Mediterranean, some shady enterprises with questionable food, we followed the rule of thumb of going for places that specialise in local dishes, and have the right scent, that is, of fresh meat or fish fried on a grill: Ta Mezeklikia is situated in the above mentioned Dorieos square, Seva’s Place is a surprisingly pleasant small family restaurant close to the infamous Parthenon Hotel while Orexi lies close to the sea on the north-western tip of the island. I was curious of Orexi’s name, googled it, and the resulting exclamation of ‘of course, anorexia!’  may have startled the restaurant’s patrons. But yes, orexi means appetite, and anorexia means not having one. Learn a bit of Greek and soon you become a meme, this one. The blog’s industrious co-photographer also followed the good scent, as we call it, and made another unexpected discovery: Augustinos Gyros, on Diakou avenue, looking very much like your very average Mediterranean fast food has, in fact, some of the best grilled meat in town. Which you can wash down with Zythos VAP, locally brewed on Rhodos. A light, crisp summer beer with a very clean taste, it is not to be mixed up with the Alfa Zythos, which is, alas, probably the worst of the Greek commercial beers. Some terraces list the two quite interchangeably, so it’s worth specifying you want the local one. When it comes to coffee, nothing beats Monk. It’s a specialty coffee place close to the Guard Officer’s Club, where I managed to anger a very stern gentleman by taking a picture of the building- while it has very fine architecture, it is also a military objective, and hence cameras are not allowed on the premises. Monk Coffee is a special ecosystem, with a mixed crowd of locals and discerning tourists. Service seems quite slow, until you realise that, in fact, they are preparing batches of take away coffee at the same time, with a delivery boy coming and going at regular intervals. I found the idea of coffee delivery somewhat appalling, but then again there might be life circumstances which a) absolutely require coffee and b) do not allow you to leave wherever you are, plus c) who am I to judge anyone’s life choices. Should you be in need of caffeination in the old town, your best bet is 7grams, where you can consider an excellent apple pie to go with your coffee of choice.

What about the beaches, you will say, and rightly so. When it comes to the city, the safest bet is Elli, already mentioned in the first instalment. A little further off lie Kallithea Beach and the adjacent Kallithea Springs Spa. Kallithea beach is a looker, with spectacular cliff formations and a lovely blue sea, but is more suited to snorkeling than ‘recreational swimming’, at least for less athletic swimmers, as all the inlets are fairly slippery and rocky. The visual qualities are however evident- so much so that the beach is amply featured in the Triangle at Rhodes episode of ITV’s Poirot series. Further to the south lies Anthony Quinn Bay. It is possibly even prettier than Kallithea, which is what Anthony Quinn thought when he was shooting the Guns of Navarone on Rhodos, and wanted to buy the whole thing, as the anecdote goes, though a more realistic version claims that he did, in fact, own some more subdued property in the area. Overlooking the bay is Kounna Beach and Resto Bar, which veers away from the rustic trend with a fine dining take on local food staples and also serves absolutely fabulous Negronis. The cheapest way to get to more remote beaches is by bus. It also comes with the positives that it stops very frequently and tickets can be purchased on the spot, which naturally means that it’s also excruciatingly slow. Car rentals are also widely available and make the most sense if you want to visit several beaches in a day. But then one of you can’t have the Negroni at Kounna’s, which is a pity, so you might as well get a taxi- while not quite as cheap as the same service in Turkey, prices are not extortionate, especially if you travel with a small group.

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