Athena Was Here, Perhaps Saint Paul Too, But Mary Has Left the Building: Lindos and Beyond

The island of Rhodos offers plenty of opportunities for a day trip, and you can plan most as a mix of beach splashing and more elevated cultural pursuits. After some careful evaluation we went for what we thought was a rather relaxed itinerary of Lindos, Butterfly Valley and Phileremos Monastery, with a starting point from Rhodos town. In retrospect, maybe I should have skipped that morning coffee at Monk, so we could have left earlier and not ended up on the Acropolis at high noon, but that requires being reasonable, which is not one of my strong traits.

For once, the Parthenon Hotel proved competent at an undertaking, and our car rental was handled without a glitch. The average price for a small car (think in terms of a Fiat Panda or Toyota Yaris) is around 50 euros per day, and, all things considered, it doesn’t really make sense to rent a larger car. As any self-respecting Greek island, Rhodos has many narrow roads where size does matter, and the smaller you are, the higher the chances to squeeze past that truck which will of course arrive at the bend right when you do too, from the opposite direction. The drive from Rhodos town to Lindos lasts roughly one hour. There is a direct route by the sea, which is however more heavily trafficked. You can also opt for one which starts through Ialyssos and then crosses the island’s backbone to join the seaside road later. While this option is slower, it allows you to explore the scenic inner areas of the island, which more beach focused visitors hardly ever see.

These days, Lindos is a scenic fishing village, but between the 8th and 5th centuries BC it was the island’s most flourishing settlement, an important trade centre for the commerce between Greek and Phoenician territories. Its most notable ruler was Cleobolus, one of the Seven Sages of Greece. He espoused many progressive ideas, such as women’s right to education, and his daughter Cleobulina became famous in her own right as a poetess. Ancient texts describe her as being either the mother, or partner, of Thales of Miletus. You have to give credit to Ancient Greeks for never straying too far from a good Oedipian riddle.

The first thing you notice as you approach Lindos is, of course, the Acropolis. And the first thing we heard as we reached it was a tour guide joyously yelping ‘what is an Acropolis?’. This, in fact, seems to be the preferred modus operandi of guides in the Dodecanese (and perhaps elsewhere as well, I just rarely listen to one for more than a few seconds): asking a thundering question only to answer it immediately themselves. An acropolis is the upper part of a settlement, often a citadel or a fortification of sorts. The point here was that there is no such thing as THE Acropolis (as in, the one in Athens). Quite to the contrary, Greece is peppered with acropolises and the one in Lindos is the most spectacular on the island of Rhodos.

Its centre piece is what remains of the ancient temple of Athena Lindia- the cult of the goddess Athena was of particular importance in Rhodos, second only to her following in Athens itself. As the citadel was used and fortified, successively, by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, the Knights Hospitaller and the Ottomans, very little remains of the ancient temple and the propylaea (gate) of the sanctuary. To make things worse, some of the excavation works and restoration done by the Italians leading up to WWII was quite shoddy- yes, them again, let’s just say their stay in the Dodecanese is not covered in too much glory. The acropolis is, however, a stunning location. While you may need to put your imagination to work in order to picture how the temple may have looked in its heyday, the views across the sea are real, and spectacular. As already mentioned, we managed to summit the acropolis at noon, and we didn’t have pre-bought tickets either. We were lucky, though, as only fools can be: the queue was minimal and we were let in quickly enough. By the time we left, the queue was however snaking down the path that leads to the village. It’s a winding, rocky path that gets seriously narrow in a few places, so definitely not the ideal place to be cooped up in a queue. It was strange to contrast the image of the overcrowded path with the description of Lawrence Durrell’s visit: his party struggled to find accommodation in Lindos, so much so that they considered sleeping al fresco, among the ruins, only to be saved by a last minute offer from a merciful soul.

These days, pretty much the whole village of Lindos becomes accommodation in summer. Particularly popular are the so called captain’s houses. These mansions were built in the 16th and 17th centuries by rich merchant seafarers, and mix eclectic elements of Gothic, Byzantine and Moorish architecture. Many will have elaborate pebble floors, known as hohlaki. The best known of these is Captain’s House Bar which functions as a taverna, with a couple of rooms housing reconstructions of traditional captain’s house interiors. It’s not very easy to find though, as the inner alleys of the village form a maze that will put even the Google Maps algorithm to a stern test.

St Paul’s beach is much easier to find, as it lies right at the northern tip of the village, in a beautiful cove with pristine blue waters. Tradition considers this spot to have been where St Paul landed on the island, but evidence of this remains anecdotal. His goal, if he did make it to Rhodos, must have been to teach Christianity to the locals and a chapel commemorates his supposed point of arrival. Christian values of moderation are however somewhat contradicted by the current state of affairs of the beach: a sunshade/sunbed combo can cost up to 40 euros in the more coveted spots, shaded but close to the sea. While we are talking about some pretty handsome looking sunbeds, you are probably better off having a short dip and then a quick drink at the bar- as opposed to the beach amenities, the prices are in the normal range, and they offer a selection of decent, if unspectacular cocktails.

We had such an excellent time in Lindos that we were quite late to leave for Butterfly Valley and only managed to get in because the gatekeeper took a liking to our haplessness and allowed us to make a quick dash inside after closing time. Needless to say, proper daylight would have improved the experience, but we still managed to glimpse some, by now decidedly sleepy butterflies. No wonder-the butterflies, of the genus Panaxia emerge from their nymph stage in May, without a stomach. As such, they do not feed throughout their adult life and subsist on water and stocked up energy alone. Visitors are therefore required to be as quiet as possible, as scaring the butterflies into unnecessary flights is draining their dwindling energy stocks. The Panaxia butterflies love the valley due to the presence of zitia (oriental sweet gum) trees, which secrete a substance that attracts them, and they also have plentiful water available in the streams which flow among the trees.

Being late to Butterfly Valley meant that we were even later at Philermos Monastery, so much so that it was closed. We peered through the gates and inspected the shadows of the Gothic arches, which looked ominous in the twilight. We were, however, not the only ones not to be in the monastery: Our Lady of Philermos had eloped herself. The Byzantine icon, dating back to the 11th or 12th century may have been brought by the Knights from Jerusalem, although according to some versions, it was already on the island before their arrival. Whether she came with the Knights, or not, her miracle making powers were considered to be in their favour, and she was credited with protecting the island during the successfully repelled siege of 1480. When the Knights ultimately lost Rhodes, they took the icon with them to Malta, where it remained until the island fell to the French, in 1798, when it was taken to Russia by Catherine the Great’s son Paul I, who was the de facto Grand Master of the Hospitallers for a brief period. Her stay in Russia ended after the October revolution, when former empress consort Maria Feodorovna spirited her out via Copenhagen. She was then transferred to the custody of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia, and remained in Belgrade until WWII, when she was moved to Ostrog, in Montenegro, to protect her from possible Nazi looting. Her presence in Montenegro was kept a secret until 1993, but she can now be admired in the Museum of Art and History of Cetinje. Since we could not admire the absence of Our Lady of Philermos more closely, we decided to take a walk along the path leading to the lookout spot dominated by the large stone cross which can be seen from most of the island’s northwestern tip. Seeing the stunning view of the Turkish mainland and the island of Symi shimmering purple on the horizon we felt that, instead of being late, we had in fact arrived right on time. Sometimes the best part of travelling is the one that does not go according to plan.

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