In Rhodes we enjoyed three days staying in the city and made a couple of other visits as well, the harbour was bustling with activity and although we didn’t especially like the new town the old town was spectacular with a castle and city walls, old churches and an abundance of historical sites. We explored the back streets and the ruins, some of which were the result of British bombing in 1944 which made us feel guilty.
On the first morning we woke early and went to the Street of the Knights because this is one of the best preserved/restored medieval streets in Europe and we wanted to get there before the crowds. As soon as the cruise ships arrive and discharge their guests onto the quayside hundreds of people make straight for this place and it immediately loses its atmosphere and its charm. At eight o’clock in the morning however there was no one about except the odd delivery man and it was possible to soak up Mussolini’s fascist interpretation of the medieval street.
In Rhodes town there are so many layers of architectural history piled upon one another like leaves of pastry in a slice of baklava starting in the classical era, continuing to the medieval, Byzantine and then moving on to the Ottoman and Italian periods. A wander down its hauntingly pretty cobbled streets, the air filled with falling orange blossom, is a deeply evocative experience, long-time residents looming from doorways, the scent of leather and bougainvillea, the elusive flash of an icon glittering in a back alley.
All of this history is here on Rhodes because in 1309 the Island was occupied by forces of the Knights Hospitaller and under the rule of the newly named ‘Knights of Rhodes’ the city was rebuilt into a model of the European medieval ideal. Many of the city’s famous monuments, including the Palace of the Grand Master, were built during this period. The citadel of Rhodes, built by the Hospitalliers, is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe, which in 1988 was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Gradually however the strong walls which the Knights had built came under siege and withstood the attacks of the Sultan of Egypt in 1444, and of Mehmed II in 1480. Ultimately, however, Rhodes fell to the large army of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1522 and the surviving Knights were permitted to retire to the Kingdom of Sicily before later moving their base of operations to the strategically placed island of Malta. The Knights had ruled the island for two hundred years but Rhodes was thereafter a possession of the Ottoman Empire for nearly four centuries and during this time the city acquired a characteristic eastern and Turkish culture and style.
In the nineteenth century the decline of the Ottoman Empire resulted in the general neglect of the town and its buildings, which further deteriorated due to strong earthquakes and in 1912, Italy seized Rhodes from the Turks. Under the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne, the island, together with the Dodecanese, was officially assigned to Italy.
The Italians rather liked Rhodes and Mussolini had a grand holiday villa built in the mountains to the west of the island. The Villa de Vecchi was to be the dictators retirement home but after the Italians were expelled the place was abandoned and fell into disrepair.*
The Italians would later demolish the houses that were built on and around the city walls during the Ottoman era. They also turned the Jewish and Ottoman cemeteries into a green zone surrounding the Medieval Town and whilst they preserved what was left from the Knights’ period they destroyed all of the Ottoman buildings.
During the Second-World-War, following the Italian Armistice of September 8th 1943, the British attempted to get the Italian garrison on Rhodes to change sides but this was anticipated by the German Army, which succeeded in occupying the island. The Allies declined to invade and simply starved the occupiers out instead through a stranglehold blockade. In 1948, together with the other islands of the Dodecanese, Rhodes was united with Greece.
In the morning we visited the City museum which was fascinating but had rather too many old pots to keep my interest for very long and an hour was long enough for both of us so we walked around the harbour and under the city walls around the gardens in what was once the defensive dry moat. We had learnt to say no with some authority by now and dodging the persistent waiters we explored the much quieter Turkish quarter before finding a bar with a shady spot for a lunch time drink.
Later in the afternoon while I sat on the terrace with a book Kim went to a Turkish bath for an exfoliation and a massage but I declined to join her because if truth be known I am quite attached to my dead skin and by this time I was nine days into a self cleansing experiment and a good scrubbing down would have ruined it.
In the early evening we sat chatting to some people, a New Yorker and a young woman from Lichtenstein who worked together in Luxembourg as investment bankers and a student from Bosnia who studied at the University there. They were young show-offs really and I couldn’t help wondering why they weren’t at work sorting out the banking crisis that people like them at created rather than sitting around on holiday in Rhodes sailing and scuba diving, but chatting to them turned to our advantage when we received an unexpected dinner invitation.
The room owners Sofia and Phillip were cooking for them and as they prepared the tables they invited us to join them for a home prepared meal of dolmades and possibly the best beef stifado we have ever tasted. We had an excellent meal and swapped increasingly boastful travel stories and Sofia told us all about Greek cuisine. We have the recipe for the stifado but we are pessimistically certain that it will take some recreating to achieve that authentic taste.
*(2014) Now the property of the Greek Government it is included in a portfolio of property offered for sale as part of the attempt to relieve the economic crisis.