It was past midnight, I was cradling my extremely sleepy four year-old while stifling my own yawns, and looking forward to nothing but the soft bed awaiting me at Hermes Hotel, as the taxi drove us from the ferry boat to Mandraki marina. Upon arriving at the atmospherically lit harbour, lined with high Medieval walls, I sat up in awe. I had never seen an island port like this in my life – it was more like entering a different era, a different country, perhaps even a different world. I had been to Rhodes in 2003, then arriving by air, and had only entered the magical Medieval Town by foot from the innards of the city.
As the capital of the Dodecanese, this 5000-year-old island is filled with natural, cultural and historical wonders – and indeed, the Colossus of Rhodes, a giant statue of a 282 BC wrestler was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Influences from its many occupiers, who recognised the strategic power of its geographical position, can be seen all around – from the Carians, Phoenicians and Dorians and later the Romans millennia ago to the Ottomans, Byzantine Emperors and the Knights of the Order of St John during the 14th and 15th Centuries and the Italians during WWII. Rhodes’ fascinating architecture, socio-political thought, cuisine, literature, art, and music are all inundated by a multicultural flavour. The locals are friendly, culturally refined and open-minded, just serving to enrich one’s experience of the place.
Despite honouring its historical value with reverence, the island is however not stuck in the past; modernity has reached it on many levels, and it successfully caters to every variety of tourists from around the world. There are a plethora of things to see and do there but here I have selected the utterly unmissable.
Rhodes Old and New
The UNESCO World Heritage site of the Medieval Town, with its pebble-mosaic (cholakia) -covered streets, the Palace of the Grand Master with its towered, majestic entrance and large courtyard, rows of shops selling everything from tourist trinkets to designer clothing on bustling Sokratous street, Ottoman buildings such as the Suleymanie Mosque and Byzantine temples makes for a unique mise en scene. Any time of day during any season (but particularly on a softly-lit summer night) the ambiance here is nothing short of romantic, enchanting and chronologically transportive. Walk along Ippoton, the Road of the Knights, where Inns that once housed Knights of the Order of St John of different ‘tongues’ (Italy, Castile-Portugal, England, France, Auvergne, Germany, and Aragon-Navarre are. Eat out in the charming courtyard of the Cafe Auvergne, Marco Polo Mansion, Petaladika or Alexis’ fish restaurant; head to Museum Square and visit the Archaeological, Ceramics, and Lady of the Castle museums.
The New town, where the above-mentioned Mandraki is, also has its gems – cultural spaces, restaurants and landmarks, most characteristic being the three medieval windmills and the high columns on which bronze fallow deer stand welcoming incoming boats. Visit Evangelismos Church, Eleftherias Square, and Rimini Square, and for an ultra high-tech experience learn about the island’s history and mythology at impressive the 9D Cinema (yes, nine!). Keep an eye out for the Art Deco buildings such as that of the National Theatre and the Aquarium, built by the Italians in the mid 1930s, and driving along the coastline away from the central part of the town you’ll soon see ongoing stretches of giant hotels with their private beaches, always busy with life. Watch the sunset at Monte Smith and then go for a drink on bar-lined Kosti Palama street.
Have a Swimming Time
There are countless pretty, clean-water beaches in Rhodes, some of them quite astounding, particularly if you can manage to avoid the crowds and visit in late May / early June or in September when as locals say, the island becomes a different world. Here are some of the most unmissable: Tsambikas has soft sand and transparent waters, as well as a nice taverna. It’s well worth hiking to the church of Panagia Tsambika that stands on a cliff, for the spanning views. If you’re staying centrally near the Medieval Town head to the huge stretch of coastline at organised Elli beach, and enjoy a spot of lunch or a candle-lit dinner and cocktails at Ronda’s. Glam it up at red-rocked Anthony Quinn Bay where sailboats and yachts lay anchor and where the film The Guns of Navarone was filmed (starring the actor it was named after). In Lindos, visit Aghios Pavlos beach to admire the impressive rock formations and see the Acropolis from within the water. For some solitude head to Harakipebble beach or virginal Kiotari, while if you like to swim on the wild side, go out of your way to enjoy nature in all its glory at Mavros Cavos, with its crystal cobalt waters and sand dunes, Fournipebble beach, or Natura 2000-protected Limni beach in Apollakia which also has sand dunes, fragrant white lilies sprouting from the sand and is also a nesting spot for Caretta Caretta turtles. If you like a different kind of wild, go kite or windsurfing at blustery Prassonissi, at the southernmost point of the island. If you have kids, time and money, don’t miss out on a day at the Waterpark in Faliraki.
Lindos Bella Lindos
Lindos is primarily famed both for its archaeological and cultural value – as it is home to a 115m-high Acropolis dedicated to the goddess Athena and built during the Bronze Age (4th C BC), as well as a castle from the Crusader era. It’s reputed for its low-key glamour during the 50s-70s that drew the world’s barefoot glitterati (from Jackie O’ and Aristotle Onassis, Giorgio Armani, Sophia Loren and Giovanni Agnelli to Barbara Streisand, Yul Brinner and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmore, who built a house there) to sip him a wine and nibble on fresh fish at simple yet exquisitely picturesque side-street cafes and seafront tavernas. Today the village with not over 800 residents during winter becomes a stomping ground for millions of mostly day-tripper tourists throughout the summer, and its narrow, pebble-stone streets (with lovely mosaic designs) and altitude mean the temperatures there can rocket up to 50 degrees Celsius in July and August. Not a favourite experience for this somewhat agoraphobic writer, who arrived there fantasising to re-live its scenic tranquility and rich history a la Loren but instead found herself practically elbowing her way through jam-packed, clothes and trinkets-covered, sweltering, labyrinthine streets; there is so much stuff on sale that sadly one cannot even see the beautiful Cycladic-style architecture. Certainly if one veers off the busiest roads there are quieter streets to amble through. The Acropolis is certainly worth a visit if you can get there early in the morning (please don’t go by mule as this asinine practice has been proven to be an abuse to the poor animals). There are three beaches to cool off at, the best being that of Aghios Pavlos. For a homemade lemonade or coffee go to Captain’s House, one of several old sea captain’s mansions found here, and for lunch or dinner to Mavrikos, Broccolino, Blue Fin and Gelo Blu.
Immerse Yourself in Art & Culture
With such a rich history Rhodes has a great deal to reveal about its millennia-old history. There is a grand selection of cultural spots to visit but some are guaranteed to provide you with a 101 on the island’s character and existence. Apart from the Medieval Town and its various landmarks mentioned above, you can visit the Rhodes Jewish Museum and Synagogue, where in the courtyard you can read the tragically endless list of names of those who perished in Auschwitz. For a look into the island’s traditional lifestyle and crafts, go to the Lardos Folklore Museum. The island is known for its prime quality honey (and the sesame-honey melekounia sweets that represent union and abundance, which is why they’re often served at weddings), so why not go to the Bee Museum in Pastida? For a coffee and shopping as well as taking in beautiful examples of local arts and products in the new town, sit in the garden of Rodoscope Creative Gallery. And heading towards Lindos, stop at the Seven Springs and then drive just 7km to the innovative Art Park, a large interior and open air space where talented artists Damon and Emi present sculptures, paintings and installations they and collaborating artists have created. As for historical landmarks, go northwest to see Ancient Kamiros, southwest to the quaint mountain village of Monolithos with its lovely castle, and south/southwest to the equally pretty and traditional villages of Lachania, Vati and Apollakia. Rhodes also has an active cultural life throughout the year, hosting events like The European Jazz Festival, the Open Doors Event (this year celebrating 30 years since Rhodes became World Heritage City), the Sound and Light Show, the Rhodes Street Food Festival, the Medieval Festival, International Film Festival, Music Festival and even a Watermelon Festival!
Do the Natural Thing
If you have more than a day or two, try and catch some of the natural glories of this multifaceted island. Apart from its many beaches, there are hot springs such as those at Kallithea and several mountains (Atarviros, Profitis Ilias, where you’ll find a thick forest, and the highest Akramitis) where you can go hiking, mountain biking or climbing in an organized tour. There are also several horsebackriding ranches like Elpida, Apollon, Fivos and Kadmos, that take you through natural landscapes like the island’s characteristic pine and cypress forests and beaches. Between July and September, you mustn’t miss the Butterfly Valley (Petalouda) where you can see a multi-coloured flutter of magnificence all around you in a green and scenic (but be warned, often tourist-crammed) location. If you are seeking to see something different go to the 60m high Guduras Dam near Apollakia village, where you can see a large lake, a lovely biotope great for bird-watching (maybe you’ll spot a Bonelli’s eagle) and the Dama-Dama deer that inhabit it.
STAY: I stayed at the comfy, quiet yet ideally central Hermes Hotel in Mandraki, which overlooks the lovely marina and the three windmills and deer-topped columns, and the scenic, beautifully decorated and newly renovated Rania’s Villa (P: +6944565337) E:[email protected] in Apollakia, just minutes from the wild and wonderful Natura 2000-protected Limni beach.
EAT: In the new town I ate lunch at Ronda on Elli beach and dinner in the Medieval Town at Petaladika (must book in advance:+30 2241 027359). I had juice and a snack at Captain’s House(+302244 031235) and lunch at Mavrikos(+30 2244 031232) in Lindos, dinner at Platanos taverna in Lachania, lunch at Platanos (+306 97 227 5471) in Vati and dinner at Pelecanosin Vati (+30 2244 061100) and gourmet brunch Cafe d’Auvergne in the Medieval Town.
Many thanks to the Rhodes Municipality and UNESCO World Heritage Cities Ambassador Lee Minaidis for their highly professional, gracefully hospitable and warm assistance.