Rhodes: An outdoor museum of ancient cultures

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By Victor Block

“You want to spend two weeks on Rhodes?” our Greek friend asked.

“You’ll go out of your mind.”

Fast forward two months. After our trip, my wife, Fyllis, and I recalled that warning and agreed that we had been wrong. We should have stayed on Rhodes longer.

Hearing the word “Greece” can conjure up multiple images. Whitewashed villages gleaming in the sun. Seas that range in a spectrum of color from light turquoise to dark blue. Archeological sites that trace the roots of much Western civilization.

Rhodes has it all, conveniently packed into an area about one-seventh the size of Massachusetts that allows visitors to discover its allures and attractions at a leisurely pace.

The island is an outdoor museum of reminders of peoples who have passed through — the seafaring Phoenicians, Persians, Roman Empire and Ottoman Turks.

The city of Rhodes is perched at the northernmost tip of the island where an ancient settlement rose more than 2,400 years ago. Monuments from every period since then stand in silent testimony to its long history.

The old walled section is the largest inhabited medieval town in Europe. Ancient building and fortifications manifest an atmosphere of the Middle Ages as authentic as that found anywhere.

Many of the most impressive structures date back to the period between 1307 and 1522 A.D., when the Order of Knights of St. John of Jerusalem ruled and left imposing evidence of their presence. The Street of the Knights, lined by former residences, leads to the fortress-like Grand Master’s Palace. An archaeological museum is located in what served as the main hospital of the Knights. Hippocrates Square, the Old Town’s main shopping area, is lined by imposing stone buildings that today house restaurants and bars.

Despite its population of only about 1,100 people, Lindos vies with Rhodes as a magnet for visitors. It’s a quintessential Greek village of white houses, dazzling in the sunlight, perched on the side of a steep hill. Looming above is the acropolis, a cliff topped by graceful columns that are remnants of the Temple of Athena. Also intriguing is an outdoor auditorium carved into a rocky cliff that could seat 1,800 spectators.

Located near the middle of Rhodes, Lindos is well situated for day trips to beaches and other attractions. Like many destinations in Europe, beaches that range from soft sand to rounded pebbles line Rhodes. The best are strung along the east coast of the island.

Despite the allure of sand and sun, Fyllis and I managed to tear ourselves away to delve into a mixed bag of historic sights. Driving through the countryside, we followed roads that snake over rolling hills and low mountains. Landscapes vary from arid, rocky terrain near the coastline to verdant forests in the interior.

A stroll through the extensive ruins of ancient Kamiros introduces the lifestyle of its original inhabitants during the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. The site spills down a hillside overlooking the sea. On the top level stood a temple complex of Athena and a covered reservoir, large enough to supply water to several hundred families through a network of terra cotta pipes.

The main settlement, on a lower terrace, consisted of a grid of streets and houses adorned with mosaic floors and painted wall decorations. The remains of public baths include hot and cold chambers, and an underground system for heating the rooms.

Equally inviting is contemporary life encountered in tiny unspoiled mountain villages, which in many ways has changed little over generations. Residents of Archangelos are known as master artisans who make pottery and weave carpets and tapestries using the same time-honored methods as their forebears.

Anyone driving into the village of Appolonia need only follow the wonderful aroma to find the little bakery of the same name. It turns out breads and cakes that were mentioned in The Iliad, using recipes handed down by generations of local families.

Kritinia is one of the prettiest villages on Rhodes. Clinging to a hillside, the town of about 550 inhabitants offers panoramic views of the sea in one direction and, in the other, of Mount Attavyros, at 3,985 feet the tallest spot on the island.

For an excellent meal, and opportunities to meet friendly locals, stop at any of the small tavernas that you pass when driving between and in villages. The owners often are the cooks and wait staff, and even if they speak no English, they go out of their way to help you order.

As ubiquitous as tavernas throughout Rhodes are churches. While the major religious edifices attract most visitors, Fyllis and I found equally inviting the tiny white chapels that are scattered around the island. Many of these miniscule structures can accommodate only a handful of worshippers.

For more information call the Greek National Tourism Organization at 212-421-5777 or log onto visitgreece.gr.