On the isle of Rhodes, ancient civilisation lives on among a time-worn landscape striking in its beauty, as Ashlee Starratt discovers.
In Rhodes, they like it big. The largest of the Greek Dodecanese islands, it perches like a monolith in the Aegean Sea just off the coast of Turkey. Its age-old harbour was once home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – the Colossus of Rhodes, a 108-metre-tall bronze likeness of the sun-god Helios erected in 280 BC which stood sentinel at its mouth until an earthquake in 226 BC felled it.
Today, Rhodes remains an island pock-marked by history – with the ruins of its acropoles and hippodromes, its temples and ancient fortifications standing cheek-by-jowl alongside the inevitable trappings of tourism amid the clap-trap of the modern age.
Rugged in its natural beauty, its area is worth exploring if you don’t mind jostling among the throngs of tourists that clog its central Medieval Old Town on this, the Island of the Knights – named for the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, a medieval Catholic military order that conquered the island in the 14th century.
Wander the Old Town’s brick cobbles from the fortified ramparts of the castle walls down to the harbour where Helios once kept watch. Like most medieval walled cities of Europe, its alleyways and back lanes are chock-a-block with the requisite souvenir shops, art galleries, cafés and eateries to tempt you.
At its heart you’ll find the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes, a medieval castle now converted into a museum and cultural centre. At once a palace, headquarters and citadel, it’s one of Greece’s only cases of Gothic architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Inside you’ll find artefacts, mosaics, sculptures and interiors that showcase its Byzantine and Gothic roots, and the influence of Ottoman and Italian occupation in later centuries.
For those seeking an escape far from the madding crowd of the Old Town, a day-trip to the village of Lindos will reward visitors with cerulean views across the Aegean from its cliff-top acropolis and the Temple of Athena. Be sure to meander through the village with its signature white-washed buildings – indicative of the Greek aesthetic – and stop by the Virgin Mary of Lindos Church to view its 15th-century frescoes.
Cultures at every crossroad of history have left their mark on this ancient island – from the Hellenic empire, to the Crusaders and the Ottomans, to World War II Italian occupation. If its shores could talk – who knows what language they might speak.
My favourite place The beach-front walk along Ialyssos Avenue in Ixia with nothing but the sea and sky by your side for miles. Make a pit-stop along its stretch of beach and go for a splash in the Aegean – or haul up a chair at one of the myriad roadside restaurants and wolf down the best gyros you’ll ever taste in your life.
Highlights Step back in time in the Temple of Apollo at the Acropolis of Rhodes, with its ancient theatre and hippodrome stadium; explore ancient Kamiros, climb up to the medieval castle of Monolithos, and fuel up on the exquisite seafood that’s been a hallmark of the Greek culinary archetype for millennia.
Lowlights Brits on holiday. Rhodes is the latest of the Greek isles to be overrun with the spring-breaker crowds and summer club kids whose budgets didn’t quite stretch as far as Ibiza. Be warned.
Souvenirs Gold and silver jewellery, Aegean sea sponges, Greek honey or olive oil, traditional Komboloi beads, a handmade backgammon set (practically the national board-game of Greece!) or a package of syrupy-sweet Greek baklava.
Getting there Oman Air flies daily to Athens starting from RO420, where you can grab a connecting Aegean Air flight for the less than an hour-long flight to Rhodes. Once on the island, hotel shuttles and taxis are plentiful and most drivers can speak English.
Where to stay The Sheraton Rhodes Resort for prime beach-front luxury is just a 15-minute taxi-ride from the Old Town city centre. If you’re in the market for some character digs, give the Old Town Senses Boutique Hotel a whirl for ‘medieval-meets-modern’. Or, hit up some prime Airbnb options for a uniquely personalised stay that will make you feel like a local.
Top 5 things to do:
1. Embark a day trip to the northern port city of Mandraki
2. Take a walk through the Valley of the Butterflies
3. Try your hand at windsurfing at Kiotari Beach
4. Sample the moussaka at Artemida Taverna
5. Climb the Old Town clock tower for a breathtaking Aegean view