Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Rhodes, part two: Greek Hospitallerty and Fortified Tourism

Rhodes Town, Greece (Ρόδος, Ελλάδα) 
29 July 2016
On our final day on Rhodes, we had to choose between waking up early to visit the acropolis of Lindos or sleeping in a bit and going for a swim. We decided on the latter partly because we're lazy but mainly because that was the last chance for  a swim we would have in Greece - after Rhodes we would be taking an overnight ferry to Athens (where we expected no swims) and from there, a flight back to the UK.
After the swim (which strangely caused both Yannick and Fabienne to contract an itchy sea-rash, while François and I were unaffected), we drove to Rhodes Town and entered the historic part of the city. The old town is surrounded by a double layer of thick walls and a moat. Despite the impressive defenses, Rhodes has had a long and fascinating history and at different times has been controlled by the Romans, the Arabs, the Genoese, the Knights Hospitaller (a Catholic military order), the Ottomans, and the Italians.

Though super tourist-oriented, it was a beautiful old town with stone houses and archways, mosques and churches. Souvenir shops were everywhere, and restaurant touters were out in force declaring "yassas, hello, welcome please" down every street.

As we wandered, not worrying if we became lost so long as we stayed within the walls of the old town, we stumbled across an intriguing structure and pondered over it. A man saw us and sidled up, telling us that it was a well for ritual cleansing. Just off to the side of it was a mosque, and before entering one would have to wash their feet in the well out of respect. We thanked him for the information, and he passed a business card to us with his restaurant's name. This touter had some sneaky skills, as we did end up going back to that very restaurant for lunch after exploring a little more.
Disappointingly, his hummus was not good, but the gigantes were excellent and we were seated under a huge tree which shaded us from the sun most effectively. Overall it was more aimed at tourists than we like, but I feel that it was a better choice than most other places in the old town. As Fabienne and I needed to use the bathroom before setting off again, we went looking for it together. Hearing that someone was inside the only stall, we waited patiently outside while they left the stall and unhurriedly washed their hands. Then a male waiter emerged, which was quite unexpected as the bathroom we visited was clearly marked for women. He jumped a little when he saw us and said "Oh, sorry!" in his thick Greek accent. As soon as he had gone, Fabienne and I cracked up. It doesn't sound terribly funny written down, as it was the way he said "oh, sorry!"...you had to be there.

This is just one example of the many imposing gates that allow access into the old town. From inside we didn't notice the towers, and then once we had a look at the harbour outside the gate we turned around and were stunned by how large it was!

The cobbled streets felt very pedestrianised, but whenever you least expected it a motorbike would roar through, sending crowds scattering. Buskers were a staple feature of Rhodes Town, and they were almost exclusively children. Most played accordions sitting on the curb, while some were dressed in costumes with their hands out for coins.
Then the time came to leave the old town and board our ferry. When booking, we had made the choice to pay a little extra for a four-berth cabin (with ensuite) as we figured it would be much more comfortable than spending the whole night in cheap armchairs. As we settled into our cabin, the ferry drifted out of the harbour into open waters. Over two thousand years ago, a great statue of the sun god Helios had been erected at the entrance to the harbour: the Colossus of Rhodes. Completed in 280BC, it was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and stood at 33 meters high (around the same size as the Statue of Liberty when measured without her pedestal and raised arm). Tragically, an earthquake snapped the statue at its knees 54 years after it was built, toppling it to the ground. For centuries, even the ruins were so impressive that they attracted many visitors every year, but under Arab rule the bronze pieces were sold and carted off using nine hundred camels. Plans to build a new colossus are rumoured, though scholars disagree on where the original statue may have stood. After visiting the wondrous Crete and Karpathos, I was definitely disappointed by the touristic tint of Rhodes, but maybe I'll visit again once the colossus is in place (hearsay has the new statue standing at 150 meters tall!).
And what a success the cabin was! The bunk beds were surprisingly comfy and I managed to sleep for most of the night, which was brilliant as I was well-rested for our day in Athens.