Live like a Greek on the island of Rhodes

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Victor Block
Whitewashed houses dot the picturesque coastal village of Lindos on the Greek island of Rhodes. Lindos has its own acropolis and Temple of Athena, along with other archaeological ruins and a popular beach.
Photo by: Anders Lundstedt/dreamstime.com

“You’ll lose your mind spending two weeks on Rhodes,” we were warned. “Sure, some of the beaches are lovely, and the water is Aegean blue. But that’s about it. Two or three days there is enough.”

Spoken by a friend of Greek background, those words made me and my wife Fyllis wonder if we had made a mistake. But it was too late. Airline tickets had been bought; hotels had been booked.

Fast forward two months. On our flight back home, we recalled that warning and agreed that we had made a mistake. We should have stayed on Rhodes even longer.

It’s not easy for a country like Greece to live up to its reputation. That’s even more true for an island like Rhodes — only 50 miles long and 24 miles across at its widest point. Yet we found that many of the delightful images the word “Greece” brings to mind were fulfilled there, in an area compact enough to explore at leisure.

Whitewashed villages gleaming in the sun. Fishermen returning to port with an aquarium-like variety of ocean life, to be freshly prepared simply and deliciously. Seas that range in a spectrum of color from light turquoise to dark blue. Virtually countless archeological sites that trace the roots of much Western civilization. And people whose love for life casts an infectious spell even upon those who are there for an all-too-brief visit.

The city of Rhodes contains the largest inhabited medieval town in Europe. This castle, built by the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, consists of 205 rooms and today houses the Archaeological Museum of Rhodes
Photo by: Panagiotis Karapanagiotis/dreamstime.com

Not a trip; a way of life

When planning where to go in Greece, Fyllis and I followed our own rule: The more travelers try to see, the less they often do. By focusing on a single island, we were able to discover its allure and attractions at our own pace.

Through our stay on Rhodes, Greece became a temporary way of life, interspersed with visits to ancient ruins, tiny towns, magnificent handiworks of nature, and other attractions that combine into a microcosm of the entire country.

For anyone who is not a dedicated museum-goer, Rhodes provides the perfect setting. The entire island is a veritable outdoor museum, with reminders everywhere of cultures and customs of peoples who have influenced it. The seafaring Phoenicians, Persians, Roman Empire and Ottoman Turks are on the long list of powers that once held sway over the island.

A logical starting point for exploration is the city of Rhodes, perched at the northernmost tip of the island of Rhodes, on the site 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.

Surprisingly, the old walled section is the largest inhabited medieval town in Europe, and one of the best preserved and most beautiful. Separated by its massive walls from the tourist-oriented new area that has sprouted around it, the ancient fortifications and structures manifest an atmosphere of the Middle Ages as authentic as that found anywhere.

Fyllis and I returned several times to follow the narrow cobbled lanes wherever they led. A number of the most impressive structures date back to the period between 1307 and 1522 C.E., when the Order of Knights of St. John of Jerusalem ruled in Rhodes and left imposing evidence of their presence. (The Order had been established in Jerusalem as part of the First Crusade. When Jerusalem fell to the Muslims, the Order moved to Rhodes, where it built a navy to continue its battles.)

The Street of the Knights, lined by former residences, leads to the fortress-like Grand Master’s Palace. Three delicate apses are the only reminders of the Church of the Virgin Mary. The Archaeological Museum is housed in what served as the main hospital of the Knights.

Hippocrates Square, the Old Town’s main shopping area, today is lined with restaurants and bars housed in imposing stone buildings.

Archaeological treasures

Further south on the island, the town of Lindos vies with Rhodes as a magnet for visitors, despite its population of only about 1,100 people. It’s the quintessential Greek village portrayed on travel posters. A smattering of white houses, dazzling in the sunlight, perches on the side of a steep hill.

Looming above is the acropolis, a cliff topped by graceful columns — remnants of the Temple of Athena, the protectress of Lindos and goddess of arts and crafts.

The archaeological treasures of Lindos extend around the acropolis. I found especially intriguing an outdoor auditorium carved into a rocky cliff that could seat 1,800 spectators. Standing at the base of the amphitheater in the silence of an afternoon, I could visualize the scene when an audience gathered to be entertained by a play or other presentation.

Because of its location hugging the eastern shore of Rhodes, about halfway between its northern and southern tips, Lindos is well located for day trips to other beaches, towns and nearby attractions.

Like many destinations in Europe, Rhodes is lined by beaches that range from soft sand to rounded pebbles. The best are strung along the east coast, and they can be crowded during the high season. That’s certainly true of the sand beach at Lindos, which balances what can be a crush of bodies during summer with magnificent views of the town and its acropolis.

The beach at Kalithea, a short drive south of the city of Rhodes, is adjacent to several coves that offer good swimming and snorkeling. Tsambika, a bit further on, has golden sand lapped by turquoise water. 

Despite the allure of soft sand and searing sun, Fyllis and I managed to tear ourselves away from such pleasures to delve further into the historic sights of Rhodes. Driving through the countryside, over roads that snake over rolling hills and low mountains, we passed through landscapes changing from arid, rocky terrain near the coastline to verdant forests of the interior.

Goats seemed to be everywhere, grazing on grass at the foot of fruit trees and in olive groves, and tethered anywhere there’s a tiny plot of grass.

Pausing for a stroll through the extensive ruins of ancient Kamiros immersed us in the lifestyle of the original inhabitants during the 6th and 5th centuries B.C.E., when it was a thriving city. The site spills dramatically down a hill overlooking the sea.

On the top level stood a temple complex of Athena, from which the revered goddess could gaze out over the setting. A covered reservoir, large enough to supply several hundred families, furnished water through a system of underground 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.

Mountain village life

Tiny, unspoiled mountain villages are scattered throughout Rhodes. In many ways they have changed little over the generations. Things move at a slow pace (except when people are driving a car or motorbike).

Many town folk cling stubbornly and proudly to their traditional ways, while a few take advantage of the influence of tourism by opening a small shop or restaurant with a few outside tables.

Archangelos, the largest village on the island, covers a low plateau rimmed by mountains. Its residents 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. The nine women who own the enterprise bake breads and cakes that were mentioned in The Iliad, Homer’s epic poem about the Trojan War, using recipes handed down by generations of local families.

They also make and sell olive oil and liqueurs. If you’re ever there, be sure to sample the melekouni, a sweet pastry revered in Homer’s texts, and “spoon sweet,” a popular Greek dessert flavored with a variety of fruits.

Kritinia is one of the prettiest villages on Rhodes. Perched upon 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. Those who hike or drive up the mountain find ruins of a temple to Zeus.

Tavernas and churches

For an excellent meal, and an opportunity for pleasant encounters with friendly locals, stop at one of the small tavernas that you pass when driving between and through the villages.

In many cases, the owners are the cooks and wait staff. Even if they speak no English, they will go out of their way to help you order. Several times we were invited into the kitchen to see what was available and point to what we wanted.

Almost as ubiquitous throughout Rhodes as tavernas are churches, and they come in all ages and sizes. While guidebooks describe the major religious edifices that attract most visitors, including ruins from centuries past, Fyllis and I found especially inviting the tiny white chapels that are scattered around the island. 

Many of these little structures, some of which can accommodate only a handful of worshippers, are located along isolated side roads in rural areas. Such miniscule places of worship stand in contrast to massive cathedral-like buildings that date back to times when Rhodes was a power in the ancient world.

The atmosphere in the cities of Rhodes and Lindos is very different from that experienced in villages elsewhere on the island. That diversity accounts for much of the appeal of the island, and introduces those who go there to much that Greece has to offer.

If you go

While any time is a good time to visit Rhodes, mid-summer has the highest daytime temperatures and largest crowds, and the most rain falls between October and March. Early spring and late fall are perhaps the best times to go.

Unrest in Greece has been in the news recently, but it has primarily been confined to Athens. We encountered none on Rhodes, where life went on as always, and have heard about none there since our return home.

We stayed for a week in the city of Rhodes and for another week in Lindos. The Hotel Atlantis in Rhodes is well located in the old section of the city, a short walk from the beach and near a number of tavernas.

Rooms are not large but are clean and modern. Double room prices, including a lavish breakfast, begin at about $175 (depending on the exchange rate). For more information, log onto www.atlantisgroup.gr.

At a rate of about $85 for two people, including both breakfast and dinner, the Lindos Sun hotel is a real bargain. It is perched on a hill with a beautiful view of the sea, and has good-sized rooms, a swimming pool, and a pleasant terrace and outside bar. The hotel is open from May through October. For more information, log onto www.lindos-sun.com.

Lufthansa has the lowest roundtrip fare from the Washington area to Rhodes in mid-March, $976 from Dulles International Airport.

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