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The Rhodes less travelled
24 April 2004
Away from the tourists and beaches, an enchanted isle awaits writes Andrew Harvey.
The brochure was quite clear. The hatchback was to be insured, manual, and air conditioned. Even as we sweltered 10 kilometres out of Rhodes town, hope persisted. Pulling in for petrol, my American colleague asked a mechanic why the air conditioner wasn't working. The mechanic looked calmly under the bonnet. Because you don't have one, he replied.
Sunburn and rage met in a spectacular shade of red across the American's face. He suggested driving on with the hatch open. As the backseat passenger, I suggested driving with the hatch closed. I hadn't come this far to die in an overturning Ford Festiva on the road to Lindos. The other passenger, a French academic, shook her head and muttered something about this never happening in Paris. We continued with the hatch closed, quietly sweating and seething.
There are no clouds on the island of Rhodes. There are very few Rhodians either, at least in the capital of Rhodes town. During most of its Ottoman history, the Greeks were forced outside the city walls of Rhodes town while the Turks lived within. After four centuries of this, Mussolini arrived.
A substantial tourist industry was created, mediaeval palaces were rebuilt, and substantial infrastructure was developed. The downside, of course, was fascism. This downside was exacerbated when the Germans dropped in briefly in 1943, though they themselves were soon replaced by the British. Now, it is the Scandinavians who have discovered a land where taxes are low and sunshine isn't. The result is an island whose locals are surprisingly friendly, but surprisingly hard to find.
The largest of the Greek Dodecanese islands, Rhodes is known as the pearl of the Mediterranean. For some tourists, Rhodes is the Ibiza of Greece, a heady and hedonistic cocktail of beaches, bikinis and Bacardi strollers. There are, however, good reasons for packing a pair of walking shoes.
Rhodes town is unthinkably old. Designed by the famous architect Hippodamos in the fifth century BC, it was the first town built to an urban plan. The famous Colossus of Rhodes also stood here, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. Little remains of this legacy now, but tourists still flock to Mandraki harbour which the statue supposedly straddled.
Away from the harbour lie narrow cobbled laneways without end. As the three of us quickly discovered, the ancient town may be gone, but the largest mediaeval walled city in Europe remains. Coming from the New World, the American was particularly impressed: Extraordinary city gates, drained moats, drawbridges - this is fairytale stuff, he extolled. The laneways remind me of France, the Frenchwoman shrugged.
Visiting the local aquarium is rarely high on my to-do list in foreign lands. Nevertheless, the Rhodes aquarium was air-conditioned, underground, and free of French academics. It was also full of gizani fish. With the appearance of a Greek tadpole, the gizani goes by the unlikely moniker of Lilliputian Rhodian Champion of Survival. This dimunitive fish has adapted to the harsh climate, and learnt to live in ever receding pools as summer approaches. It is an impressive example of Darwinism conquering drought, though others have found easier ways of overcoming the heat.
In Greece, there are myths and there is Mythos. Mythos is the local beer, designed for the cloudless days of summer, spring and autumn. Prices have risen since the Euro came to Rhodes, but not enough to deter hordes of British and Scandinavian tourists.
By day they explore the fine line between tans and second-degree burns, and by night they swill Mythos at a variety of theme bars. Some go even further - an English tourist was nearly jailed recently for removing her top at a Euro thong contest in Faliraki. Her family and friends were briefly horrified when this looked likely. Upstanding Rhodians are horrified on a more permanent basis.
Our ill-fated hire car sped past Faliraki to the southern town of Lindos. Fortunately, there was rare agreement in the car that a fourth century BC acropolis was more interesting than a beach full of British tourists. It was.
Remains of the acropolis stand 115 metres above sea level, on an impossibly dramatic outcrop. The path to the acropolis is steep. It is a 20-minute walk to the top, or possibly slower if you hire one of the many donkeys available, but a spectacular view awaits.
As we looked east from the highest vantage point, the stark columns of the ancient acropolis framed the azure Aegean sea. To the west, heat shimmered off the whitewashed roofs of the village. There is a place just like this on the French riviera, the Frenchwoman proclaimed. No, I said, there isn't.
Lindos reminds that the island is unique. Rhodes may be a party island, but there are plenty of reasons to leave the beaches. Beyond the haze of heat and Mythos lies an enchanting island of cobbled laneways, cultural artefacts and occasional air conditioning.