by Tim Dawe
Rhodes is one of the most visited islands in Greece. It’s easy to explore by car but I prefer public transport; any slight inconvenience is more than overcome by the passing parade of characters and moments. The route from Rhodes town, at the northern tip of the island, follows the coast providing spectacular views. Initially bus stops are frequent, servicing large tourist resorts, but pushing on through mountain-to-beach countryside, they become limited to a few towns.
The bus takes one final sweep around yet another scalloped bay and there it is. No passenger is immune from an intake of breath. A great medieval fort containing the Acropolis of Lindos dominates from its 116m-high massive rock plinth. Twenty five shades of turquoise sparkle from see-through water in the bay as white boats seem to hover above the surface. Little white sugar cube houses dot the steep-sided cliffs below the acropolis and regiments of umbrellas line up on bright yellow crescents of sand.
Holding tight to this stunning image we disembark in a scruffy car park and descend a steep pathway meeting a flock of coach tourists facing their stick-waving shepherdess at the town entrance. It’s not really a ticket box entrance but a good yarding technique to funnel visitors down “gift shop alley” to the donkey departure lounge. Unsuspecting tourists are plonked onto the next donkey for their run up the alley-streets to the acropolis. I veer swiftly to the left.
And then I’m walking along a deserted ledge alleyway lined with beautiful houses facing the bay. About three or four of Lindos’ main non-vehicular alleyways are clogged with visitors shuffling past shops offering either lasting mementos or disposable knick-knacks depending on your touristic view. Despite the tourism, Lindos remains a working town. The Dorians settled a working town here 3,000 years ago. Lindos prospered and grew through seafaring skills and trading with Phoenicians and Greeks but eventually fell victim to the main actors of the ancient world. In turn the Romans, Byzantines, Persians and Saracens acquired the strategic town for trade or war. In 1309 the Knights of St John of Jerusalem (Hospitallers) arrived and stayed for nearly two hundred years, to be ousted in 1522 by the Ottomans who ruled for four hundred years. Lindos, now part of Rhodes, was “returned” to Greece as recently as 1948.
I wander, twisting and turning with the terrain. For the well-heeled there are luxury houses for sale or rent; I look in on the Ottoman-influenced boutique hotel Melenos festooned with outdoor lights. It’s hard to draw myself away from these little white houses and their view of the bay far below but I join the throng to visit the 15th century Panagia (approximates Saint Mary) Church. It stands out from the labyrinth of walkways with its multi-layered stone belltower. Its walls tell bible stories in frescoes and its floor illustrates kokklaki – black and white pebble mosaic. An agitated young woman in very short shorts is turned away from joining a packed Orthodox service. I’m with the white-haired old lady in black; it’s her local church, not a fun fair. Stopping for a coffee at a lovely open-air café means I can examine a 17th century sea captain’s house. It’s fully restored and indicates his position within the town elite.
My meandering stops when the road runs out near the school. It’s a short distance to the acropolis from here. Steep steps take me to a medieval castle gate. It’s astounding that this 600-year-old stone edifice is intact; it’s more going concern than ruin. Inside there’s a bit of a scramble over people going in and out, ticketing and bored donkeys looking in vain for a return fare. The Knights put up massive and extensive walls but inside we see they’re alongside earlier Byzantine walls.
As I get my bearings in this vast jumble of formed stone its layers of history become evident. But how to peel them back and make sense of it? Perhaps the most noteworthy, and striking, is the Temple to Athena, now reduced to pieces of a column. This huge, rebuilt Hellenistic temple was in use in 300 BC, well before the Greeks claimed Athena as a cult. There’s a 4th century propylaea (monumental gateway) to a sanctuary, the ruins of a Roman temple dedicated to Emperor Diocletian and the Greek Orthodox Church of St John. All of them built on or around former buildings and civilisations. An early 20th century archaeological dig, and later restoration, was poorly done and much of the good stuff was carted off to an institute in Denmark, a sad recurring theme in Greece.
From my lofty eyrie at the Athena temple I can see St Paul’s Bay where the apostle is reported to have waited out a storm. Bay? From here it is a lake or, at this height, a rock pool. I leave to explore more and am nearly skittled on smooth stone paving by “empty” returning donkeys. At sea level, of course, my lake is revealed as a very sheltered bay, and a good spot for fishing and a cooling dip. Cooler and wetter, I look back up at the acropolis. Athena perches precariously on the overhanging lip of a deeply eroded cliff as she has for centuries.
It’s siesta time and the natives retreat behind shuttered windows. The “mad dogs and Englishmen” (well, Russians mainly) continue to shuffle for trinkets. I find a shady spot in a breezeway and doze for an hour. There’s still time for one last foray to look at those pretty houses in bougainvillea-strewn streets and their elaborate Rhodian stone architraves and, I confess, those gift shops, before the mid-afternoon bus back.