Rhodes is a dolphin swimming between Europe and Asia Minor. At least, that’s what it looks like on a map. The shape of the island shows a nose, a tail and a dorsal fin much like that of the watery mammal. In Greek mythology dolphins are often portrayed as a protector and rescuer of man, which is quite fitting considering Rhodes is dominated by a medieval fortress designed to keep out her enemies.
The Old Town and New Town of Rhodes meld into one another so subtly that you don’t immediately notice you’ve left the cobbled streets behind. Ancient walls decorated with blossoming creepers suddenly make way for modern roads lined with garish jewellery shops and mid-range fashion retailers – there’s even an outlet of Marks & Spencer.
Riding the local bus into the town I’m impressed at how the driver navigates his way down uncomfortably narrow medieval streets, passing the other vehicles with mere centimetres to spare. Mopeds, taxis and European micro-cars cluster in the streets causing hold-ups at almost every corner. Our Greek driver is as quick to joke and smile with the locals as he is to lose his temper and curse loudly and passionately. The people here show aggression in a typically Mediterranean way; it’s part of their culture and as common and meaningless as the English tendency to apologise for everything.
I’d been to the Greek islands several times before, but this was my first visit to Rhodes. My main purpose here was to attend the wedding of a dear friend, yet I had a few extra days to explore and hoped to discover a Greece away from the familiarity and repetitiveness of the tourist trail.
A firm favourite in the European package holiday industry, Greece is a place you can easily visit and barely leave behind the comforts of home. The number of huge air-conditioned transfer buses that greet you at the airport arrivals gate is testimony to the all-inclusive nature of holidays to Rhodes. After being comfortably shipped to your four- or five-star resort, you’ll want for nothing in terms of food, drink and ‘fun’ activities such as karaoke and water aerobics. It’s almost not worth leaving the hotel… The temptation of an all-inclusive deal is obvious, as the value for money is simply unbeatable – especially since Greece’s economic meltdown. However, even if you give in and book the package deal, Rhodes has much to offer in terms of culture and history.
I was one of the few tourists who found themselves at airport arrivals without an air-conditioned bus to greet me, waiting over an hour in the midday heat for a local bus which never came. After making enquiries several times, it turned out there was a bus strike that day (typical) and therefore I teamed up with three other stranded travellers to share a taxi to our relative destinations.
As we drove along the coastal road towards Rhodes town, the ocean to our left was too many blues to name. The onshore wind threw the waves at dangerously jagged rocks yet the shining sun held the drama at bay. Across the water Turkey is tantalisingly close, just a 40 minute ferry ride from Rhodes. The coastline across the water was as inviting to me as it would have been intimidating to the islanders here in centuries past. Yet Rhodes’ palace is made of sturdy stuff and has held off many an attempted invasion.
Built in Rhodes town around the end of the 7th century, the Palace of the Grand Master is more a fortress than a medieval home. During the 12th-14th centuries it was home to the Knights of St John who fortified it as a citadel for protection as well as residency. The palace stands on the highest point of the city of Rhodes and as such dominates the town with its huge walls and towers. Its power is undeniable. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and rightly so. Having specialised in medieval literature at university, and therefore knowing a thing or two about knights and chivalry, I was understandably wowed by exploring a real-life fortress from the middle ages.
Aside from the medieval history and shopping mecca of Rhodes Old Town, the beach here is worth an afternoon visit. Come on a weekend to see the sand packed with locals. The offshore diving platform is great for watching men attempt to out-macho each other. Numerous posh bars pumping out Euro-dance tunes give the beach a party vibe; your best bet is to order a cocktail and join in. Back in the Old Town, find the hidden Socratous Garden bar off Sokratous Street near the mosque at the top of the hill. Tucked away behind the shops, the courtyard is filled with fragrant plants and the staff are warm and friendly. You can purchase ‘boots’ of beer – one or two litre glasses in the shape of a boot. It’s a fast and novel way to get merry.
For late-night shenanigans (midnight onwards) ask your taxi driver to take you to Bar Street. Similar to the bar scene in many other Greek island towns, the narrow road is flanked on both sides by garish watering holes and a splattering of strip clubs. The drinks aren’t the cheapest, the clientele aren’t the classiest and the music is questionable. That being said, you’re guaranteed a lively, fun night out here with endless bars to choose from – if you don’t like one, try next door. I suggest you start with a shot of absinthe and see what happens. It worked for me.
Rhodes manages to seamlessly merge beautiful medieval architecture with faded-postcard-wielding tourist shops, kitsch ice cream stalls and neon-lit bars. It’s an impressive feat. I’d be lying if I said I even remotely managed to avoid the tourist trail in Rhodes town. It’s basically impossible and it doesn’t matter, anyway – I still loved Rhodes and would recommend it highly to other travellers. There aren’t many places in the world you can explore a medieval citadel, chill with a cocktail on the beach, go on a shopping spree, share a laugh with the locals and dance the night away all in 24 hours.