Cruising The Greek Islands: Part Two, Rhodes

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With more than 6,000 islands and islets scattered haphazardly across the Aegean and Ionian Seas, the Greek Islands has become synonymous with great beaches, wonderful food, unique wines, friendly people, and a fascinating and rich history which is heavily influenced by its maritime surroundings. Around 230 of the islands are actually inhabited and combined they provide the most diverse landscapes of any island group with thousands of kilometres of beaches with black sand, white sand and pebbles, sheltered by stunning bays and coves, volcanic mountains, lush forests, deserts, and of course the deep blue of the Mediterranean. The Greek Islands almost always feature on Eastern Mediterranean cruises and two of the most popular destinations are Santorini in The Cyclades and Rhodes in the Dodecanese group. 

The island of Rhodes has a reputation as a sensual, sub tropical paradise, but it also possesses one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe, and it’s a combination of a hedonist’s hangout and a history buff’s fantasy come-to-life. Surrounded by medieval walls with seven magnificent gates, entering Rhodes Old Town is a step back into more than two thousand years of history, with fantastic and well preserved monuments, squares and houses. But that’s not to say it’s one big museum. Six thousand people live inside the walls and they give a real sense of life to a city which is a joy to discover. 

True there are restaurants, bars and cafés scattered throughout the Old Town, but even with a little imagination it’s not hard to imagine that this is a place that has changed little for hundreds of years. The third largest Greek island, Rhodes is well known as a great place for sun worshippers looking for an idyllic beach retreat, but few people realise it’s also home to the World Heritage listed medieval city, framed by its ancient harbour which was founded two and a half thousand years ago. Archaeologists believe that one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Colossus of Rhodes, stood sentinel over the harbour and the city until an earthquake destroyed it in 226BC. The Colossus was confirmation of the fact that Rhodes was an important economic centre in the ancient world thanks to its location where the Aegean Sea meets the Mediterranean.

Like most of the Mediterranean islands, Rhodes’ history is essentially a long chronological list of conquerors and occupiers dating back to 408BC when the local islanders founded the city. Their independence came to an end in 164BC when Rhodes became a province of the Roman Empire, although its culture remained intact and it developed into one of the great centres of learning, science and the arts. From the seventh century there were periodic attacks by Muslim invaders and in 1309, Rhodes was sold to the Order of the Knights Hospitaliers of Saint John of Jerusalem. Initially designed to nurse pilgrims and crusaders, the Order became a specialised fighting unit and the fortifications that now stand were built mostly during this period. In 1522 the Ottoman Turks finally conquered the city and built mosques and public baths, in 1912 Italian troops took over, in 1948 it became a part of Greece, and in 1988 it gained a UNESCO World Heritage listing which has resulted in a lot of excavation of old ruins and restoration of existing architecture.

Down at street level entering the Old Town through one of the Gates is like stepping into another world and an exploration of the city can be done in a day, although that can be a little overwhelming in a place that probably warrants three days at least. The first thing you notice when you arrive is the formidable city walls from the 15th century which were extended and fortified by the Knights over a period of 200 years. They’re 12 metres thick with a moat that’s 21 metres wide, and it runs to around four kilometres around the Old Town. The moats themselves no longer have water in them and instead they’ve been landscaped into beautiful gardens with walking paths. Inside the city and the probably the most impressive building is the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes which as built in the 14th century. Impressive on the outside, inside the enormous palace are relics from the medieval period as well as ancient sculptures and ornate first century floor mosaics.

Away from the Palace and the walls contain an endless array of bastions, battlements, towers and gates, set among imposing buildings with beautiful decorations, and paved courtyards, classic churches and imposing mosques, and museums. And set just back from this unique setting is the residential areas of the Old Town, including the Jewish Quarter, and this is where beautiful rose window gardens catch the sunlight, old men sip coffee and play backgammon in the middle of the street, and the occasional moped is the only sound to break the serene atmosphere. It’s a place that is most beautiful in the early evening when the harshness of the sun drops and casts a warm hue over the houses which date back to the Middle Ages.

Although the economy of the whole island is geared towards tourism, it is possible to experience an authentic slice of Greek cuisine and culture in some of these back streets. Many of the bars and restaurants around the major sights are geared towards foreign tourists, and their prices reflect this, but the local joints still exist and can be found just off the beaten path. It’s here that you’ll find a good Turkish coffee, selections of mezes, real moussaka, local seafood and an atmosphere that is decidedly Mediterranean, and it’s the perfect way to round off a visit to one of the truly unique cities of Europe.



Joanna Hall


  • 5
    Great Memories

    Posted by Jilly Veys on 5th Aug 2019

    Went to Rhodes on a holiday years ago while living and working in London with my then boyfriend, now husband. Loved it...we had such a blast there. Didn't know you could go there on a cruise!