Suc­cumb­ing to the charms on the Greek Island of Rhodes

Wisconsin Gazette - - Opinion - By Michael Muck­ian Con­tribut­ing writer

Fall is the best sea­son to visit the Mediter­ranean. The sun is still bright, the tem­per­a­tures are warm and — most im­por­tantly — the crowds are con­sid­er­ably thin­ner than dur­ing the sum­mer.

The Greek island of Rhodes — lo­cated 11 miles off the Turk­ish coast — should be on the “must-visit” list of any trav­eler to the re­gion. It served for mil­len­nia as a bustling cross­roads for com­merce and in the crosshairs of mil­i­tary con­fla­gra­tions be­tween Europe and the Mid­dle East.

The fourth largest of the Greek is­lands still bus­tles, but today it bus­tles with tourists.

No one had told us that Rhodes (Ro­dos in Greek) was one of Europe's most pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tions. Ap­par­ently, it was the 541-square mile island's turn to host vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one in the Mediter­ranean re­gion on the day we vis­ited.

That's not to say we didn't suc­cumb to Rhodes' charm. But the chal­lenges of the visit were man­i­fest. Here­with, the good, the bad — and the loud.

CLIMB­ING THE ACROP­O­LIS

The Lin­dos Acrop­o­lis, lo­cated along the island's south­east­ern shore, of­fered us our first trial by heat and hu­man­ity. As Greek ru­ins go, it was largely un­re­mark­able and not worth the ef­fort it took to visit.

An acrop­o­lis is a set­tle­ment or mil­i­tary post built atop a high, gen­er­ally rocky hill and used for de­fense against in­vaders. Thanks to its ter­rain, Greece has many acrop­olises, in­clud­ing two on Rhodes.

This one rose above the vil­lage of Lin­dos, a col­lec­tion of white­washed build­ings and trin­ket stands fill­ing a war­ren of streets wrap­ping the base. Ad­mis­sion was 6 eu­ros (about $6.75). Vis­i­tors can climb the steep streets and trails to the top or ride a don­key for 10 eu­ros (about $11.25).

We chose to walk or, rather, climb. We'd sug­gest rent­ing the don­key.

Our foot­path took us to the ru­ins of the Doric Tem­ple of Athena Lin­dia (of which only a few col­umns re­main), rem­nants of the Greek Or­tho­dox Church of St. John, and other tum­bled stones from var­i­ous for­ti­fi­ca­tions erected over the mil­len­nia. The walk­ing sur­face was un­even and, in some cases, down­right treach­er­ous, but the site also af­forded a sweep­ing view of the south­ern Mediter­ranean Sea.

The view ap­par­ently over­whelmed one man, who pushed my wife out of the way to get a bet­ter pic­ture of his friend and the sea, nearly knock­ing my wife down the moun­tain.

Af­ter about 30 min­utes we climbed down — hot and dusty but with life and limb in­tact, re­gret­ting our visit with ev­ery step.

Then we ran into the or­ange juice ven­dors.

Freshly squeezed from lo­cal fruit, the pulpy juice that nearly ev­ery stand and shop sold was the best we had ever tasted. Or, maybe we were just thirsty.

OLD TOWN AND THE PALACE

Things fared bet­ter when we re­turned to the city of Rhodes and, es­pe­cially, Old Town Rhodes and the Palace of the Grand Mas­ters.

As the Greek island near­est to the Holy Land, Rhodes be­came a pop­u­lar stopover for the knights of the Cru­sades. In 1309, the Knights of St. John, an or­der of the Knights Hospi­taller of Jerusalem, claimed Rhodes as its head­quar­ters.

The Cru­saders con­structed a set­tle­ment that took on all the trap­pings of a me­dieval vil­lage, so much so that it has been deemed a UNESCO World Her­itage Cen­tre and is con­sid­ered the best-pre­served vil­lage of its type in Europe.

Thick walls of a Frank­ish style sur­round the old town area of 104 acres, which it­self is home to a labyrinth of nar­row streets lined with shops and res­i­dences. Eleven gates pro­vide ac­cess to the area, and in its day, re­spon­si­bil­ity for the var­i­ous walls and es­carp­ments were ceded to dif­fer­ent groups of cru­saders from Spain, Portugal, Eng­land and Ger­many.

The for­ti­fi­ca­tions' ex­pan­sion, built on pre­vi­ously con­structed Byzan­tine foun­da­tions, was over­seen by Grand Mas­ter An­to­nio de Flu­vian Riviere. He then ruled from the Palace of the Grand Mas­ter, the des­ti­na­tion of most vis­i­tors.

Ad­mis­sion to the palace is 6 eu­ros, or 10 eu­ros with a com­bined ad­mis­sion to the palace and the Arche­o­log­i­cal Mu­seum of Rhodes. We chose the palace but skipped the mu­seum.

Over the cen­turies, the palace has been de­stroyed and re­stored sev­eral times, most re­cently by Ital­ians in the early 20th cen­tury. Their restora­tion cre­ated a much larger and more fan­ci­ful me­dieval fortress than the orig­i­nal, but that's just one more as­pect that makes the palace such an in­ter­est­ing des­ti­na­tion.

Walk­ing the cool stone hall­ways was a dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent and more re­lax­ing ex­pe­ri­ence than scram­bling to the top of the dusty, sun-baked acrop­o­lis. Al­though not as tricked out with his­tor­i­cal bric-a-brac as some more touristy lo­ca­tions, the palace nev­er­the­less of­fers its own cache of his­tor­i­cal items, from an­cient Rhodes as well as the island's pe­riod of rule un­der the Ot­toman Em­pire.

From the an­cient pe­riod comes a sculp­ture of the head of He­lios, the Greek sun god. Mythol­ogy holds that Rhodes was pulled from its ocean depths to serve as his home.

But it's the grand halls and rooms fit for a king that gives the his­toric struc­ture its charm.

SINGING FOR HIS SUP­PER

We left the palace re­freshed and re­laxed. At the palace gate, head­ing to­ward the city cen­ter, we were greeted by an un­usual sound.

A young boy — who may have been 12, but just barely — sat on the ground be­hind a cup for coins, singing his heart out. Street mu­si­cians are not un­usual in Greece, but we had never heard any­one sing so badly, so loudly, and with so much pride. What he lacked in tal­ent he cer­tainly made up for in heart.

That he was so painfully out of tune made no dif­fer­ence to him. He seemed happy just to be alive and able to sing at all. Af­ter a chal­leng­ing day, he brought smiles to our faces.

We dropped some eu­ros into his cup as we passed, agree­ing that he was the best thing to come along since or­ange juice.

Ru­ins on top of the Lin­dos Acrop­o­lis.

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