Greece part 2: History (and sauntering up to guys with machine guns)

October 14th, 2011

Terah and I went to the Greek island Rhodes recently. This is the second in a series about it.

I am one to enjoy history. There is something deeply, well, connecting, about standing in an old place. There is a timeless quality to it – a feeling of being connected to so many people of the past, and yet still being connected to change, visible in things such as weathering of stones. To gaze at pottery that’s 300 years old, walk past 700-year-old walls, or pass through what remains of the grand portico of an ancient temple to Athena stirs a feeling I can barely explain, of timelessness.

Although Rhodes doesn’t have the “famous” Greek sites such as the Parthenon or Delphi, I can’t help but wonder why the Rhodes sites aren’t better known. They were incredible and it is hard to condense all that we saw into a short blog post.

I have to start with the medieval Rhodes Old Town. We got off the bus a few blocks from it one bright morning, and our first task was to find a gate across the moat. Oh yes, A GATE ACROSS THE MOAT.

It’s a dry moat, and that bridge off in the distance is the gate we were headed to. Outside of the outer wall is a nice quiet walking area. The moat and walls completely surround Old Town and, for the most part, date back about 500 years. The round stones you see on that picture, we were told, were likely surplus from catapults and other projectile weapons. Cross one line of walls and you come to another, with original canons still present. The Knights Hospitaller of St. John, which held Rhodes for a few centuries until the Ottomans captured it, sure knew how to build to impress.

The gate we happened to use was Amboise, the Grand Master’s Gate. Right there is the stunningly rebuilt landmark Palace of the Grand Master. It is absolutely impossible for any photograph to begin to do this building justice. Between its imported Greek and Roman floors, to the grand nature of everything in it, and the archaeological museum in one corner, it was a fitting start to a visit to Old Town. Here’s one of the main staircases.

Just near the Palace is quiet courtyard with an old door. Pass through that door and suddenly you’re in the midst of the busy Old Town.

And among the landmarks in Old Town, the most prominent is Ippoton, the Avenue of the Knights. Along this avenue are the buildings built by the various nationalities of knights, many of which are historical sites in their own. Taken together, it is quite clear why Rhodes is said to be one of the world’s best-preserved medieval cities.

Down at the other end of Ippoton is the Knights’ Hospital, which is now part of the archaeological museum.

Step off the Avenue a few blocks and you get to some quieter narrow streets – just as old, in many cases.

On Sunday morning, we were able to visit Mount Filerimos. In contrast to the busy Rhodes, Filerimos had an air of quiet and still to it. It was the site of a monastery, two historic churches, and a landmark Italian cross on the mountaintop.

We arrived, and begin our visit with a walk up the quiet stone path.

When we got to the top, we walked past this peaceful church. As we walked past the outside, we heard the beautiful music of chant from indoors. We got to step in and listen to mass for a few minutes.

In typical fashion, directly in front of the church are two much older sites: one, the ruins of a temple to Athena, and the other a 4th-century Christian bapistery.

Rhodes is a popular tourist destination, and of course we saw plenty of popular sites (such as the grandmaster’s palace). Filerimos had a few tourists too, but not as many.

I frequently like to operate on the plan of going wherever all the tourists aren’t. And so, on Filerimos, that meant seeing what was behind the monastery. It started with this peaceful tree-lined path.

And the deserted, but intentionally open, gate led to the remains of a Byzantine fortress, which had been a staging area for both the Knights and the Ottomans before their campaigns to capture Rhodes. It also provided incredible views of the surrounding countryside.

The first historic site we had visited on our trip was the Acropolis of Lindos, parts of which are 2300 years old. Here’s a view of the mountain from the rooftop of the Kalypso, our favorite restaurant in Lindos.

The columns of the temple to Athena Lindia are visible, and of course so are the walls.

The road up to the acropolis is accessible only on foot or by donkey. It is apparently the only road that has ever been used to get to the acropolis. Here is the partially-restored grand portico to the temple.

There’s an old Christian church (4th century, if memory serves) at the Acropolis too.

The Acropolis makes some pretty good use of natural defenses too. Here’s a view from one level of it. There’s a manmade wall up there at the very top. And, of course, the beautiful Aegean always in the background.

There are lots of cats on Rhodes. Here is a kitten napping at the top of the Lindos Acropolis:

Lindos itself is a beautiful town. Here’s one of the quieter streets:

Notice the pebble steps leading into the houses – those intricate pieces of artwork are all over.

This post won’t be complete without the story of our visit to the Acropolis of Rhodes. We walked there from Old Town. At the Acropolis, there are the remains of a temple to Apollo, an ancient theater, and an ancient stadium where qualifying matches for the Olympics were held.

As we got closer to the area, we were repeatedly passed by people dressed in uniforms of various types. And as we got there, we joined a stream of people entering the area. The ancient stadium had apparently thousands of people in it, country names were being read off over the loudspeakers, policemen wielding machine guns were standing by, and we had absolutely no idea what was going on.

At this point, you can appreciate the difference between Terah and me. Terah thought that we have no idea what is happening, she was tired from the walk, and so thought we should just leave. I thought that we have no idea what is happening, which is a great reason to stay. So Terah opted to sit and read a bit under some trees while I explored.

Here’s a view of the stadium as it was emptying out, seen from the theater:

I explored the temple and theater, and eventually we were ready to head back. We knew there was a bus back to the New Market (from where we could get a bus back to our hotel), but didn’t know where the bus stop was. The obvious place to ask were the policemen, which I thought I would do. Terah thought she would just stay sitting under the trees, on the grounds that the policemen nearest us were all carrying machine guns and perhaps wouldn’t like to be disturbed. This led to my cryptic tweet:

“Only ONE of us is the kind of person that goes up to guys with machine guns to ask what’s happening.” – Me to Terah today

They told me that it was the preparations for the opening ceremony for a global shooting contest, and also gave me directions to the bus stop.

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  2. Loretta Mast

    John, I totally agree with the part about standing in old places and feeling connected to the past. This post gave me chills as it reminded me of my time in Israel and Occupied Palestine a year ago. The pictures are awesome. Living vicariously through you right now!


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