We had arrived in Rhodes!! Isn't it great when you can tick off another item on your wish list?! I have been fascinated with Ancient Greek history, their legends of powerful gods and goddesses, since I was young... and here I was at last.
A group of sailing friends and I had chartered a yacht to sail the Aegean Sea, which is an experience of itself, and the beautiful sunsets and turquoise seas will forever remain etched in our memories. As we approached the town of Rhodes (Ródos), the gate to the Aegean Sea, we unfurled the sail and slowly cruised past the breakwater bearing three iconic windmills used in medieval times to grind grain offloaded from merchant ships (sometimes also to make gunpowder). We then rounded the tip of the breakwater and the fort of Saint Nicholas, named after the patron saint of sailors, which now operates as a lighthouse, into the Mandraki Harbour. As we had been pre-warned, we kept clear of the shallow water and rocks on the north side of the port entrance upon which slumps the statue of the Fallen Angel.
Berthing our yacht in the Mandraki Harbor
The island of Rhodes is the largest Dodecanese Island and the city was formed way back in 408 BC. It prospered as a thriving trade centre in the ancient world. Mandraki served as the military port when chains were drawn across its mouth to restrict entry. Rhodes is one of the best-preserved and inhabited medieval towns in Europe and in 1988 became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Colossus of Rhodes, a statue of the Greek sun god, Helios, presided over the entrance to this historic harbour and was one of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In 226 BC a great earthquake damaged the city and the Colossus was destroyed.
We gazed at the impressive sight before us as we cruised between two tall stone columns. Perched on top of each, bronze deers, symbols of the island, named Elefos and Elafina, gazed out to sea. This is where apparently the gigantic feet of the Colossus once stood. The scene that unfolded evoked feelings of floating into a world of times gone by, except for some luxurious yachts berthed there, which we avid yachtsman have a dream of owning some day. Beside them old fishing boats bobbed about and small cruisers shuttled tourists backwards and forwards on various excursions to islands, nearby beaches, the mainland and Turkish coastal towns.
We dropped anchor as deep as possible so as not to entangle it in the heavy mooring lines 30m from the dock as advised. Once we had secured our yacht, we took the time to take in our surroundings. The Mandraki Marina offers all the modern amenities and facilities required to ensure a sailor's well-being. But best of all, it's within walking distance of many interesting places and, from where we were, we could see the New Market (Nea Agora) spread out along the waterfront across from the harbour and the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes to the left standing out above it with the historic walls stretching away. These were earmarked as the first sites we were keen to explore.
The Nea Agora Market off Mandraki harbour
The market is far bigger than imagined on first sight. Built during the Italian period from 1912 onwards, it is seven-sided with a large treed courtyard in the centre. A horde of shops stretch out on the inside and outside with coffee shops, fast food outlets and restaurants, plus bustling fresh produce and fish market stalls.
The Nea Agora was designed by Florestano Di Fausto who held the vision for a Garden City and designed magnificent buildings culminating in the eclectic mix of Ottoman, Venetian, Renaissance, Italian and Greek styles. The Italians preserved what was left from the Knights' period and destroyed all Ottoman buildings.
After having a great Grecian meal, we strolled along the seafront and entered the old town through the impressive Marine/Sea Gate just off the main harbour, which is adorned with reliefs and has been a landmark of the town through the ages. It was built in 1478 and was renovated in 1951 after the north tower was bombed during World War II.
The Old Town of Rhodes
On to the Archeological Museum, originally a hospital built between 1440 and 1489 by the The Knights Hospitaller, a Catholic military order that arose in Jerusalem and based its headquarters in Rhodes from 1310 until 1522.
The high vaulted ceilings, a courtyard garden filled with aromatic herbs, not to mention the displays of marble statues, urns, mosaics etc., were fascinating! Notable is a statue of a naked girl in white marble dating back to the first century BC known as the Aphrodite of Rhodes.
We popped into the frescoed Church of Our Lady of The Castle and then followed the Street of the Knights to the Palace of the Grand Masters. The street has been preserved to look like it would have been in the 15th and 16th centuries with well-worn cobbled streets lined with stone buildings and Gothic arched windows and doors. This was the knights' meeting place - divided into seven "Tongues" from England, France, German, Italy, Aragon, Auvergne and Provence - each having their own inn.
Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights
Sometimes referred to as the Kastello, this rare example of Gothic architecture in Greece, overlooks the city from its highest point - an easy walk up Knight's Street. Originally built as a fort, it was the city's main defender throughout the ages.
We were transported way back to the ancient Greek legends where, just above this site, the Acropolis of Ancient Rhodes and temple of the sun god, Helios, stood. Its foundations became the base of the stronghold built in the late 7th century during the Byzantine era. They revamped the building as a palace for their leader, the Grand Master. They also built the walls surrounding the town.
In 1481 another huge earthquake struck the island killing about 30,000 people and damaging many buildings, after which the palace was restored. In 1856, lightning struck ammunition stored in the Church of St. John close by and the palace was almost completely obliterated. It lay in ruins until it was reconstructed, using drawings of the original building, when Italy took occupation during the Italian/Turkish war. The Italian king, Victor Emmanuel III and the dictator, Benito Mussolini used the castle as a holiday residence.
In 1948, Italy ceded the Dodecanese Islands to their mother-land Greece and the palace became a museum. You can visit it for a small fee, or you can purchase a combined ticket to visit other museums too.
There would be too much to tell about the beautiful artefacts and mementos housed within the museum's triple-circled stronghold walls. We wandered among the statues, cannons, ancient relics of pottery and stone with fine designs, through lofty rooms and up grand staircases, admiring art, jewels, furniture, mosaic floors and so much more. The palace is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right.
Walking the walls of Rhodes
If you ever come to Rhodes, a have-to-do is to walk the stone walls that enclose the Old Town. After mostly sailing for a week with short stops in-between, we felt we needed to stretch our sea legs a bit more so the following day we embarked upon this 4 km walk. Every step is a journey into and a story from the past.
The Turks were the first nation to use artillery in 1453 when they took hold of Constantinople. Yet Rhodes had held its ground through years of attempts by the Arabs, Saracens and Turks to capture it, thanks to the construction of the walls, which were designed to repel artillery and had taken the Knights 200 years to build.
In 1480 the Ottoman Army led by Sultan Mehmed II were unsuccessful in their attempts to capture the town. However, in 1552 Suleyman II, known as Suleyman the Magnificent, managed to conquer it. The palace became their command centre and housed a prison for almost 400 years.
The walls are built in a straight line along the seashore and form a crescent shape surrounding the back of the town. There are round towers, some tall square towers reminiscent of the Byzantine era, bastions and old cannons and cannon ports along the way.
Bridges connect the inner and outer walls and there once were 11 gates, of which some 7 impressive gates remain. Many passageways were constructed under the walls for communication purposes and to date only a few have been discovered. Each nationality was assigned its own portion of the walls to protect and defend the city.
What a great walk through time that was, with views of the old town and its colourful bougainvilleas, twisting streets and alleys (apparently there are about 200), arches, old stone houses, paved streets and lively squares with fountains.
So much more to Rhodes than any sailor could imagine
We stayed for a few days and got to see other fascinating locations in the Medieval Town. Worth visiting are the Clock Tower, Fort of St. Paul, Suleymaniye and Recep Pasha Mosques, and the Kahal Kadosh Shalom Synagogue. Also the Aquarium of Rhodes on the Coastal Road, which is a notable scientific centre for studying Greece's marine life.
The island itself has so much to offer. We took a bus tour to the Butterfly valley and the Philermos Monastery at Lalysos on the west coast that housed Our Lady of Philermos since about the 12th century. The Byzantine icon moved through various hands and was secretly hidden in the Cetinje, (Montenegro) museum's vault after WWII, a fact that was only revealed in 1993.
There is also Kallithea with its thermal springs, the Acropolis of Rhodes, the Ancient Olympic Stadium (as we know, sport is one of the Greece's most ancient legacies) and of course, magnificent beaches such as the most renowned Anthony Quinn beach, where we planned to sail to and chill upon before we sailed to our next destination.
We thoroughly enjoyed dipping into the island's rich history and diverse culture, blended from a mix of past civilisations. As we sailed away we thanked the Sun God for the days of sunshine (putting a word in his ear that he keep it shining for the last leg of our journey), as well as for preserving the glory of this amazing destination, Rhodes!
Author: Diana Karmela
Rhodes Tourism Promotion Organization