Cunard may have been saving the best for last. Rhodes is the largest of the Dodecanese islands and only about four miles off the coast of Turkey. Like most of these islands, civilization on Rhodes dates back at least to the 11th century BC.
It was independent until being conquered by the Romans in the fifth century BC and became well known as a center of the ancient academic world. Julius Caesar studied public speaking at Rhodes.
Later, Rhodes became part of the Byzantine Empire and in the 15th century was settled by the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem after they were evicted from their last bit of territory in the Holy Lands following their last Crusade. The Knights held Rhodes until the Turks conquered the island in 1522 following a siege of 200,000 troops against St. John’s 600 knights. The Turks kept Rhodes until 1912, when the island was occupied by the Italians until WWII, then the Germans and the British during and after the war. Rhodes and its fellow Dodecanese Islands were finally united with Greece in 1948 as post-WWII reparations from Italy.
Rhodes city is clearly delineated into three parts—the ancient ruins, the medieval Old Town and the modern city on the northern tip. The non-HoHo tourist train carried us past many of the ancient ruins, including the temple of Apollo (the god of the sun was born here, according to mythology); the Greek stadium (pretty much along the lines of Athens but much smaller); and a number of other ruins that today are more tumbledown rubble than recognizable structures.
The new town on the point of the island is populated by dozens of contemporary hotels and perhaps 10,000 beach chairs. Even near the very end of the tourist season in early October, the beach was packed with sun bathers. We could only imagine what it is like during the summer when the northern Europeans descend to these shores for warmth and sunburn.
The Old Town is quite easy to recognize. The huge wall that was built to surround and protect the town remains intact, complete with bastions, moats and gates, now open to all visitors and invaders alike. The narrow streets are lined with shops selling every manner of tourist trinkets, including 2004 Athens Olympics caps. Could those really be left over from 13 years ago?
We wandered about all over Old Town’s narrow, winding streets, marveling at the cornucopia of crap for sale in every shop and stall. Again, the streets were choked with tourists, and again we wondered what this place must be like in the height of the summer season.
Working our restaurant magic, we persevered until we found a quiet side street and a small restaurant named Taverna Delphi. The young waiter spoke excellent English, and we took up simultaneous conversations with him and the Australian couple sitting at the table next to us. He explained that the season would end in about two weeks, when they would shut the restaurant down until March 20. He said he looks forward to the rests, because he also works as a croupier at the large casino located on the point of the island’s new town. He lives only 90 seconds away from the restaurant, but it’s hard to imagine when he ever gets time at home with that kind of schedule.
He gave us some insight into the insanity of Greek taxation system. If the government deems unilaterally that you cannot afford the automobile you own, because you don’t make enough money, then you are fined 2,500 euros every year that you own it. The twisted logic of that is part of what makes Greece the stepchild of the EU.
After some initial language difficulties with the old man who welcomed us into the restaurant, we were able to order glasses of wine and three dishes tapas style. Our waiter seemed to approve, and we learned why in just a few minutes.
Our baked feta topped with vegetables and the roasted stuffed peppers were splendid. The fried calamari was like no other we have ever tasted. They were lightly fried with a fresh taste of the sea that we had not experienced before. The wine was equally excellent, and our waiter explained they bring it in from the mainland so it is not available anywhere on Rhodes. I offered to buy some, and he said no—he would simply give us two 50 cl bottles. I offered again to pay, and he simply said no, so we paid our bill and merrily walked back to the ship with a liter of delicious wine in water bottles.
Life is good on Rhodes.