A few years ago during Kurban Bayram the FT team were given the opportunity to visit the island of Rhodes as guests of the island’s administration.
We were driven all over the island and were amazed by what we saw.
In this, our first article we introduce our readers to the City of Rhodes: the island’s remarkable and historic capital.
On a clear night, particularly in the winter, the island of Rhodes can be seen from the mountains above Ölüdeniz. As the darkness falls it is even possible to see the twinkling lights of houses and cars some 77 kilometres away. Making a tour of the old City and the island is a must-do if you are in Fethiye and we highly recommend making the trip from Fethiye, and out of season from Marmaris or Bodrum.
An Aegean treasure chest
All the islands of the Dodecanese have their own distinctive character but Rhodes Town, with its medieval walled city, Italianate and Ottoman architecture, ancient historic ruins, and profusion of greenery, is a veritable treasure chest, in perfect harmony with the island’s diverse geography.
The glorious golden stone buildings of the medieval town is the best preserved and largest inhabited town of its kind in Europe and the beautiful harbour with the ancient windmills and columns topped with deer, the symbol of the island. The walls and buildings of the ancient city glowed rosy gold in the sunlight.
There is something very special about the place where the Knights Templars, Knights Hospitallers or Knights of St John, made their home. In the years following 1309, having taken over the island, they built the town, defending it with massive walls, giving access via fourteen gates.
These still open onto a maze of narrow streets and elegant squares, some intricately cobbled, others lined with slabs of stone, shiny from the millions of feet that shuffled over them in the ensuing centuries.
Exploring, shopping, relaxing
These days many vehicles also enter the town, via these gates, a tight squeeze, requiring extraordinary dexterity from their drivers. But the town is best explored on foot and once inside pedestrians can explore the maze of buildings, from palaces to simple homes that nestle amongst a profusion of bougainvillea, colourful plants palm, rubber and deciduous trees, further enhancing the town’s picturesque beauty.
Tourism has been the economic mainstay of Rhodes since the 1950s, making it one of the first Mediterranean destinations for culture and sun-seeking holidaymakers but it has always been more popular with the high-end rather than mass tourism market. Indeed, most purpose built resorts of the kind favoured by package tour operators are tucked away down the eastern coast but for independent travellers and visitors looking for something authentic there are plenty of traditional pensions, small hotels and houses for rent, tucked away in within the ancient walls of the town.
These days, tourism is more vital to the island than ever, as along with the rest of Greece, Rhodes has been affected by the austerity measures imposed following the impact of Europe’s economic crisis on the country. Thankfully, the city was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, and the mixture of quirky little buildings and magnificent formal palaces and official buildings, all built in the same mellow golden stone, is in remarkable condition, and for most visitors the current economic and political situation would probably go unnoticed but it must require an enormous budget to keep it up to scratch.
Outside the city walls the many elegant shops and boutiques, including a Marks & Spencers, appear to be enjoying brisk trade and a day trip to Rhodes from Fethiye, Marmaris or Bodrum is a great way to open the door to the cultural wealth of this remarkable and historic town.
Where it’s shopping that appeals or mooching around city and spotting the similarities and differences between Turkey and Greece there is plenty to do. In some ways the connections are tangible; food perhaps being the most obvious, closely followed by fine examples of Ottoman as well as more traditional and even prosaic architecture.
Meanwhile, others are surprisingly different but despite these contrasts, in many aspects of daily life, there are nevertheless delightful links between Muğla’s coastal cities and Rhodes town.
A brief history
The history of the island dates back more than 2,400 years (a very drinkable wine is available to celebrate this fact) and the city has examples from many periods woven into its rich fabric but in addition to the spectacular architecture of the Hospitallers period the more significant periods include the Ottoman era, which lasted almost 400 years, from 1523 to 1912. During their period of occupation the Ottoman rulers built mosques, public baths and mansions and converted many existing houses for their own needs, as well as the conversion of churches to mosques.
The original architecture of the town was added to or adapted by the Ottoman period to suit their own needs but as a result, the majority of the buildings of the Knight’s period in the Medieval Town, have exotic oriental Ottoman additions while retaining their own medieval character. The 19th century saw the city become the capital of the Eyalet of the Archipelago, but the decline of the Ottoman Empire resulted in the general dilapidation of the town and its buildings, and a series of earthquakes didn’t help. But there are to this day three fine mosques in the old city as well as Moslem cemeteries, complete with Ottoman gravestones.
In 1912 Italian troops took the island over with the rest of the Dodecanese Islands, and in 1923 established an Italian colony known as Isole Italiane dell’Egeo. During their period of occupation the Italians tore down many of the houses that were built on and around the city walls during the Ottoman era. They created a green zone surrounding part of the Medieval Town and preserved what was left from the Knights’ period. The Italians also reconstructed the wonderful Grand Master’s Palace, which is still a sight to behold.
Furthermore, an Institute for the study of the History and Culture of the region was established, and major infrastructure work was done to modernize Rhodes. One of the finest examples of their architecture is just outside the walls, next to Mandraki Harbour. The chequered red and white brick building is now the magnificent offices of the South Aegean Administration. With the light reflecting off the blue waters of the sea, which is right on its door step it is reminiscent of an elegant Venetian palace.
In 1943 the island became an important focus for both the British and German armies. But it was Germany that eventually occupied the island resulting in a very dark period for its people and, as food became in ever-shorter supply, many of its population died from starvation. The British bombed the island in 1944 and damaged the medieval city, destroying a number of buildings but following the end of WWII the Greek administration selected those areas for future excavations, and protected a number of other buildings. In 1957, a new city plan was approved and in 1960 the Ministry of Culture made the medieval town a protected monument. In 1988, UNESCO designated the old town of Rhodes as a World Heritage City.
How to get there
The ferry from Fethiye takes less than two hours, giving ample time in the day to absorb the unique atmosphere of the walled town, do some shopping and take a leisurely and delicious lunch at one of the many tavernas or restaurants before return to Turkey one of the evening ferries that depart in the late afternoon. Of course it is also possible to stay the night and explore the rest of this extraordinary island. We will be looking at other places to visit over the next few weeks.
Yeşil Dalyan’s daily service stops for the winter but starts again in mid April. For more information click here.
However, winter trips can be made a couple of times a week from Marmaris. For further information click here.
The Bodrum ferry runs every day during the summer but from the end of October times change, so check on line here for more information.
Weather conditions changes, and can affect the ferry schedules.