Rhodes Island Remains Popular Despite Greek Financial Crisis

Visitors to the largest of Greece's Dodecanese islands will find sun, sand and a few bargains  

Credit: John Thomson

Rhodos harbour is framed by the Palace of the Grand Masters in the background

Rhodes, the largest of the Dodecanese islands, continues to lure tourists drawn by its history, climate and numerous beaches

Geographically closer to Turkey than it is to Greece, the island of Rhodes has been inhabited by one civilization or another for over six thousand years. The Byzantines, Romans, crusading Knights and Ottoman Turks have all left their mark, leaving an intriguing blend of ancient ruins and modern conveniences.

This mix of ancient and modern can be seen in the two districts, Old Town and New Town, which make up the island’s capital city. The capital city is also named Rhodes, or Rhodos, as the locals call it. Rhodos sits at the north-eastern tip of the island overlooking the Aegean Sea. The Palace of the Grand Master, the ancestral home of the Knights Hospitaller, which invaded Rhodes in 1305, dominates the skyline.

New vs. Old Rhodes

The Turks captured the Palace in 1522 and the Italians, another invading force, rebuilt it in 1912. Today the Palace is a museum housing the art, weapons and artefacts of medieval Rhodes. Huge mosaics on the floor reveal the island’s mixed heritage. Elaborate geometric patterns, an Islamic practice, give way to early Christian icons like Madonna and child. It’s a curious blend of eastern and western influences.

Encircled by the walls of the Grand Palace, Old Town is a labyrinth of medieval streets, lanes and buildings jumbled together in a charming but seemingly haphazard fashion. Stone archways, a decorative Christian hallmark, bridge the cobblestone walkways while the enclosed wooden balconies that hang off the walls are a Turkish design.

The Street of Knights, so called because this is where so many Knights lived, lies within a stone’s throw of the pink-washed Mosque of Suleiman and its slender minaret, built to honour Suleiman’s march into the city in 1522. The nearby Muslim Library carries an account of the Turkish siege and their ultimate victory.

The area outside the Palace walls is called New Town. This is the home of Starbucks, MacDonald’s, multinational hotels, cafes, boutiques and restaurants. Local dishes such as kapamas (goat baked in the oven with beans and chickpeas) and giaprakis (stuffed vine leaves with rice) are island staples. Pizza and hamburgers are also on hand for those with classic North American tastes.

Ruins and Beaches on the Island

Rhodes is rich in ruins. The Acropolis of Lindos, 55 kilometres south of Rhodes and dedicated to the goddess Athena, is one of the most popular. Air conditioned buses regularly take visitors from city to town. A steep climb by foot or by donkey from Lindos to the top of the promontory reveals an extensive collection of Hellenistic ruins dating from 300 BC.

Visitors often top off their day by continuing to St. Paul’s Bay just outside the town centre. The bay is warm and shallow making it ideal for snorkeling. Snorkeling is also a prime activity at Kalithea, seven kilometres south of Rhodos and a favourite gathering spot for the locals.

Other prominent beaches can be found at Gennadi, a former fishing village now turned into a resort 63 kilometres south of Rhodos, and Ialysos eight kilometres west of the city, the site of many windsurfing championships.

When to Go to Rhodes

July and August are hot, dry and sunny, and draw the bulk of the tourist trade. The average temperature is 30 degrees Celsius. Veteran travellers prefer September and October when the crowds are thinner and the temperature’s a bit cooler. Mind you there’s an increased chance of rain in the fall since the winter is wet and windy. Most attractions close for the season at the end of October.

Getting There

Unlike its British and European competition, Air Canada does not fly directly to Rhodes. Canadians usually land in Athens and catch a connecting flight or a ferry to the island. A short layover in Athens, however, gives visitors a chance to see the Acropolis.

Ignore the scaffolding and heavy machinery, the Parthenon is stunning and well worth the visit despite the on-going restoration.

Looking for Bargains in Greece

Travellers looking for bargains because of the Greek downturn may be disappointed, at least in the short run. Air Canada flights from Vancouver to Athens are no cheaper than they were last year, and Rhodes’ four star hotels are expensive.

On the other hand, visitors can expect a break from the smaller family-run shops and restaurants that have to compete with the chains and each other for foreign currency.

Unfortunately, the situation is forcing some local establishments to cut costs and close early. For some, this unpredictability heightens the experience. Travellers to Rhodes this year will find the island as charming as ever but should prepare themselves for fluctuations in prices and service.

Images by John Thomson