Rhodes: Island of the Knights

January 4, 2015 Updated: January 4, 2015

Rhodes is probably best known as the island that was once home to the Colossus of Rhodes, a 98-foot-high statue of the Greek god Helios and one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Today, the tallest structure in ancient times has long disappeared, but the deer statues, where the colossus once stood, remain guarding Mandraki Harbour.

Like many places in the Mediterranean, Rhodes is hugely popular with visitors all year round. But opting for a spring break in April meant that I was avoiding the bigger crowds over the summer season. The water turned out much too cold for a swim, but there was so much to see and do, I was not tempted to take a lazy beach-side break for even a second.

History is all over the place on the largest of the Dodecanese islands, with the Crusaders as well as Ottoman and Italian invaders having left their lasting legacy in Rhodes Old Town. Further afield, the whitewashed villages, cobblestoned streets, and beach-side tavernas are quintessentially Greek.

Acropolis of Rhodes

When visiting a new place I like to get up high for a first overview, be it a castle tower, a skyscraper, or a mountaintop. In Rhodes, the ruins of the acropolis dominating the western part of the city just fit my bill. After a decent uphill walk in some 90° Fahrenheit, I stood in front of the remains of the Temple of Apollo, and as always, when encountering monuments of times long gone by, I felt reverence and admiration for the achievements of generations past.

Not much remains of the Acropolis of Rhodes, but four oversize column drums still on site are an indication of its original monumental character. (Wibke Carter)
Not much remains of the Acropolis of Rhodes, but four oversize column drums still on site are an indication of its original monumental character. (Wibke Carter)

To date, the whole acropolis has not been excavated yet, but a small theatre and stadium below were open to the public. I was surprised that no entry fee was charged for access to the site and that tourists and locals alike could move around so freely. It was permissible to sit on the ancient benches, and a local man was running circles in the stadium like his ancestors some hundreds of years ago.

The courtyard at the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes. The palace was built at the highest point of the medieval city and formed the last refuge for the population in the event of an enemy attack. (Wibke Carter)
The courtyard at the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes. The palace was built at the highest point of the medieval city and formed the last refuge for the population in the event of an enemy attack. (Wibke Carter)

Well-preserved Old Town

In awe, I kept on exploring the cultural heritage of the island, including Rhodes Old Town. Thanks to its strategic position in the Aegean Sea, Rhodes has been an important seafaring and trading centre since its beginnings in 407 BC.

The still-existing fortifications were initially erected by the Byzantines, then widened after 1309 when the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem conquered the island. Turks, Italians, Germans, and British also laid claim to Rhodes at one point or another until the Greeks took over in 1948. Despite its moving history, the Old Town is surprisingly well-preserved and was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1988.

A square in the Old Town of Rhodes, one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe, which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. (Wibke Carter)
A square in the Old Town of Rhodes, one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe, which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. (Wibke Carter)

While strolling aimlessly through the well-worn streets, it became obvious to me that the town was a mosaic of different cultures and civilizations built over 24 centuries. In every alley, around every corner, there was something new to discover: bastions, thick gates, minarets, fountains, churches, and busy squares. The cobblestoned Street of the Knights, famed as one of the best-preserved medieval streets in Europe, was crowded with tourists.

The Palace of the Grand Master was arguably my highlight of the Old Town. Originally a Byzantine fortress, it was converted into a residence in the 14th century by the Knights of St John. The building was destroyed in 1856 by a large explosion of gunpowder, only to be rebuilt in the 20th century as a holiday residence for Fascist ruler Benito Mussolini, amongst others. I simply loved the clear structures, mosaics on the floor, and Greek busts.

Ancient city-state of Líndos

If there is one not-to-be missed site on Rhodes it has to be the remains of the acropolis of Líndos. After a bus trip of about an hour from Rhodes Old Town, I emerged at Líndos village.

Inside Líndos acropolis. In the 14th century, the ancient monuments were partly overlaid by a massive fortress built on the acropolis by the Knights of St John to defend Rhodes against the Ottomans. (Wibke Carter)
Inside Líndos acropolis. In the 14th century, the ancient monuments were partly overlaid by a massive fortress built on the acropolis by the Knights of St John to defend Rhodes against the Ottomans. (Wibke Carter)

The walk in the shade along cubic whitewashed houses, Byzantine churches, and on narrow cobbled streets passed rather quickly and before long I had reached the ancient site. A natural watchtower facing the open sea, the acropolis was built on a steep rock 116 metres above sea level. The sweeping 360° views over the village, olive groves, and the turquoise sea were stunning.

The uphill journey from Líndos village to the acropolis can be done on foot or by donkey. (Wibke Carter)
The uphill journey from Líndos village to the acropolis can be done on foot or by donkey. (Wibke Carter)

The acropolis covers a number of different monuments from various time periods and it took me around two to three hours to get a good look at all of them and read through the information displays. Most memorable were the Temple of Athena, the Hellenistic staircase, and Castle of the Knights of St John. The site was well-maintained, though one had to be careful with slippery steps and pieces of stone strewn about.

The acropolis of Líndos, a natural citadel which was fortified successively by the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Knights of St John, and the Ottomans, offers spectacular views of the surrounding harbours and coastline. (Wibke Carter)
The acropolis of Líndos, a natural citadel which was fortified successively by the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Knights of St John, and the Ottomans, offers spectacular views of the surrounding harbours and coastline. (Wibke Carter)

Filerimos Monastery

With what felt like a lifetime of Greek history under my belt, I had one last stop to make before returning home. On the way from the airport, I had noticed a large cross on top of a hill. A look on the map told me to head uphill to a place called Filerimos Monastery.

Filerimos Monastery. Today, travellers can visit the monastery in its current, restored version of when Rhodes was under Italian Rule. (Wibke Carter)
Filerimos Monastery. Today, travellers can visit the monastery in its current, restored version of when Rhodes was under Italian Rule. (Wibke Carter)

My navigation skills aren’t the best but I had to see the cross, and so I started hiking through lush green bush further and further up. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I discovered overgrown, maybe ancient, columns next to the unbeaten path and moss-covered steps leading upward made me feel like an archeologist before an important discovery. Presumably, the people of Rhodes have all sorts of ancient monuments in their back gardens, but it was an elevating feeling anyway.

The entrance to Filerimos Monastery. The monastery is surrounded by cypress, pine, and other trees. Peacocks can also be found everywhere on the hillside. (Wibke Carter)
The entrance to Filerimos Monastery. The monastery is surrounded by cypress, pine, and other trees. Peacocks can also be found everywhere on the hillside. (Wibke Carter)

Unfortunately, due to my dawdling, I opened the gates to Filerimos Monastery only 30 minutes before closing time, but the silence and peace of the place made any time constraints disappear. The monastery has been occupied by monks continuously for at least 16 centuries, though peacocks seemed to be the only residents at the time of my visit.

An interesting feature at Filerimos are the brass plaques depicting the Path of Golgotha along a walkway connecting the monastery with a giant concrete cross. (Wibke Carter)
An interesting feature at Filerimos are the brass plaques depicting the Path of Golgotha along a walkway connecting the monastery with a giant concrete cross. (Wibke Carter)

The Path of Golgotha, in which Jesus, bearing the cross, walked to his death, is depicted on brass plaques on Filerimos Hill. The shaded pathway connects the monastery with the enormous 18-metre concrete cross which I had seen days before. After walking up the internal staircase I had a last look over the island, and left off where I started—with a view from the top.

Wibke Carter is a world traveller who hails from Germany, has lived in New Zealand and New York, and presently enjoys life in London.