Rhodes And The Real Thing

Feature by Willard Manus

The buses begin ganging up by mid-morning, glass-sheathed Pullmans piling one after another into the small platia of Lindos, disgorging an occupying army of tourists. Mustered under their travel agency's flags--Vingresor, Dr Tigges Fahrten, Tjaereborg, Spies--many of them have been on a holiday blitzkrieg of the Mediterranean, a port a day for 15 days. They show signs of tourist fatigue.

"Darling," an American says to his wife as they push their way through the cramped square, "it's our anniversary. Would you like to go to Rhodes city to a nightclub?"

"I don't know. How do we get there?"

"By taxi. It's something like 35 Euros."

"Well, what do you think? Should we go or stay in Lindos?"

"I don't know; there doesn't seem that much to do here. But if we stay maybe we can find the real thing."

There's the rub: how to find the real thing on Rhodes, an island which for most of its life has been pampered and petted like a geisha, conditioned for a life of compliance and pleasure. The Italians occupied the island in 1912 and later turned it into a military and supply base to buttress dreams of hegemony over Asia Minor. This grandiose scheme was never achieved, but the Italians remained in power until the end of the Second World War and did much to improve Rhodes. They restored archaeological sites, built parks, farms and dams, designed a few luxury hotels and civic buildings, usually with florid taste.

At the same time, the Italians delivered a vindictive blow to the Greek culture by suppressing ancient privileges, expropriating property, taxing inordinately, interfering with civil and religious institutions.

The history of Rhodes is a tempestuous one, full of wars, pillages, occupations. "I do not know in the world a more excellent strategic position, nor a more beautiful sky, nor a more smiling and fecund soil," wrote Lamartine in his Voyage en Orient (1835). A succession of colonizers--Minoan Cretans, warriors from Attica and the Peloponnese, the aggressive Dorians--fought one another over the island's favors. They were followed in later years by the Byzantines, the Knights of St. John, and the Turks, who wrested the walled city from the Crusaders in the great siege of 1522. For almost four centuries Rhodes was a Turkish province. Then Italy was awarded it by the Great Powers after World War I. And in 1948, having been liberated by British troops, Rhodes was finally re-united with Greece, after a lapse of 2,000 years.

In many ways, Rhodes has never had a "real thing." All those centuries of foreign rule have injected a synthetic strain into the everyday life: many Greek customs were abandoned, the language became impure, the food paradoxical. The Rhodians' roots seem to go no deeper than topsoil. Hence their total surrender to tourism, standing by passively while their graceful Aegean villas were torn down and replaced by ugly high-rise hotels, and while their men, once a proud, tough, seafaring lot, were turned into a gang of waiters, shop clerks and womanizers.

And yet, true as this is, it still isn't the whole truth. Rhodes has been changed, spoiled, even corrupted; the city is an antipasto of hotels, discos, fast-food joints and boutiques; and, as a Rhodian woman complained, "The men go about like dogs and the wives wear horns a meter long." But despite all the concrete and glass, the endless multilingual signs FURS, PALSAR, PELZE, despite the fleshpot nightlife, another and different Rhodes does exist. The Greek culture is deceptively tenacious and if Sultan Suleiman I, Suleiman the Magnificent, couldn't kill it, then neither will Vingresor, Aegean Holidays or Dr Tigges Fahrten.

Just an hour away from Rhodes city by car, an hour and a half by scooter or public bus, sits the mountain village of Asklipion. It is a village of perhaps 500 souls, a place of small whitewashed houses, chickens and roosters running around in the serpentine streets. Life is simple and difficult here: the men farm in the fields that tumble down to the dry, rocky valley; the women bake bread in outside ovens, over wood fires. Sitting in a taverna, with a view of the Aegean in the distance and the Greek sun streaming down, one could be almost anywhere in Greece-- a remote corner of the Peloponnese, a wild craig in Macedonia. It's easy to forget that this is Rhodes, the most popular tourist island in all of Greece.

Asklipion does not see many foreign faces, much less an excursion bus. A few old men still wear loose Turkish-style trousers, boots and sleeveless jackets. Offer one of them a cigarette and the impulsive, generous Greek character comes to the fore: a boy is sent running to pluck a bunch of grapes from a nearby vine--fat, purple things with bursting skins.

Driving south from Asklipion, one is alone in the hills. Make a stop and all is silence, except for the clatter of cicadas, a flock of goats tinkling in the fields, their unseen shepherd chanting, "Heyp, heyp, heyp." Overhead a hawk wheels and dips; a breeze brings a scent of wild flowers and basil, a whiff of the Aegean. Eventually the road terminates in the southern tip of the island and the contrasting colors of the landscape explode all around: the cerulean of water and sky, the bright orange of citrus trees, the dusty silver-grey of olive groves.

This part of Rhodes is untamed, its inhabitants are weatherbeaten, straightforward, hard-working. The old life persists; superstitions abound (there is talk of demons haunting the hills), legends are bandied; peasant remedies practiced. (Cure for a cold: rub sage between the hands and inhale its aroma for a day).

The scenery here is rugged and wild; the brown hills are bare and steep; the sea rough and swift-running; the villages few and far between. But in late afternoon one comes face to face with the dazzling sunsets for which the island is famed. The god of Rhodes is Helios, the Sun, and the first islanders, sons of Helios and the nymph Rhodes, were known as Heliades. The festival of Helios was held annually in Rhodes city. The Colossus was built there in the Sun God's likeness, and each year the Heliades flung four white horses and a chariot into the sea as a sacrifice to him.

Now, as the red sun sears the sky and transforms the Aegean into a sheet of white fire, one can perch on the embankments of Monolithos, a towering fortress built by the Crusaders in the 15th century, and take in the whole singing beauty of Rhodes and its neighboring islands, Halki, Alimia and Tilos.

If that isn't the real thing, I don't know what is.