Rhodes' New Town
Feature by Willard Manus

For some time now, Rhodes has been the official beauty spot of the Aegean, with upwards of a million tourists a year flocking to the island to partake of its many charms. High on the list of tourist attractions is Rhodes city itself, home to a port which can handle cruise boats, charter yachts and hydrofoils alike, and to an airport which attracts jumbo jets from every corner of the world.

It's safe to say that most visitors head straight to Rhodes' Old Town, which is located behind fortress walls built by the Knights of St. John over a two-century period (1309-1522 A.D.) The Knights built houses and palaces for themselves as well as erecting a stronghold that is considered one of the great military constructs of all time. With its battlements and fortifications, its moats and iron doors, it was well-nigh impregnable. Its surrender to the Ottoman army of Sulieman the Magnificent was finally negotiated on December 25, 1522 after a five-month siege.

The Levantine atmosphere of the walled city is still intact, though the saddlers, blacksmiths and ironmongers of old have given way to hawkers of tourist trinkets and snacks. The Palace of the Grand Masters still stands, as does the Hospital of the Knights, which has been turned into a museum containing artifacts, sculpture and jewelry from just about every period of Rhodes’s history. Another tourist draw is a nightly sound and light show which dramatizes key moments from the island’s Crusader days.

Rhodes city can't compete with the Old Town for picturesqueness or history, but it has many worthy things to offer, enough to justify an extended visit. The city was founded after the Turks drove the Greeks out of the fortified part of town. Dozens of neighborhoods took root, most of which now have their own church, shops, streets, houses and hotels–-many, many hotels.

Today Rhodes and its environs can boast of over five hundred hotels, most of which are large, luxurious complexes containing indoor and outdoor swimming pools, saunas, exercise rooms, nightclubs and restaurants. The city’s biggest attraction, however, is the site where the Colossus of Rhodes stood in 300 B.C., astride the main harbor. The Colossus was one of the seven wonders of the world. Made of either copper or bronze, it took twelve years to build and stood 105 feet high with legs set wide enough to allow ships to pass between them. This gigantic representation of the god Apollo Helios held a torch in his right hand but kept his left hand by his groin (perhaps to protect himself from tall-masted ships).

The statue stood until 227 B.C., when a severe earthquake toppled it (and much of Rhodes city as well). Money was donated by friendly kingdoms to reconstruct the city and raise the Colossus, but as it frequently happens in the Levant, the money was spent on other things. The inhabitants, hoping to escape reproach, made the excuse that an oracle had forbidden them to resurrect the statue. So the damaged Colossus lay on its side for centuries until the Saracens, after their capture of Rhodes, demolished the statue and sold its pieces to a Syrian scrap dealer.

Mandraki, the broad esplanade overlooking the old harbor of Rhodes and its three Byzantine windmills, no longer has its Colossus, but at its entrance are two columns adorned with statues of the lovely gazelles of the island. The ancient marketplace has been turned into a shopping mall, but there are numerous cafes where it’s possible to sit and have a coffee and watch all the bustling action: the arrival and departure of mammoth cruise ships and elegant yachts, even the odd Greek fishing boat or two.

Just north of the main harbor is a series of official buildings built during the Italian occupation--bank, court house, post office, theater, city hall--in a style that has been described as Mussolini Gothic. Visitors looking to take a day trip around Rhodes or a hydrofoil to a neighboring island will find all kinds of choices here. There are popular public beaches as well.

Most of Rhodes’ new city has been given over to tourism. Shops of all kinds abound, making it possible to buy everything from fur coats and leather jackets to gold and jewelry baubles. Banks, travel agencies and fast-food stalls beckon on all sides, pharmacies, medical and dental clinics as well. There is a hotel on every corner.

One of the city’s must-see attractions is the famed Hotel Des Roses (first built by the Italians in 1927, with a Moorish design). Standing five stories tall, the hotel’s 140 rooms were spacious and elegant. Downstairs there was a grand ballroom and various sitting and dining rooms where liveried servants served food and drink with exquisite taste and grace. The hotel kept its reputation and prominence right through WW II–the Italian, German and British high commands all stayed there. The post-war United Nations meeting to plan the establishment of the state of Israel was held here, as was a major gathering of the World Council of Churches. But the fortunes of the hotel began to wane in the ensuing years. The hotel’s ownership went to the Greek state; eventually the property was ceded to the Municipality of Rhodes.

Today the refurbished Hotel Des Roses now serves as a major gambling casino. The bottom two floors are packed with blackjack, baccarat, dice and poker tables, slot and video machines as well. The top three floors contain modern suites, a restaurant and bars, along with a fitness center and nightclub. There is an outdoor swimming pool as well.

To reach the Grand Old Lady of Rhodes, you must pass through an olive grove where Lawrence Durrell, author of The Alexandria Quartet and Reflections in a Marine Venus (a book about Rhodes), lived right after WW II in a small house that once belonged to the Turkish poet Hascmet. Durrell at that time was a press officer in the British Foreign Service.

About a mile outside Rhodes city, just off the highway to Lindos, is a large park called Rodini which is filled with trees, shrubs and ponds. There is also a bunch of aggressive, noisy peacocks. In ancient times Rodini housed a center of the arts. Aeschines, a political opponent of the celebrated orator Demosthenes, opened a School of Rhetoric here; such painters and sculptors as Protogenes, Lyssipus, Polydoros and Timocharis (who carved the rock-ship on the Lindos acropolis) offered their works. Many famous Romans visited Rodini to partake of the intellectual and artistic climate: Mark Anthony, Cicero, Cassius and Brutus, among others.

Rhodes still has something of an artistic and intellectual life; the municipal theater regularly offers concerts, film and stage shows, symposiums, art exhibits and lectures. There are also numerous upscale restaurants where one can dine on fancy food and wine. There is no end of live entertainment as well, everything from Greek pop song to rock and hip-hop bands. When it comes to discos, Rhodes is no slouch either, with something like a hundred clubs operating from midnight to dawn, their dance floors packed with undulating bodies.

The 21st century's Colossus of Rhodes is a package tourist: clad in shorts and a T-shirt, he stands tall with a beer in his upraised fist, ready to boogie the night away.