Sunday, November 30, 2008


When no amount of begging, pleading and outright bribery could keep us in our cozy Oia cavern for even one more night we reluctantly headed to the tourist agency to book a couple of flights from Santorini to Rhodes. Or, as the handsome young ticket agent corrected me with a twinkle in his eye but a firmness in his tone, Rodos. And so shall it ever be.

The next morning when we arrived at the tiny airport and stood before our plane I actually laughed out loud. Suddenly, I understood the 15 kilo weight limit on luggage. And wished I'd skipped breakfast.

As we climbed aboard the 18 seater we were graciously welcomed by one of the most stunningly beautiful flight attendants I have ever seen in my life. As it turned out, every flight attendant on a Greek airline was female, friendly and absolutely breathtaking.

"I'd like to be the guy who does the hiring for this job," remarked Turk. I couldn't blame him. The requirements for this position must start with a goddess gene in the DNA sequence. In fact, one of the things one can't help notice of is how strikingly attractive the Greeks are as a people ~ young men and women stride the plakas and plazas with the casual insouciance of youth and a beauty that is a pleasure to behold and a tribute to the healthy Mediterranean lifestyle. Aphrodite and Adonis are not just mythology here ~ they're riding vespas and smoking Santes'. I silently regret my own luppen and questionable ancestry.

If Mykonos is an amiable Hedonist, welcoming with open arms the weary voyager and Santorini a winsome, pastel-drenched fantasy carved into the land by fey but determined cave dwellers with a surprisingly sunny aesthetic, the architecture of Rodos embodies a heavier, masculine and somewhat more conflicted history, for all it's inherent beauty. Located at an intersection between East and West, it is an island molded by commerce and conflict as over the centuries knights, Turks and Italians have fought for and controlled the island. All have left their mark and their stories. We stayed within the walled fortress of Old Town for 4 fascinating days and rarely felt the need to leave this thriving city.

To stay in the Old Town is to have one foot in the modern world of cellphones and cycles, nightclubs and credit cards, and the other in the shadows of its very present medieval past.

Upon our arrival we followed the cab driver's instructions through the massive fortress gate and, turning onto the main square, found ourselves in the midst of another bazaar, an explosion of color, sight and sound. As we pulled our cases behind us, searching for the tiny alleyway that held our hotel, taverna hosts beckoned passersby to their tables and shopkeepers into their stores, as travelers fingered fabrics of blue and gold and tentatively inquired about price. It was a moment of timelessness, that feeling that this plaza, this market, this moment has existed just so for hundreds of years ~ travelers arrive, open-mouthed with awe and delight, hawkers flog their wares, children play, money changes hands, life goes on. To experience it is to be conscious of one's own transient role in a continuous flow of humanity. It is marvelous.

We stayed in a charming, traditional hotel perfectly located in a quiet lane just off the main square. Our hostess, 'Irina' was the sole proprietor of the establishment and had done much of the massive restoration on her own. Staying with Irina is a lot like staying with family, in this case, your kind, energetic and slightly bossy aunt ~ the breakfasts are homemade and generous, the wine flows freely. But do not forget to lock up after yourself at night or, as I did, leave your key in the lock inside your room when you come down for coffee. Locksmiths will be called. Irina will be sternly disappointed but forgiving. And you will not do it again.

This being Greece, the gods of the ancient are represented in the ruins and archaeological museums of the town, as well as the religion of the conquering Turks. We did take an afternoon trip out to lovely Lindos to visit the Temple of Athena. Our cab driver/tour guide (they call me George the American!) proved to be an entertaining and colorful companion ~ twice decorated in the Korean War, he was featured on the cover of Time Magazine for his heroism as a soldier. He returned to Rodos, the island of his birth because his wife pined for her home and family here and because her doctor insisted it was the only way to relieve her sadness. She has been happy now for over 30 years. So, I believe, has George.

But it is The Knights of St John who dominate the landscape and the imagination within the fortress walls, heavy with the trappings of a very muscular mysticism and might.

On a whim, after strolling Mandraki Harbor and seeing the many sightseeing boats offering passage, we boarded the King Sauron ferry for a sail to Marmaris, Turkey, feeling rather intrepid and Ernest Hemingway about ourselves.

I don't really know what I expected; after being warned off by our new friends, a couple from Dundee, Scotland who we met staying at 'Auntie' Irina's, I was picturing something just slightly more civilized than the Black Hole of Calcutta, full of thieves and beggars and shifty-eyed men of dubious intent.

What we found was a relaxed and westernized resort town, one of the most beautiful harbors I've ever seen, and some of the warmest, friendliest, most courteous people I've ever had the pleasure to meet.
In this one brief encounter, I found myself so loving this place and touched by these people, of whom I had previously been suspect that I was ashamed of myself. It was as though a film had been lifted from my eyes. If there is one thing I will take away from this entire trip it is that ~ that when we let our prejudices and fears dictate our actions we limit our universe and deprive ourselves of the all the wonder therein. An open mind is gloriously selfish thing. It is a key to universal treasure.

I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

We returned to Rodos just in time for sunset. And happy hour in the square.