Church bells break out this morning in a clattering call to worship. We can hear the bells, but where are the churches? So far we have only managed to locate the Church of the Annunciation, out at the harbor mouth, and a Catholic church near the beach hotels. I expected Rhodes to be packed with churches. Perhaps the long Islamic occupation led to the concealment of the buildings. Maybe they are disguised, tucked behind discreet facades. We know they are there; we can hear the bells, but where are they?
I'm out before sunrise again, hiking along the southern, defensive wall of the city. I leave the old town by passing through St Athanasius Gate. An elevated walkway bridges the inner and outer walls. I then turn east, walking toward the dawn. A girl in a short party frock weaves down the street toward me. “Hello, Buongiorno,” she slurs as she passes. A happy Italian girl, far from home.
The thick walls of Rhodes look impenetrable, smooth faced stone designed to ward off enemies. Some of the upper surfaces have stone cannonballs mounted (or carved) into them, as if these projectiles had stuck on impact. Piles of stone cannonballs can also be found at strategic points between the inner and outer wall. I was amused to note, the night before while photographing the Palace of the Grand Master, that very few young men could resist attempting to lift one to impress a female companion.
Rounding the corner of the city I come face to face with a docked cruise ship. Men are fishing in her shadow, creating a well-composed photo. Beyond the ship are the remains of some medieval windmills. Only one of the cone shaped towers still has its blades attached. The sign states that these windmills are undergoing restoration, so perhaps soon they will spin again.
In the afternoon, it is time to push up the hill for a tour of the Palace of the Grandmaster of the Knights of St John. The Palace perches squarely atop a small hill on the northern edge of the old city. It is a large, impressive stone fortress, built around an internal square. The structure had fallen into disrepair during the Turkish occupation, but it was restored when the Italians took over Rhodes. Our guidebook states, rather sniffily, that this was an “unsympathetic” restoration. Lacking before and after shots, I am in no position to judge.
The Knights of St John were founded in 1113, a product of the Crusades. Originally based in a hospital in Jerusalem, they were primarily a hospital order, devoted to healing the sick and the wounded. This was reflected in their dress: where a crusading knight would wear a white singlet with a red cross emblazoned on it, the Knight of St John wore a red singlet with a white cross. The white of the Crusader's singlet symbolized purity, while the red stood for his blood, which he had promised to offer on Christ's behalf. For the Knights of St John, the red stood for blood, while the white was the bandages the Knight applied to the wounded.
After Islamic forces reclaimed Israel from the crusaders, the Knights of St John moved first to Cyrpus, and then here to Rhodes. They held the island until 1522, when they were forced to withdraw to Malta.
I am surprised by how few people have hiked up Knight Street to the Palace this afternoon. Despite the two cruise ships moored in the harbor, the Palace is virtually empty. We tour quiet grounds. In addition to the rooms of the Palace, there are also two small museums containing finds from early Rhodes. The first museum is devoted to Rhodes' medieval past, and it houses a lovely selection of Christian antiquities. I am particularly taken with some of the icons, which are double-sided, painted on great slabs of wood.
Upstairs we follow a circular route around the square. When the Italians rebuilt the Palace, they moved mosaics from the the floors of ancient Roman villas in Cos, mounting these on the floors. The mosaics are much older than the Palace, but their richness makes a wonderful warming addition to the sterile stone rooms.
The other museum in the Palace houses a wide range of finds from pre-Christian Rhodes. On display are black- and red-figured vases, as well as a range of statues and household implements dating back to 2000 BC. Some of these statues, such as the flowing white marble of Aphrodite have effortlessly resisted the wear of time; she glows lustrously under the lights, as smooth and soft as the day she received her final polish. Here also is a head of Helios, the Sun god who was credited with the creation of Rhodes ― the Rhodian's patron.
An enjoyable afternoon. In the evening we seek out a restaurant where I have a dish called “Farmer's Pork.” It comes in a large red clay pot, and consists of succulent stewed pieces of pork, potatoes, cabbage, tomato, and just about anything else kicking around the farm. It is absolutely delicious. I have doubts about whether I can fold it all into my stomach, but in the end I get the better of it and tuck it all away. Certainly the second best meal I have enjoyed in Rhodes.