“The cats are going to overrun this island soon,” the taverna hostess says as she pulls out a chair at the last available table in the sun, while shooing away the two whiskered faces peering out from underneath the tablecloth.
“Just ignore them,” she advises as she walks away, “they know it’s lunchtime.”
Easier said than done I imagine as we plunk down in out chairs thankful to get off our feet and thankful she speaks English. The aroma of roasted lamb drifts over to our table as we examine our menus. We’re here for our anniversary — we call it our exploration of all things Greek. Our first stop is the island of Rhodes, located in the Aegean Sea just miles off the coast of Turkey. In a sea peppered with Greek isles, Rhodes as as far east as you can go and still be in Greece.
Our table is located at the edge of a fountain-centered square somewhere in the middle of the Old Town of Rhodes, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Old Town overlooks the famous Mandraki Harbor which was once the site of the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the ancient seven wonders of the world. It’s also where they filmed parts of the movie “The Guns of Navarone” starring Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn.
As we sit, a buzz of activity hums through the square and into the narrow, winding streets that branch out from it. People in shorts and sandals with cameras around their necks and hats on their heads, deposited from cruise ships for an afternoon of shopping and sightseeing, try to navigate the cobblestone streets. Children eating ice cream follow bewildered parents who gaze down at maps and up at signs.
A woman stands in front of her stall. She is small, crooked almost and her fingers look arthritic. Her face has deep lines from age and sun as if she has been on this island for an eternity. Hers is one of a long line of bazaar-like shops spilling goods of leather and jewelry into the street. She holds up a pair of dangling fold earrings as two women approach. They walk closer to examine her offering. Their purses are clutched tightly underneath their arms alert for pickpockets and their dark, glamorous sunglasses sit on top of their identically-colored blonde heads. One of the ladies holds the earrings up to her ears, her fingernails blood-red against the gold as it glints in the sun, while the other nods in approval. Clearly skilled in her trade and recognizing her prey, the shopkeeper produces a small hand mirror and the sale is made. They thank the old woman and press on quickly. It’s a shopper’s paradise, all sorts of deals to be had.
After a leisurely lunch of hummus and calamari we say goodbye to our feline friends who are consuming the last morsels dropped under the table. They don’t bother to look up. Re-energized by our meal, we start exploring.
The town is a medieval fortress. Earlier in the day, we left our car parked outside a 40-foot thick wall (it’s a pedestrian town), walked through one of seven gates ( the only points of entry) and crossed a large, grassy moat. Not an easy place to gain access to which is exactly what the Knights of St. John intended. This is the city they ruled for over 200 years – the place they came after centuries of bloody Crusades slaying infidels in the name of Christ.
The Knights were Christian soldiers founded to care for the sick and fight Muslims in the Holy Land. A celibate brotherhood, they came from countries across Europe, their ranks filled with the sons of wealthy families. Each knight took a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience. By the time they arrived in Rhodes, they were an order in retreat, having lost their strongholds in and around Jerusalem to the Muslims.
Underfoot, the ancient cobblestones are round and hard. Warm breezes caress our bare arms and legs as we walk. We’ve stumbled upon a quiet street away from the crowds and enjoy the momentary interlude. Soft voices float down from open windows, and balconies overflowing with plants, lend a domestic quality to the street. Bougainvillea, thriving in the sun, triumphantly scales walls to hang in profuse scarlet clusters.
The taverna hostess was right – cats are everywhere. With their imperial airs, it’s as if they’ve inherited the town from the knights, disdainfully tolerating the tourists as they saunter down alleys in search of shade and solitude, totally in sync with the languid tempo of the town and its inhabitants.
Rounding a corner, we’re back on one of the main thoroughfares as we blend in with the crowd and head towards the Palace of the GrandMaster. The GrandMaster was the leader of the knights and the Palace overlooks Mandraki Harbor and served as the GrandMaster’s residence and the knights’ headquarters.
At first glance, it seems wildly out of place. Massive in scale, its gothic towers and archways conjure up visions of Ivanhoe or Sir Lancelot; more at home in the mists of England or France than on this sun-bleached speck of an island a stone’s throw from the Muslim world.
Every aspect of it – from the narrow slits of windows, to the cannons perched on its ramparts to the seemingly impregnable walls reveals an unyielding determination to defend and survive while simultaneously recognizing their unique geographic location as the lone bastion of Christendom in the east facing the increasing power and threat of the Ottoman Turks.
Similarly, the Street of Knights, which lies adjacent to the Palace, reveals the cosmopolitan makeup of these Christian soldiers while its austere appearance reflects the rigor of life five centuries ago. Its length of cobblestones is flanked on either side with stone walls punctuated by an occasional wood door – entrances into the various inns of “tongues.”
Each inn represents the area from which the knights originally came – France, Germany, England, Spain, Italy – and the coats of arms, expertly carved in the stone above the entrances of the inns, display the respective family crest of each knight who served as a GrandMaster.
As we walk along, it’s easy to feel transported back in time, so little has changed since the knights ate here, slept here and walked on these same cobblestones. And yet, despite all their efforts, it wasn’t enough.
The Muslim Turks did come, and they came in overwhelmingly superior numbers. They blockaded the harbor with their ships, mined the ramparts around the city with explosives and spent six months starving and attacking the city from all sides with soldiers and artillery. The bloodshed and carnage that resulted was staggering as the knights lived up to their reputation as formidable warriors willing to defend to the death. When the rest of the Christian world ignored their pleas for help, they had no choice but to surrender their island fortress. The last Christian outpost in the east was extinguished.
Today, the sky is blue and the sea even bluer as it sparkles in the sunlight. Instead of Turkish warships, the view is one of regatta-worthy sailboats and international yachts gently bobbing on the water. Sea breezes ripple the Greek flag flying on top of the Palace. The tourists shop … the cats nap … the cruise ships come and go.
A group of painters has congregated on a grassy spot in the shade. Men and women in their sixties, maybe older, possibly retirees drawn to this island of beauty and sunshine. A dozen or so three-legged easels stand amidst the blades of grass, paintings in various stages of completion. Clouds float by overhead. Nothing is hurried. The painters are intent on their work, trying to capture the essence of the place. It will take an artist of considerable talent to do it justice.