Mediterranean islands are chock full of ancient history. A romantic can easily imagine Jason and the Argonauts or Odysseus sailing amongst them in ships of yore. Our somewhat larger 600-passenger craft glided into Rhodes harbour early in the morning. Day trips are hardly more than a superficial cultural experience, but luckily we were off-season with few other tourists.
Rhodes is one of the bigger Greek islands, situated off the south coast of Turkey. Must-see is the UNESCO heritage-designated Old Town and in it, the Grand Masters' Palace, a centuries-old seat of the Knights of St. John (also known as Knights of Malta and other appellations). What did I know about the Knights? Close to zip: recalling dim thoughts of the Crusades. Richard the Lion Heart. And shades of ambitious mystery novelists who attribute all manner of mysterious skulduggery to the order.
We spent most of our time exploring the magnificent 14th century palace that houses the Byzantine Museum. In 1856 the palace was largely destroyed by an accidental explosion in its armoury; almost one hundred years later it was painstakingly rebuilt and restored from the original plans. To use their full title, the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta dates back to the monastic Order of St. John of Jerusalem, dedicated to caring for sick and poor pilgrims in the Holy Land.
It became a military as well as religious order under a Papal charter; its mission then expanded to defence of the Holy Land at the time of the First Crusade. The order attracted members from everywhere in Europe to make it a fierce defensive Christian force. After Jerusalem fell to the Ottomans in 1291, the Knights moved their administration and hospitals to Rhodes, Cyprus, and Malta over a period of time.
In the museum, I was thrilled to see one of my favourites, the reproduction of Laocoön, “one of the greatest of all artworks.” The original masterpiece is attributed to Rhodes sculptors and when discovered in Rome it was grabbed for permanent display in the Vatican’s Belvedere Garden.
The Knights began fortifying the town of Rhodes when they arrived in the early 1300s. The outer grounds of the palace now provide a park for exercise and families.
After an enjoyable little trek downhill through narrow streets we had adequate time to gaze around a central square and look at the shops. On the way a picturesquely pathetic small child was playing a faintly familiar song on a bouzouki type instrument. Seeking handouts of course. It would have made a striking photo if the camera had been uppermost in mind. Some of our group, all supposedly well-travelled, had to be told NOT to give her money when she should be in school. An ice cream shop has amusing creations in its display window.
Greece was in bad financial shape in 2011 and the tourist industry was suffering. Our local guide Ireni was not optimistic about the upcoming election, urging us to return soon, bring our friends.
Cyprus is a divided island, as we know. Limasol was our port, in Greek jurisdiction. Rumour has it the town is filled in season with the nightclubbing offspring of Russian oil-money and possibly serves as an offshore tax haven. Or money laundering; take your pick. My tour went into the hills to see mountain villages, thus I missed discovering any direct evidence of the jetsetting Russian oligarchy.
Beautiful scenery and sometimes terrifying hairpins on the mountain road led us to a variety of craft and home industries. It only took the first visit to see how business had stalled in the discouraging economic climate. Production had basically stopped. Owners, managers, or employees ― whoever was tasked with showing us around these places ― were subdued. Our local guide Antoinetta was the most animated soul of the day.
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At the village of Agros we visit House of Roses, a small factory based on cultivation of (immense fields of) the ancient Mesopotamian Rosa Damascena. They produce perfume, cosmetics, wine, candles, ceramic ware, and what-have-you. The site was virtually vacant: no humming of machinery or chatter of workers. A brief introductory talk was uninspired; much more time was given to browsing the shop for souvenirs.
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After that was a cottage-industry of jams, jellies, preserves, and candy. We toured the pristine kitchen where I believe a woman was at work stirring something. Preserved tender young walnuts and a candy made from fresh grapes are specialities. Samples, of course. Our bags were getting heavier with fragrant and tasty purchases.
Then came the winery. Just the right time for a tasting. Here we found more enthusiasm in the unabashed sales talk, maybe because the harvest was over as a natural course of events rather than due to financial woes. All wines were unfamiliar but I bought a red, knowing enough to steer away from the retsina.
A pensive moment on their terrace with the cats was worth its weight in gold.
Barely disguised commercial promotion on a "tour" is easily forgiven because these people are desperately dependent on the tourist trade and we were the only tourists around. Of course we felt silently obliged to spend some money as we met one pair of melancholy eyes after another. Did we help prop up the economy? Not so much, I think. Even more so than Ireni yesterday, Antoinetta implored us to come back to her island again.
Occasional tiny churches dot the area, one dating from the 11th century! Stop the bus! But no, we have an agenda and today it apparently does not include history. To my great disappointment. Trying to capture them through a moving window is impossible. The sun starts to set on the Mediterranean about 5 p.m. this time of year; it gets dark earlier if you’re in a mountainous area. So that puts a natural end to a day’s excursion.
© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.