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One of the delights of Rhodes is its wealth of classical culture: not surprising when you remember that this was the location of one of the Seven Wonders of the World – the Colossus of Rhodes, an enormous bronze statue built to honour Helios the sun god. I got a reminder of the sophistication of these ancient civilisations when I visited the ruined city of Kamiros, on the rugged western coast. Founded over 3000 years ago the city flourished until it was destroyed by an earthquake around AD142. It gradually crumbled from both sight and memory until Italian archaeologists excavated it in the 20th-century and revealed the remains of ornate temples, villas, statues and fountains. “They even had plumbing here - long before the Romans,” exclaimed Dimitrios my guide, pointing out fragments of terracotta pipes that once spread underground in an ingenious network that supplied the city with fresh water. Few visitors notice these ancient innovations, which now function as smooth sun-loungers for basking geckos.
From the ruins of Kamiros I could see the jagged hills of nearby Turkey, a reminder that Rhodes’ important strategic position has left it prey to successive waves of invaders. Turks, Dorians, Romans and many others have all left their fingerprints upon the island, creating a remarkable architectural legacy. High above the narrow medieval streets of Lindos, for example, are the atmospheric ruins of an Acropolis which has watched over the town since the 4th century BC. It’s a steep climb to the top but worth it if only for the views far out to sea. Down in the town centre you can reward yourself with a meal at Mavrikos, the island’s finest restaurant (tel: 30 22440 31232) where the desserts are fit for a Greek god – candied bergamot, figs stuffed with almonds, chocolate mousse…There are more architectural wonders on the streets of Rhodes town, which are lined with shops selling everything from silky carpets to runny honey, are a picturesque jumble: mosques, Orthodox churches, a synagogue – all rubbing shoulders with atmospheric buildings erected by Crusader knights, who controlled the island in the Middle Ages.
Not far from Rhodes town is Mount Filerimos, where there’s a medieval church and monastery, and panoramic views. It was built on the same spot as a pagan temple dating back to the 3rd century BC, the remains of which can still be seen. It’s symbolic of the island’s potent blend of religion and ancient belief: superstitions run deep here and people still believe in the power of the ‘evil eye’- bracelets to ward off its dangers are widely available.
The island’s natural beauties are just as impressive as its cultural treasures. Perhaps the best known is the Valley of the Butterflies at Petaloudes where, under a cool green canopy of gum trees, thousands of tiger moths gather between June and September, attracted by the warm vanilla scent of amber resin that seeps slowly from the bark. Then there’s Profitis Ilias, one of the island’s highest peaks and a paradise for botanists, with rare orchids and other wild flowers growing on its shady wooded slopes. Half hidden by the trees is an abandoned Swiss-style chalet, a comfortable retreat for senior Italian officials during the Fascists’ occupation of the island. Some say it was a favourite with Mussolini.
The best way to discover the island’s beauties is on foot. I took a waymarked route near the village of Psinthos. Following red splodges painted on boulders, I walked through woods filled with the scent of wild sage and thyme. Every so often I spotted wild goats, who stopped chewing and looked thoughtfully at me before scampering away. Eventually I reached the lovely little church of Kalopetra, a whitewashed gem overlooking the sea. I drank thick sweet coffee at the adjacent café, while the owner explained to me that although the church was built in 1782, a monastery had previously flourished here for centuries. Inside, once my eyes had adjusted to the gloom, I found a traditional pebbled floor, lovingly carved wood and gilded icons that glinted in the flickering light of honey-wax candles.
Another day, after lunching on crumbly white feta cheese and tomatoes, I followed a footpath from the Seven Springs, a fertile, shady valley. I occasionally spotted the golden flash of a bee-eater overhead as I followed the path, through long grasses and olive groves, to the coastal village of Archangelos. Dominated by the ruins of a medieval castle, built by Crusader knights as protection against pirates, today it’s best known for its neat blue and white houses and many pottery outlets. I wandered through winding streets laced with bougainvillea, while walnut- wrinkled men played backgammon in cafés, and old ladies swathed in black chatted in the sun. There wasn’t a bottom baring Brit in sight.
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