Wednesday, May 23, 2012

We Can See Turkey From our Backyard

We landed in the Dodecanese, very different islands in look and feel from the whitewashed Cyclades we’d left behind. Our first stop was Rhodes, the fourth largest Greek island and a stone’s throw from the western coast of Turkey. There’s a palpable awareness and very real angst among Greeks that its long-established bitter adversary is just across the water. We could see the mountains of Turkey in the not far distance – effectively in our back yard – and there was a very visible military presence with armed guards keeping watch across the sea.

When we arrived in Rhodes Town, we innocently asked our taxi driver, “Which island is that across the way?”

“That’s no island,” he replied, “that’s Turkey. Do you like this place?”

“Should we?” Joe wisely retorted.

It’s not a prudent idea to show interest in “that place” across the way or even mention the possibility of a visit there when in Greece. We kept our plans for heading to Turkey in a few short weeks to ourselves.

The temperatures have gotten progressively higher as we’ve island-hopped our way south. It was in the mid 60s on Mykonos, in the low 70s on Naxos and Santorini and by the time we arrived on Rhodes, the midday temperatures had climbed to the upper 70s. The dismal gray skies and biting winds of Berlin and Amsterdam just a month before were distant memories. After several weeks in the bright Greek sun, our hair has bleached lighter than when we arrived and we’ve turned as brown as betel nuts, as Joe likes to say. The red-toned tan of my Mexican ancestors has come to the fore and even Joe, whose Irish skin is usually not fond of the sun, has gone bronze.

As happens when things heat up, people shed their clothing. And while underdressed, overexposed tourists can sometimes make for appealing people-watching, at other times, it’s an unwelcome interruption of the local color. Very rarely on our journey through Europe have we seen seriously overweight people, but we quickly learned once we arrived on Rhodes that the US does not have a monopoly on obesity. I don’t mean to be unkind but there were an incredible number of Central European and Russian visitors off mammoth cruise ships anchored in the harbor, just past where the Colossus of Rhodes once stood, in very little clothing, exposing way too much skin. I hadn’t seen such scantily clad corpulence since our last visit to Disneyworld. While Americans have rightly earned the reputation for carrying extra pounds, I believe our fellow citizens have met their match. Joe and I looked like absolute waifs by comparison. Everywhere we wandered through the winding streets of the town’s walled medieval city, sun-crisped tourists, their lily-white skin singed with bright pink burns that were painful to even look at, passed us by. We were the only fully clothed couple in a sea of half-dressed tourists with significant avoirdupois and all of them with too much exposed. The men were missing their shirts, their bellies hanging over and hiding their belts and the women in halter tops sported rolls of midriff and maximum cleavage.

While Rhodes has a rich history and some amazing sights, observing the hordes of international tourists was an ongoing distraction and over and over again there were similar refrains:
·      the grossly overweight couple in their 60s with matching bright plastic clogs (whoever introduced Crocs to Russia must have made a killing);
·      the leathery, tanned 50-something French woman in a bright bikini, flaunting her flat, brown stomach, white teeth and nails painted orange by the excursion boats;
·      the thickset Polish couple in identical plaid shirts and completely mismatched print shorts and sensible black leather sandals;
·      the beefy Russian woman in a too-short skirt, embroidered peasant blouse and hiking sandals with a tattoo of a five-inch hamster on her substantial calf (or perhaps it was a guinea pig given the five inches);
·      the scores of burly, bloated tourists glistening like seals under layers of oil on the brightly colored, padded lounge chairs on the pebbly beaches. 

We ran into not a single American on Rhodes; I’m sure they were there but we never saw them. Restaurateurs and retailers told us that we were two of the few Americans they’d encountered this year. In fact, Nikos, the young man from whom we rented a car on Rhodes, shared that we were the first “people from America” to whom he’d ever rented a vehicle.

While we were well aware that Greece is not a flat country, we learned that it is actually one of the most mountainous in Europe. It may not have the highest peaks, but by some estimates, mountains cover 80% of the landscape, including most of the islands. Our rental car took us away from the cruise ship crowds, into the cooler mountains and up and down the rugged, rocky terrain of Rhodes. We visited the island’s three ancient hilltop acropolises: one above Rhodes Town, one looking over the province of Kameiros and the final and most famous of all, Lindos. All were atop dramatic high points (akron meaning edge and polis meaning city in Greek, hence the term acropolis) and each of the ruins was fascinating. But those at Lindos were the most dramatic -- a natural citadel perched 370 feet directly above the sea on a promontory of solid rock. The acropolis and its Temple of Athena watched over the narrow streets of the picturesque 13th century medieval village below. From the heights were spectacular views over the surrounding harbors and coastline including tiny St. Paul’s Bay with its clear blue waters, where the apostle temporarily cast anchor on his voyage to Ephesus in Turkey. First built by the Greeks and further fortified by the Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans, Lindos prospered under the Knights of St. John who, when banished from the Holy Land, came to Rhodes. Their efforts were so important not only to the growth of Lindos, but to the history and development of the island’s main town as well. The architecture of Lindos was a visually pleasing mix of whitewashed and golden stone and not since the Dordogne had I taken so many pictures of delightful, interesting doorways.

Between acropolis visits, we stopped for lunch in the village of Emponas, in the heart of Rhodes’ wine-country hills, for its specialty, barbecued lamb, at a small taverna. We were served Greek salads, grilled eggplant and the town’s signature dish by the matron of the house who reminded us on each of her frequent visits to our table to check on us that we were in a family-run restaurant and that everything was homemade. It did indeed taste homemade, was all delicious and made for a perfect setting in the shade of a grape arbor.   

Back in Rhodes Town, we made time to visit the archeological museum. Even Joe, not generally a fan of such displays, was won over by the ancient treasures housed in the arched medieval building, formerly the Hospital of the Knights of St. John. The intricate mosaic floors, black- and red-figure pottery and graceful statues from Classical, Hellenistic and Roman times were stunning, as was the rose and oleander-filled garden that graced the museum’s courtyard.

We’d been told that the tiny island of Symi, just over an hour from Rhodes, was a beautiful place, so we boarded a boat for a one-day outing. The small gem of an island was completely different from its neighbor – quite Italian in feel, actually -- with its orderly, neoclassical homes in pastel melon colors of pink, peach, yellow and green filing up the hills. We walked all along the colorful harbor and around the headland to a small beach and then had lunch back alongside the fishing boat quay. Symi’s specialty is tiny little shrimp flash-fried, skin and all, and then popped in your mouth, minus the tail. The sweet little bites are much like soft-shell crabs, their outer layers adding just a bit of crunch to the sweet morsels. They were exquisite, just like little Symi.

Rhodes was a fascinating stop brimming over with history both inside and out of its walled city. Next up is an even closer encounter with Turkey as we head northwest to Kos.

Pictures of our adventures

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