ARRIVE BY CRUISE SHIP, as do many travelers to Rhodes, and you’ll experience a kind of unsettling déjà vu. From the deck of my Seabourn ship (the cruise line stops in Rhodes on a variety of Adriatic and Mediterranean itineraries), my first glimpse of the ancient, walled city fills me with awe. I’ve heard about the Knights of St. John the Hospitallier who built the wall in the 1300s, stopping at this largest of the Greek Dodecanese Islands en route to the Holy Land. From the water I can almost see them, swords in their scabbards, shiny armor glimmering in the sunlight.
Boggling the imagination, the UNESCO-listed city/island seems frozen in time. Tawny and mottled with age, the wall’s fortification towers rise at intervals. Within the wall, a warren of cobblestone streets; churches with flying buttresses and frescoed walls; slim, tall minarets; and buildings manifesting a range of architectural styles from Moorish to Italian define the city fabric — especially in storied Old Town. Palpable, the history buzzes, rendering Rhodes enchanting and unchanged despite that throng of camera-snapping tourists tackling the streets.
Rhodes embodies the point where East meets West, ensuring it became an important port with international flair, fueled by trade and power. Though considered the first of Europe’s true medieval towns, the ancient city and outlying, verdant expanses beyond always had eclectic occupants. Their legacy remains in the food, architecture and culture — even in the genes — of its denizens today. While you may want to explore the hilly countryside and ancient ruins of the island’s interiors or lounge for an afternoon at a variety of sandy beaches, most visitors find plenty to do in the area known as Old Town.
What to do? Plan several hours for the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture built in the seventh century. Emblematic to Rhodes, it crowns a hill, filled with arcades, mosaics and artifacts. Also fascinating, the Archaeological Museum further brings history to life. In Old Town, tavernas abound, offering just-caught fish and Greek dishes such as stifado, a traditional stew. After dinner, stop at the bars along Miltiadou (or change neighborhoods and check out New Town’s Diakonou Street). Shoppers can haggle for the best deals on silver and gold in various shops in Old Town, but for top of the line, head to Ilias Lalaounishas, a boutique on Plateia Alexandrou.
A place worth a longer visit, compact Rhodes nevertheless offers cruise travelers, too, a treasure trove of wonder in just a day.
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