Meditarraine: Rhodes

If it's spiritual sustenance you want, try the spicy meatballs Disputes with your neighbours? Fertility problems?

There is one aspect of life that invariably leaves urbane British travel writers shuffling with embarrassment: religion. Globally, believers outnumber non-believers. Yet armies of travel journalists, supposedly distilling the essence of a place, continue to skirt round the issue.

There is one aspect of life that invariably leaves urbane British travel writers shuffling with embarrassment: religion. Globally, believers outnumber non-believers. Yet armies of travel journalists, supposedly distilling the essence of a place, continue to skirt round the issue.

Certainly, in off-season southern Rhodes religion permeated our daily lives. A tiny Orthodox church on a hill dominated the skyline; women crossed themselves as they passed a roadside shrine; farmers at the bar kissed their black-cloaked priest when he dropped in for an ouzo. Even in tiny Lahania, population 200, its influence was evident.

After speeding down the east coast, our rented Fiat needed a breather and we parked it under the spreading plane tree in the village square. From the Taverna Platanos we could hear singing, even though it was only late afternoon. Inside was half the village, sitting on little wicker chairs, their heads turned to the television screen above the door.

They were watching a video of themselves dancing in the village square the previous Saturday night. The owner, Manolis, asked a chap called Jean-Michel to come over and explain to us. "The village has been at war for many months, mostly about land," he said. "German with Greek, French with American. It was horrible. So I hired these musicians and dancers to make everyone happy. They are evangelists from north Greece. And now a miracle has happened. Everyone is talking to everyone again and Lahania is a well lady."

Jean-Michel, a Frenchman based in Turkey, also had a house for us to rent, a two-storey white and blue cottage looking out over a wild, scrubby landscape with bright green pines that bent in the Aegean wind. It had a shower and a cooker that worked, a fridge, sofa, television, huge comfy bed, three flat roofs, a balcony and a cat, all for £12 a day. We were happy.

As we shook hands on it, a Robert Redford lookalike strode by, crook in hand, with a trio of golden labradors at his heels. "That's Michael, a goatherd, composer, writer and archaeologist," Jean-Michel whispered. "He is the only gay shepherd in Greece. Or at least that's what he tells us."

Lahania was no ordinary Greek village. It had more than its fair share of sybarites, refugees, guitarists, sculptors and poets. It was also big on watermelons, and smart tractors bought with EU handouts. The expatriate presence had recently become even more obvious. We learnt that most of the surrounding land had been bought up by a German company, as had nearby Plimyri, two miles of deserted beach with a taverna at one end. It was soon to be developed to provide holiday accommodation for 3,000 people. So is south Rhodes going the way of the north? Nikolis, a fisherman from Katavia, swung his worry beads around his knuckles and said: "Who cares? I will make lots of money from you tourists and stop catching fish." It was the end of the season. Perhaps he was tired.

At the southernmost point of Rhodes, Cape Prassonissi is a favourite spot for windsurfers. This is where the placid waves of the Mediterranean meet the choppy waters of the Aegean, and even though the season was nearly over, there were a few windsurfers skimming across the sea at breakneck speed, the reds, yellows and greens of their sails etched against the steel-blue sky.

There is also a monastery here. As soon as we got out of the car at Skiadi, high up on the edge of a mountain overlooking the west coast, a monk called us over for coffee. There were four of them sitting at a table. A shaggy dog was slumped in the shadow of the wall, sighing. We had no time to take in the view because one monk immediately said to us: "You want to have baby? Our Lady make possible." Skiadi has a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary, and apparently childless couples from miles around come to boost their chances of conceiving.

That was far from being the purpose of our visit but the monks interpreted our denials as English bashfulness. Then their faces dropped. "We are sorry but icon is not here now. It is in Rhodes town, working. It will return tonight. Can you come tomorrow?" One monk, a former actor from New York, told us that whenever he touched the icon his hand went hot. Hundreds of people had been cured of diseases, he said.

At Monolithos, the old castle built by the Knights of St John is perched on a rock above the sea. Just down the coast at Fourni we saw the caves where Christian hermits hid from Persians in the seventh century, and discovered the ancient sign of the fish carved in the rock.

At Asklipio we were too early for the communal winter bread-making. "There are still too many tourists around," said the lady in the shop. But at the 11th-century Byzantine church of Kimisis Theotokou, the half-lit multicoloured frescoes, as grandiloquent as any I'd seen anywhere, left us in awe.

We decided to take the scenic route home, along an unmade track. The map marked the road but not the scores of other dirt paths in the area, and soon we were lost. We bumped past abandoned allotments and dropped into a dark, brooding, waterless valley that the sun didn't reach. A hawk hung in the air, checking us out.

Again and again we met a dead end. Each path led to a small plot of land and then petered out. Small boulders bounced against the paintwork of the car, and we remembered our agreement with the hire company not to drive on dirt tracks. The only thing to do was to return. As we made it to the top of the hill, the sun sank in a blaze of red, autumnal glory.

Back at Lahania, at Taverna Chrissi, the proprietor Papa Yirogos greeted us. He kissed Jo and put an arm around my shoulder. "You had a good day? You are tired? Now you eat." He disappeared into the kitchen while we tucked into tzatziki and cool white wine. The meal – baby squid, spiced meatballs, stuffed peppers – was the best of our holiday. Not bad for someone who's not even a chef. In the daytime, Papa Yirogos is the village priest.

The Facts

Getting there

Robert Nurden flew to Rhodes with Airtours, now part of My Travel (0870 238 7788; www.mytravel.com), which offers return flights from £156 in May. Car hire with Kosmos (00 30 241 74374; www.kosmos-carrental.com) costs €210 (£131) for six days. He rented a house through Jean Michel Economides (00 30 244 46153; email: economides@unvillagegrec.gr) for €150 per week (£94).

Further information

Greece National Tourist Board (020-7734 5597; www.gnto.gr/).

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