Rhodes: Beyond the crowds lie splendid ruins, secret beaches and an ancient prototype of the EU

Early one summer morning, I picked my way over the knobbly cobbles of the Street of the Knights in Rhodes's Old Town, with the Palace of the Grand Masters behind me and the sea straight ahead, obscured by the sturdy fortress wall that once gave would-be invaders of the island serious pause for thought. The sun rose above the old battlements, steadily raising the air temperature towards 35C, where it would remain for the rest of that day, and the next, and the day after that.

Among the echoes and shadows, the only sign of life was a flock of pigeons breakfasting on something left over from the night before. Passing under a stone bridge that once connected Spain with Provence, I peered through a modern glass doorway into an intimate French courtyard, paused at some wrought-iron railings giving on to a lush Turkish garden, and continued down the gentle slope towards England and Auvergne, passing Italy on the left-hand side.

This exotic journey was real, not imagined. My stopping points were Inns, not countries. Not inns as we know them today, but meeting places for the different nationalities of the Knights of St John, who, having broken off from the Crusades, created in the early 14th century a prototype of the European Union as a bulwark against the forces of Ottoman Turkey, looming mountainously on the northern horizon.

Knights from seven countries – the site of the German Inn has never been traced – built their citadel on the northern extremity of the island, fortified other parts of Rhodes and the Dodecanese with 30 castles, and under the governance of life-elected Grand Masters held the line for more than 200 years until submitting to the enemy's vastly superior forces in 1522.

There wouldn't have been much left of the Inns after that long and terrifying siege, when the few surviving Knights of the garrison were given safe passage off the island by their conquerors. There certainly wasn't much left of the Grand Masters' Palace after an accidental gunpowder explosion in 1856, but a restoration programme that began in the 1930s and continues today has brought one of the Mediterranean's most important medieval sites back to life.

There are museums aplenty at either end of the Street of the Knights (signed in its Greek name, Odos Ippoton), chronicling everything from the foundation of the city of Rhodes, about 2,400 years ago, through the Byzantine and medieval periods and beyond. But a quiet stroll among the buildings of honey-coloured stone, deviating here and there to lose yourself in the maze of interconnecting alleyways and side streets, gives you a keener sense of what it was like to live there than any number of audiovisual presentations.

This is a place of both soaring achievement and thudding calamity, where neighbouring cultures and religions have collided, squabbled and eventually found a way of living together. There are mosques and minarets, art galleries, libraries and theatres; a Christian-built watchtower and a Turkish hammam; a Jewish quarter and Orthodox churches; and expanses of open ground where Hellenistic ruins have been excavated. A dozen riveting volumes of history are condensed into a 90-minute walk – but the sun was getting up, and the picture was about to be utterly transformed.

At the bottom of the street I crossed Museum Square to one of the 11 gates connecting the old town with the new. Through the archway I got my first glimpse of the modern port. Half a mile away, a vast cruise ship was making its final manoeuvres into port. I hadn't believed it was possible to build ships so big; how could such a monster possibly float, let alone move about the Aegean?

And there was more. Along a half-mile stretch of quay, seven other white leviathans were starting to disgorge their occupants, and most of them seemed to be heading my way. By mid-morning, the multi-national invasion force had raided the souvenir stalls, stormed through the undefended walls and taken the Palace, and surged through the Archaeological Museum to gaze upon the naked form of Aphrodite, Rhodes's most eyecatching sculpture. After breaking for lunch, they advanced on the shops and markets in search of gold, silver and leatherwork. In the late afternoon, distant hooters blew and they were gone – to Kos, or Athens, or Venice. The shopkeepers and restaurateurs mopped their brows – and delightedly counted their takings.

Half an hour down the coast, the summer inundation is less benign. Faliraki is the gateway to a strip of sandy beaches, coves and castellated promontories. A few years ago, this seductive package briefly turned Rhodes into the Mediterranean's most popular holiday island, but the development was careless, and the sandy strip turned into a crucible of noise, booze and the pursuit of pleasure on a 24/7 basis. Nothing wrong with that – until the death of a British teenager in a nightclub brawl in 2003 gave Faliraki, in particular, a reputation it has never quite lived down.

Costas, from the car-hire company, made a point of driving me through " Bar Street", which leads to the seafront. "Look, only one, two, three... four bars here now," he counted, "and here at the end of the street is our new police station. There's no trouble here now." The trouble is, there aren't as many tourists as before, and the owner of a beachwear shop complained that business this summer is disappointingly slow.

"The young people – the ones who drink and party – they've moved on," said Costas. "Now they go to Crete or Corfu or some place."

In fact, young people – and older ones, too – are still visiting Rhodes in large numbers, as the cruise ship inundation had demonstrated. Last year, the island welcomed 1.2 million incomers – about a quarter of them from Britain – and although there are times when the narrow roads are clogged with cars, the island is big enough to absorb them. The tourism industry on Rhodes is a mercifully ungreedy monster, requiring only two strips of coastline and the bustling capital for its pleasures. Much of this many-faceted, captivating island remains untouched; a rental car is essential.

One golden Sunday, we used ours to explore the west coast, starting at the ruins of Kameiros, the Greek city destroyed by an earthquake in 142BC. Stopping to hand-feed wandering goats from the car, we lunched at a taverna above a pretty beach, looking across the sound to Halki and its satellite islands, pale blue in the haze.

We then took the inland road towards Mount Attaviros, the highest of the barren mountains that form the island's spine, stopping in the foothills at Embonas for supplies of locally made wine and extra virgin olive oil, before threading our way back to the coast through slumbering villages where the streets are barely wide enough for cars to pass between the houses. At Kritinia, we climbed a 15th-century castle, and further south we discovered a gorgeous beach at Fourni, joining a smattering of families splashing in the sea. As the sun began to fall, we crossed empty moorland to reach the blowsy, hippyish resort of Prasonisi on the southern tip, where surfers and camper vans rule the roost.

At sunset, a bronzed, exhausted, wind-blown family made their way to the campsite's communal washroom. Around dawn, not far up the road, clubbers emerged, equally exhausted, from the Faliraki nightclubs. And further north, cruise passengers would later be strolling around the Old Town, toting their digital cameras and credit cards.

Three sets of modern invaders, drawn to magical Rhodes like the Ottoman Turks, but each contributing in their own way to its survival. For seven months of the year, when the sun shines almost permanently, Rhodes has room for them all.

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

The writer flew with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), which flies four times a week to Rhodes from Gatwick. Alternatively, flights are available with Thomas Cook Airlines (08707 520918; www.flythomascook.com) and Thomsonfly (0870 190 0737; www.thomsonfly.com) from a range of UK airports, and XL Airways (0870 320 7777; www.xl.com) from Gatwick.

You can buy a carbon "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).

STAYING THERE

Rhodes has plenty of choice.

The writer stayed at the recently opened Hotel Avalon, 9 Charitos Street, Old Town Rhodes (00 30 22410 31438; www.avalonrhodes.gr). Suites start at €230 (£164), including breakfast.

Niki's Hotel, 39 Sofokleous Street, Old Town Rhodes (00 30 22410 25115; www.nikishotel.gr). Doubles start at ¿€50 (£36), including breakfast.

Hotel Isole, 75 Evdoxou Street, Old Town Rhodes (00 30 22410 20682; www.hotelisole.com). Doubles start at ¿€48 (£34), including breakfast.

EATING & DRINKING THERE

The writer recommends Dinoris Fish Restaurant, 14a Museum Square, Old Town Rhodes (00 30 22410 25824).

Myrovolies, 13 Lachitos Street, Old Town, Rhodes (00 30 22410 38693).

MORE INFORMATION

Rhodes tourist office: 3 Plotarchou Blessa Street (00 30 22410 74555; www.rodosisland.gr).

The Greek National Tourist Office in London is contactable on 020-7495 9300, or by visiting www.gnto.co.uk.

Arts and Entertainment
filmPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
News
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
people
News
General Election
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders