They’re there, just off Turkey’s Aegean Coast, the Greek islands of the Dodecanese, the Twelve. Actually, there are many more than twelve, some so small they are uninhabited. The thing is they are so close to Turkey (Kos is only 20 minutes away by hydrofoil) that I’ve felt for a while I’d be missing something if I didn’t explore some of them.
Rhodes, the largest, is an island I’ve waited a long time to visit. It has a significant history. Remember the legendary Colossus, one of seven wonders of the Ancient World? Well, the Colossus, if it ever even existed, is long gone, but the harbor and the walls of Medieval Rhodes are intact, as is the Palace of the Grand Master of the order known as the Knights of St John. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
This would be a solo adventure. We’ve traveled a lot this year, and will resume traveling in January, so Kay declared that enough was enough and elected to stay home.
Since I had no one to please but myself, I reverted to my youthful, vagabond mode of travel, which is to do as little advance planning as possible. I did have to get to an access point, though, so I bought a bus ticket to the bloated resort town of Kuşadası halfway down the coast of Turkey from Istanbul. From Kuşadası the island of Samos is only one and a half hours away by ferry. Kuşadası’s improbable name means “Bird Island.” Improbable, because it is not an island, nor does it seem to attract an unusual number of birds.
I chose to travel ten hours by bus just for the novelty. I could have flown for nearly the same price, but I’m weary of the airport circus, and besides, the bus would deposit me in the center of town near where I wanted to be. For those of you who live in America and for whom the thought of taking a long-distance bus may seem crazily eccentric, I’ll explain that in Turkey, long-distance buses are a common and perfectly acceptable travel option. They are clean, efficient, and come with an attendant who loads your luggage and offers drinks and snacks at intervals during the trip. The buses also make rest stops at large, well-lit plazas that have cafeterias serving hot meals and markets that sell all manner of packaged foods and snacks. The many Turkish bus companies compete furiously with each other, and their field of competition is service.
So, I arrived in Kuşadası’s Otogar on a warm evening at the very end of September and headed straightaway to Mr. Happy’s Liman Hotel whose slogan is “Come as a guest, leave as a friend.” On the map, the Liman’s great advantage is that it is adjacent to the ferry terminal from where I would need to leave for Samos, the first island on my ad hoc itinerary. In reality, it was a perfect choice all around. Mr. Happy turned out to be the owner, Hassan, who greeted me warmly and sold me my ferry ticket on the spot. His suggestion that I adjourn to the rooftop terrace for a drink and dinner was another winner. The view from my table of the yachts and harbor lights below was stunning.
I chose to travel with a suitcase rather than a backpack. I would be gone for ten or twelve days and didn’t want to have to do laundry. This being the shoulder season meant that weather-wise I would have heat but also the possibility of wind and cooler temperatures. I would also be carrying books, a Greek guidebook and others to read for pleasure. I could lug more in a suitcase than in a backpack, although dragging the case would at times be inconvenient.
My first destination would be the large island of Samos, perhaps not the most interesting of the group, but with good ferry connections to islands nearby and further south, it seemed like a good first stop. In fact, my two days on the island were just fine. One of Samos’ claims to fame is as the birthplace of the mathematician Pythagoras (570 – 495 BC) whose famous theorem every high school student encounters in plane geometry. Every visitor is reminded of Pythagoras because his name has been adopted variously around the island. There is Pythagorio, the island’s second city, and there is the Pythagoras Hotel in Samos Town where I spent my two nights on the island.
As I pulled my suitcase along the busy, narrow, winding road toward the hotel, hoping not to get crushed by a speeding car or motorbike (as in Turkey, sidewalks in Greece are only an occasional luxury), I wondered if the small Pythagoras Hotel would have room for me. I needn’t have worried. Although the front door was open, the hotel’s bar-restaurant was closed for the season and no one was at reception. After two or three minutes, a woman that I took to be the housekeeper came down the stairs and told me in broken English that I could put my luggage in room number four or any other room for that matter. I would have to register later.
On maps, Samos Town has the official name of Vathy, but no one I met used that name, simply calling it Samos. Like most island towns Samos is on the seaside. It has a long harbor front of docked yachts and fishing boats and a broad avenue lined with restaurants and travel agencies. In one of the latter I learned that if I wanted to journey on to the island of Patmos (and I certainly did) I would have to go the following afternoon or wait two days more. What’s more, the Patmos ferry would leave from Pythagorio about 45 minutes away by local bus. Since I wanted to check out Pythagorio, as well, I thought I would spend the rest of the day there and return to Samos to sleep. That way I would be able to learn the bus schedule and the layout of the town that I would need to know the next afternoon. I could spend more time in Samos the following morning.
At lunch in one of Pythagorio’s harbor-front restaurants I was reminded of a rule that knowledgeable travelers should always obey: Avoid the flashy places located on waterfronts and town squares that lure the day-trippers and package tourists. They have pretty views and mediocre food and service. They are always overpriced.
A few kilometers from Pythagorio near the village of Ireon lies a large archeological site known as the Heraion. In ancient times, especially during the sixth and fifth centuries BC, it was a major draw for pilgrims. That’s because it contained an enormous temple to the goddess Hera, the wife of Zeus. Samos was her legendary birthplace. Since I’m drawn to archeological sites, as bees are to honey, I wanted to visit this one and took a taxi to Ireon. It wasn’t until the taxi had dropped me off in the village center that I learned the Heraion was two or three kilometers away in the countryside.
I set out on foot I along a road that quickly took me into the country. The warm sunshine, the smell of plants and flowers, and especially the quiet put me in a restful frame of mind. Absolute quiet is so rare in our lives that it can startle us at those few times we encounter it.
Eventually I reached the Heraion only to find the site closed to visitors. In my retirement, I don’t always keep track of the days of the week. This was a Monday when Greek museums and historical sites are normally closed. My disappointment was minimal, though, since, as I looked through the bars of the gate across the flat plain of the disappeared sanctuary, all I could see standing was a single fluted column. Time, earthquakes, and human removals had reduced this once monumental site to ground level.
Back on the country road, and without any other recourse, I stuck out my thumb, and the second car that passed stopped for me. I rode back into Pythagorio with a retired soldier who tries to make ends meet by growing and selling vegetables. As I listened to him, I became aware I was in the presence of one of the many Greeks I’ve read about who have been impoverished by the austerity measures imposed on the country by its European lenders.
The following morning in Samos Town I visited its small but excellent archeological museum. There, I saw some of the artifacts that archeologists had recovered from the Heraion. I stood for a long time before a full-length sculpture of a kore or female figure. Although her head and left arm are missing, her overall proportions and especially the details of the garment she is wearing are fine, the work of a master. Back in the day, the pilgrimage route leading to the Heraion is said to have been lined with hundreds of such sculptures. It must have been quite a sight.
Shortly after noon, I boarded the bus back to Pythagorio to catch the Patmos ferry. About half way there, it began to rain hard, and by the time I disembarked, the streets of the town that ran downhill toward the sea were fast-moving torrents. I was pretty well wet by the time I was able to remove my rain jacket from my suitcase, and the walk down to the seafront finished the job. I was soaked as I found a table at one of the waterfront restaurants that I’ve just cautioned you and myself to avoid. Around me were many others seeking shelter and making the best of the rain. I ordered a portion of moussaka and a beer and sat to wait out the storm.
The Patmos ferry was large, designed to carry cars, trucks and buses. Its passenger lounge was rather cheerless, but armed with a copy of a novel by Cathleen Schine I was happy enough. During the three hours it took to reach Patmos the rain fell at intervals. I had visions of a wet arrival and was pleased to see that Skala, the island’s principal town was dry. Except for some sprinkles the following day, this would be my only rain day of the trip.
I was approached on the quay by a woman with a sign. She had some rooms for rent and was trolling for guests. She also had a car, so in ten minutes I was installed in my room at Suzanne’s Studios on a hillside up a long flight of stairs.
I’d wanted to visit Patmos. It is the island to which John the Devine, aka John the Theologian, aka John the Revelator, was exiled by the Roman Emperor Domitian. It was there in a cave that John dictated the Book of Revelation to his disciple and scribe Prochoros. Today, the cave is a shrine that I would visit on my way up a mountain to the 11th-century Monastery of John the Theologian.
The morning was hot, and I was dripping by the time I reached the cave. My arrival coincided with a visit by a black couple accompanied by an English-speaking guide and a videographer. I listened while the guide explained the layout of the cave, indicating the spot where John is purported to have slept with his head in a niche in the stone wall. At this point the black man fell to his knees and began a fervent prayer that lasted at least five minutes. The woman, presumably his wife, and the guide stood by, while the cameraman taped it all. I was fascinated by the spectacle. The man was obviously sincere and making an important pilgrimage. He kissed the stone floor of the cave and even stretched himself out flat in a position that John might have assumed. At the end of the prayer, I introduced myself and asked the man who he was. He claimed to be an archbishop of a church in Scotland. Since he was dressed in jeans and a blue, souvenir t-shirt, there was nothing about his appearance that gave a clue to his exalted status.
That afternoon, having nothing better to do, I rented a motorbike and set out to explore the island. Patmos is made up of two irregularly shaped halves joined by an isthmus. First, I rode south to the village of Grikos on a quiet bay. With one hotel and a single restaurant, it would make a great hideaway from Skala’s tourist hustle. Next I rode north to a spot called Kambos where there is a café and a bright white church.
There, I drank a lemon Fanta with ice. It was the first time I had been on a motorbike since Vietnam. I continued to ride north up into some lofty hills until the air turned chilly and raindrops appeared. I surprised the rental agency by my early return, but I had seen enough.
It was time to make a big leap and go south to the island of Rhodes, the largest of the Dodecanese. Until now, the two ferries I had taken had been ordinary, and I was unprepared for the ship of the Blue Star Line that I boarded at 3:30 a.m. Relatively speaking, it was magnificent. I would be aboard for several hours, and because it was the middle of the night, I had paid for a cabin.
I knew immediately I was not on an ordinary ferryboat as I stepped onto an escalator that carried me up to the ship’s main passenger deck. As at a hotel, I stood in line at a reception desk to get my cabin assignment. A crew member, acting like a bellman, escorted me to my cabin, turned on the lights, and showed me how to regulate the air conditioning. He left me to appraise my surroundings. I was in a cabin with dual bunks, yet I was alone so all the better. My bunk was made up with clean sheets and a blanket. The cabin was ensuite with a toilet, lavabo, and shower. I managed to fall asleep and didn’t leave the cabin for the passenger lounge until after eight the following morning. If you are thinking of visiting the Greek Islands, do so happily on a Blue Star Line ferry.
On the dock another stranger with a sign approached me. He said he had a pension and the room rate he offered seemed right. This arrangement had worked well in Patmos, so I agreed to go with him. I had misgivings right away when instead of a car the man led me to a decrepit motorbike. He managed to squeeze my suitcase cross-ways in front of him with me clinging behind. Fortunately, we didn’t have far to go.
As it turned out, the only good thing about the Pension Nassos was its location among the quiet, narrow cobblestone byways of what is known as the Jewish Quarter. The Pension itself was dispiriting. Tiny, cluttered, and dirty were my first impressions. I could have declined and gone somewhere else, but I didn’t. In fact, the place was so spectacularly bad, that it became interesting in a grotesque way.
My room, one floor up from the street, was long and narrow with a high ceiling. Its walls were of some kind of soft stone that shed dust when touched. There were tiny ants on the low dresser, and the bed linens were of doubtful cleanliness. The toilet seat wouldn’t stand upright by itself, and the single towel provided had a large hole in it. In short, nothing worked or was right. However, most annoying was the hot-water situation. I can briefly tolerate almost any discomfort except a lack of hot water, so I always ask about it before checking in to a low-end lodging. Mr. Nassos assured me that there was hot water, and there was. The catch was that I had to notify him that I wanted the water hot one half hour before I needed it. On the second evening of my stay I said strongly that I wanted hot water at 7 a.m. the following morning. I could have it, but I had to wake up Nassos, who slept in a room adjacent to mine, at 6:30.
My room had one tall window fitted with translucent plastic and a torn insect screen. It was very windy during my stay on Rhodes, and as I slept with window open, the wind in the trees made enough noise to cover the random sounds coming from the other sleeping rooms on the landing. This was a good thing.
In my experience, places like the Pension Nassos attract some unusual travelers, of which I guess I’m one. I didn’t spend much time there, but I did use the dirty plastic table in what I’ll charitably call the lobby to type my journal. This brought me into contact with some of the other guests. Besides some young backpackers there was a Turkish woman of a certain age who said she was a retired microbiologist and a world traveler. In the past three years she claimed to have visited forty countries. I tried to learn more about her, but between her problems with English and mine with Turkish conversation was difficult.
Another guest was a Korean man in middle age. Early in the morning, as I was leaving the pension to catch a boat to Kos, he came out of his room and stopped me. He seemed to have an urgent question about the ferry ticket he was holding, but because his English was non-existent I was not able to help him. I left pondering the difficulty for someone traveling in the West without even a bare minimum of English or any other western language.
I’ve finally satisfied my curiosity about the island of Rhodes. Its history is very long. Because of its size and location between mainland Greece and the cities of Asia Minor, it had a strategic importance in ancient times and was both a pilgrimage site and a center of trade. Originally, the island had three rival city-states – Lindos, Kamiros, and Ialysos – some of whose ruins still exist. At one point they united and founded a fourth city, what we know today as Rhodes Town.
Its historical section owes its appearance primarily to the Knights of St John. Beginning as an order of hospitallers in Jerusalem early in the 12th century, they soon reorganized as a military body. Forced to leave Jerusalem, they came to Rhodes in 1309 and remained for 213 years until ousted by the Ottomans when they moved to the island of Malta where Kay and I first learned about them a few years ago.
It was to see first hand the monuments of the Order that motivated me to visit Rhodes. Besides the defense walls with their seven gates that encircle the medieval town, there is the Knight’s Quarter, a long, grim-looking cobblestone street anchored by the Palace of the Grand Master at one end and flanked by the buildings that housed the knights. These were divided into seven “tongues” or languages, according to their place of origin: England, France, Italy, Germany, Aragon, Auvergne, and Provence. Each tongue was responsible for defending a different section of the fortifications.
The organization of the Order makes interesting reading but is too detailed to go into here. Suffice it to say that because of its vast holdings in different parts of Europe, the wealth of the Order was legendary (think of the film The Maltese Falcon). During their two centuries in Rhodes Town, the knights not only fortified it but also the island of Kos and even what is today the town of Bodrum in Turkey. They controlled the entire Dodecanese.
The Grand Master’s Palace, now a museum, is vast. Its reception rooms and galleries are as large as basketball courts. Partially destroyed by an explosion in Ottoman times, it was restored in grand style early in the 20th century by the Italians as a summer retreat for Mussolini and King Victor Emmanuelle III. Today, parts of the palace contain an archeological museum.
Rhodes Town is filled with other monuments as well. There are temple ruins from the Hellenistic Period, a couple of large mosques built by the Ottomans, as well as the ruins of early Christian churches and monasteries.
One site that I found particularly interesting was the elegant, domed reading room of the Hafiz Ahmed Aghe Library founded in 1793 by a wealthy Muslim for the benefit of his literate co-coreligionists. In the beginning it housed nearly 2,000 manuscripts and still contains more than 1,200.
The Medieval Quarter of Rhodes Town would be even more appealing were it not for the endless number of shops and restaurants that cater to the package tour groups and the hordes deposited by the cruise ships that call regularly at the port. I had thought that I was traveling during the off-season, but in Rhodes the tourist season hadn’t ended yet, judging by the great numbers of northern Europeans and Russians trying to prolong their summer.
With the exception of a day trip to the archeological site at Lindos, I didn’t visit the interior of Rhodes, choosing instead to end my island tour by moving on to Kos very close to the Bodrum Peninsula on the Turkish Coast.
I didn’t quite know what to expect from Kos, another of the larger islands of the Dodecanese, and was delighted with what I found,
Not wanting to repeat the experience of the Pension Nassos, I was careful to select a small hotel recommended by the guidebook. At the Hotel Sonia I found a simple room painted bright white and perfectly clean. Sonia herself ran the establishment with her two grown sons. She greeted me warmly, gave me a plan of Kos Town and marked the most popular attractions. She also gave me a couple of excellent restaurant recommendations.
I digress for a moment to write a few words about my experience with Greek cuisine. Although I did enjoy a few excellent meals, it was not always easy to get them because the restaurants that serve locals are hidden away on the back streets of towns, away from the tourist flow. One of the best meals I remember was a perfectly grilled fillet of sole (a fish not available in Turkey) served with boiled potatoes and steamed carrots and broccoli. Another was a lunch of stuffed peppers — one red, one green – eaten in a restaurant of Sonia’s recommendation. I don’t know what the Greeks do about breakfast in their homes, but the only breakfasts available in restaurants are designed for tourists, bacon and eggs, pancakes, etc. This is where the Hotel Sonia excelled. Included in the price of the room was what she called a continental breakfast, and it was not skimpy. There was fresh-squeezed orange juice, real croissants, butter, sweet cake, two kinds of preserves, and coffee or tea. Eaten in the fresh air on an open patio among other guests, my first breakfasts since arriving in Greece were a special pleasure.
I’ll pass quickly over Kos Town. Although I saw a lot, including the remains of a giant fortress called the Castle built by the Knights of St John as well as a number of archeological sites, some with excavations still ongoing, I’ll only mention one of those serendipitous experiences that give zest and surprise to the independent traveler.
As I was walking back to the town center after visiting a small Greek Theater called the Odeum, I noticed something happening in front of a modern-looking chapel at the end of a driveway one hundred yards off the main road. As I approached, I realized there had been a ceremony of some kind. I saw a Roman Catholic Priest standing with a group of about fifty well-dressed adults among which were a couple of elderly men in army uniforms. It turned out that this chapel had been constructed in memory of over one hundred Italian officers murdered by the Nazis during the war exactly seventy years before.
The gathering was of the officers’ families who had traveled from Italy for the occasion. Some of the women carried framed photos of their dead loved ones. The atmosphere was solemn and moving.
Each island I visited had some special historical significance. Kos was no exception. About three kilometers southwest of Kos Town on a pine-covered hillside is the Askilpieion, the island’s most famous ancient site. It consists of three deep terraces, one above the other, that once contained a religious sanctuary to Asclepius, the god of healing, along with other shrines and temples, a large healing center and school of medicine that followed the teachings of Hippocrates. Until 554 AD when it was destroyed by an earthquake, the Askilpieion was the place to come in search of healing. Today, there are only traces remaining of the buildings and statuary that once filled the site, but the views across Kos Town all the way to Turkey are terrific. The blue sky and sea contrasted with the deep green of the surrounding pines are very satisfying.
It is these kinds of views, plus the sunshine, and the white sand beaches that adorn all these islands that has drawn people to them for centuries. My thought is that were I to return to the Dodecanese, I would like to go with Kay and other friends and pick a smaller island, Leros say, or Symi, and just hang out. Who knows what beautiful thoughts and feelings of well being such surroundings might induce.