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The Greek Isle of Rhodes

Rhodes, Greece

Rhodes, the most fortified of the Greek isles, was one of the great cities of antiquity and a powerful crusader fort — home of the Knights of St. John. Visitors can stroll past 500-year-old cannon balls, browse Turkish markets, and enjoy a romantic, white-sand beach.

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Rhodes, or “Rhodos,” as locals call it, is the fourth largest of the Greek islands. As we enter the historic harbor, the walls of the fortified town seem to tell a story. Rhodes is built upon layers of civilizations — Italian, Greek, and Turkish, with a dash of medieval Crusader lore from all over Europe tossed in. Today, luxury yachts crowd the harbor.

The island’s main city, also called Rhodes, was one of the great cities of antiquity. The famed statue called the “Colossus of Rhodes” once towered above the city.

Ancient Greeks believed that this easternmost point of the Greek world, where the rising sun first kissed Greek soil, was the home of the sun god, Helios. So, they honored Helios by building a colossal statue. It was a hundred feet tall and polished bronze. This Colossus of Rhodes was one of the “seven wonders” of the ancient world. But it was destroyed by an earthquake a couple hundred years before Christ, and today nothing survives.

The formidable Thalassini Gate is a reminder of the age of chivalry and the famed Knights of Malta.

They were also called the “Knights of St. John Hospitallers.” Their mission during the 12th century Crusades? To protect Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem, and provide hospitals for their care. The pope recognized the Knights of St. John as a religious order, and they eventually became “soldiers of the cross” — with an economic agenda and a mighty navy. Because the knights were from aristocratic families they had lots of money and lots of power.

As the nearest Greek island to the Holy Land, Rhodes was a natural gathering point for Crusaders from all over Europe. In 1309, the Knights of St. John claimed Rhodes as their headquarters and transformed it into a bustling, highly fortified European city governed by their “Grand Master.”

Coming from all over Europe, they gave Rhodes a cosmopolitan feel. This lane, called the Street of the Knights, originally hosted knights from their various countries. Whether from Spain, France, or Germany, each group built its own headquarters here to feel like home. To this day, the street feels medieval, with carved reliefs that show off that original national pride.

In the 14th century the knights built the Palace of the Grand Master — an imposing residence and capital for their leader. Destroyed by the Ottoman Turks, it was rebuilt in a fanciful style just a century ago.

The palace was fortified with three walls and two moats for good reason: the ever-present Turkish threat. Huge granite cannon balls littering the grounds are a reminder of why it was said that when the Turks attacked, cannon balls rained down on the city.

The Ottoman Turks finally defeated the Knights of St. John in the 1500s. The knights then retreated hundreds of miles west to the island of Malta, where they built an even more fortified headquarters. Rhodes then became part of the Ottoman Empire for several centuries. In fact, you can still feel that Turkish influence to this very day.

Ippocratus Square is the busy heart of the old town. And those once-formidable walls now seem only to protect a fun-loving tourists’ mecca and a vibrant artist’s colony. The bazaar-like back lanes are a delight to wander, and the main shopping drag still feels a bit like a Turkish bazaar. At the top end, a 500-year-old minaret marks the Mosque of Süleyman the Magnificent.

Back outside the walls, the city beach sprawls in a beautiful arc away from the harbor. This point, where the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas meet, is famously windy — long powering windmills. And the once-menacing shores of Turkey are just 12 miles away.

The island of Rhodes, while arid, is fun to explore. Locals manage to eke out an existence as they have for centuries. An hour’s drive south takes us to the island’s other popular attraction.

Lindos is the most beautiful town on the island. Strategically set with natural harbors flanking an easy-to-fortify pinnacle, its history goes back long before Christ. For 2,500 years, a hill-capping acropolis has overlooked the town. Originally protecting a temple of Athena, today the acropolis is mostly the crumbling remains of a Crusader fortress built by the Knights of St. John.

The dazzling white-washed town of Lindos, originally a wealthy maritime center because of its harbor, is now totally overrun by tourists. The homes of sea captains, whose wealth came from trade, are now fancy hotels and gift shops. While it’s traffic-free, if you need to get somewhere you can always hop on what’s nicknamed the “Lindos taxi.” Giddy-up!

The real attraction here is the beaches. Lindos’ beach is a broad and sandy strip, great for families. And just beyond the acropolis is the more exotic St. Paul’s Beach, named for a legendary visit by the apostle Paul nearly 2,000 years ago. A humble Greek Orthodox chapel celebrates that visit to this day. Oblivious to the rich historic heritage surrounding them, vacationers here are expert at relaxing under the steady Greek sun.