Sarah Coles


We want to visit Ephesus, ancient Greek city now part of Turkey.   But Bob has never been to Turkey, and (like scores of people) imagines Turks as intrinsically cruel.  He’s read T E Laurence and the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, whippings, sodomy and all that.


So, I got a flight to Rhodes, chief of the Dodecanese Islands (Greek) which hang like a necklace round the shores of Turkey.    Dodecanese means twelve, but actually there are loads more.  Cheap flight, only thirty five pounds. The cabin bag allowance is a mere feather, five kilos, so we buy wheelie bags weighing only 1.6 kilos (itluggage from Tesco), which cost nearly as much as the flights.  Bob’s is pink and red and mine is black and blue.  In fact, it is bliss going light – no temptations to buy tat (my weakness), and quick to pack.


Off, peering down at the sea and these islands wondering which they are, and we arrive at Rhodes, ah, warm, that moment of stepping out of the plane.  Get a bus to the centre of the town, and through miles of high rise tourist flats and hotels on our right, together with night clubs and shops, and short beaches on our left.  (No flat horizon skimming beaches on the Med, the tide rise is too shallow).  Out of bus centre, walk up hill and ask way to Old Town.  Have beer and Greek salad for lunch.


Walk and walk, we have only a useless map and a tourist centre is shut.  Bob’s ankle has swollen, he did not wear flight socks because the flight was only four hours, and so we hobble along, he in pain.  We stop for an ice cream.  Then, we are walking fullsizerender-10beside the Old Town, here are massive walls, are fullsizerender-9we in it or outside it?  We ask our way, and, a bridge over a dry moat, through a tunnel under honey walls metres thick, and we are in the rabbit warren of the Old Town.  What a relief.  We come across the Paris Hotel and book in here for a night or two.  The room is cramped, the man unsmiling, but it’s clean and quiet and for breakfast has a sunny courtyard surrounded by plants.


We eat out at the Plaza Dorieos Square  nearby which when the sun lowers is magical with a vast spreading plane tree above, and the trippers have returned to their hives  and cruise ships.  Cats sit at our feet, minding their manners, hoping for fish.  On a wall hangs a withered garland, from the spring festival.


We never leave the old town, except to go through the port gate to the sea. And not once do I get to the main gate leading to the port without getting lost on my way back. From 10.30 until 4.00 the little lanes near the port gate and near us are thick with people.  Hustlers call people into their bars, cafes and shops –  stalls sell blue glass discs averting the evil eye, slippers, scarves, key rings, ice cream, jackets, mugs and jugs, postcards, necklaces, earrings.  Human traffic is dense.  The man at the tourist office knows nothing about ferries, except those from Rhodes (a bit like the Winchester ticket office knowing nothing except trains from Winchester).  The place fullsizerender-12is suffocating.  But look up, and there are towers and crenulated walls and minarets from Ottoman times piercing the sky, and now defunct mosques (though I saw one in use), and a img_2904-1fountain with Islamic tiles and at its top the bronze owl of Athena.  Rhodes: Byzantine Christian, conquered by the Catholic Knights Templar, conquered by the Ottomans, then Italian from about 1922 – Mussolini was proud of it – and since the last war part of Greece again.  Nice people, but unsmiling compared with mainland Greece.


img_2930-1One day I walk the dry moat between the double walls, the yellow grass dotted with massive stone balls, at least two feet diameter – surely too huge and heavy for cannons?  No.  Used in cannons by the Ottoman armies of Suleiman the Magnificent when his vast guns assaulted the walls – he finally entered the city in 1522.  (I learn all this from Graeme Jones in the square, who came to Rhodes ten years ago, and ‘fell in love with the place’.  Married with children, but the Thai wife left him for another woman, and now he lives here half the year, carrying on with his research on the military history.  He has been hampered at every turn by secretive Rhodian scholars, who allow him access to nothing and forbid him to publish his research, claiming copyright – and so he gives me his booklet A Brief History of the Old Medieval City of Rhodes for nothing).   But … carving these cannon balls!    The work!  These days the locals walk their dogs among the balls with huge walls rearing up either side.  They are beautiful, these spheres littering the path, and in the old city they are used to line paths and ornament courtyard gardens.  No wonder I clip the box in my garden into balls.  The beauty of spheres.


At the port I find times of the catamaran to Patmos which has a link to Samos, and img_2908-1thence to Turkey.  We have another day while Bob nurses his ankle, and img_2911-1escape the throng into the most wonderful museum, with carvings and mosaics (Greek mosaics, about 200 BC!  And I thought mosaics were first seriously done by Romans around 200 AD), and a huge hall of the Knights Templar, with odd decorative bits by the Ottomans.  Rhodes, island of Roses.  Statue of a rose, being strangled by a snake.  Also, people strangled by snakes, like Laocon.  The guard said these snakes were protective …


Rhodes, prosperous from tourists, strangled by tourists.




Up early and noisily trundle our bags over noisy cobbles to the port, past the Ottoman fountain where a tramp is trying to fish coins out of the water with a plank,  buy tickets and board the catamaran.  We push out of the harbour, past the old windmills and St Nicholas tower a creamy glow in the rising sun – off into the milk blue sea.  Free.


Our cat calls at Simi, Skios, with classic houses pedimented and painted, then Megalo Chorio, then Kos where the lettuces come from.  Island hopping!   We look down from the stern as it reverses into a harbour, and the sailor flings the painter with a thinner rope at the end onto the quay and a man runs and hauls it in and straps its looped end over a bollard.  (What if he missed?).  A coffin shape parcel is taken off, a grieving party disembarks, huge son with arm round tiny mother with liver coloured hair, parcels taken off, more taken on, then the rope is slipped from the bollard and pulled back onto the cat.  They only last minutes, these island visits are slick operations – the sailors have been at sea for generations.  As we come into each harbour the Greek blue and white flag, sea and clouds, is hauled aloft, to be taken down when we are at sea.


Islands look barren, stony and steep, there are just the elements, rock, the sea, the sun, the air.  Ferry stops at harbours with a dozen tiny tidy houses.


Early afternoon, Patmos!  Another dry rocky island with low pine trees and white buildings spilling down slopes to the harbour, and far above on the highest hill the monastery of St Johnimg_3053.  At the nearest restaurant we have lunch outside.  Then, to the Captains House nearby, where yes, Katie has a room with a tiny balcony over looking the harbour.


B visits chemist who says, just keep your foot higher than your head and it will be fine – no bandages, no compressions.  Doesn’t sell us anything.


img_2953-1Morning glories dangle from balconies.   Balls of light bounce on the harbour.  Lozenges of light quicker than fireflies.  Blue – sea, doors, shutters, every shade from royal and Prussian, through turquoise to faded grey.  At sea looked down and saw emerald green, then dark wine, then sapphire blue.


Demeter becomes St Demetrios, Dionysus becomes St Dionysus (and then Denis), and Artemis St Artemis – transfiguration of the gods.


Maltese cross fits within a circle.


We are on a pilgrimage,   St John wrote Revelation here, having been banished to Patmos by, they say,  emperor Domitian – I walk along an ancient cobbled path to his cave one fullsizerender-11day.  Dry cistus leaves smell of incense, pine trees umbrella me and beside the path is a stretch of asphodels, flower of the Elysian fields.  Figs, fennel.  Far below flat ledged roofs can collect rain water.   To be outside!   Clouds, water, leaves, branches, always movement.  Like a garden.  Indoors is still, dead.


I pay the guardian two coins and go along passages into this dark cave of overhanging rock.  Metamorphic rock, volcanic and glittering, which split in three when John had his vision, dictated to a disciple.   It’s all built over now with a monastery.  A monk sits by the door reading the paper.  A ledge where John’s or his acolyte’s folio lay, and a recess outlined in silver where he rested his holy head.  Dark icons with silver linings img_2973over the iconostasis.  Stiff unmoving figures reeking of holiness.  Yes, yes, in banishment, this was what happened, here.  He had heard Christ’s message and was converted to love, which he saw murdered – and now he feels murderous rage against the whole Roman empire.  They are going to pay for it!  Above flies a yellow and black flag with the bicephalous eagle of ancient Byzantium.


Coffee with Bob in the square.  Portly priests in black with pork pie hats walk past.


fullsizerender-14The next day Bob comes with me by taxi to the cave, and then we catch a bus to the fortress monastery of St John on high above in the white village of Chora.  Look over sea and islands, and boats and a ferry coming in – all is reduced to miniature perfection.  The village here is a massive sculpture in white – all curves and tunnels. 


img_3049Another day I walk all the way up, past the monastery to a convent at the back of the monastery and village.  Today the sea is white and distant islands float on the sky. When I ask the nun, ‘how many nuns are here?’ she says, ‘it does not matter’.  Inside the church is, beside the usual icons and tangle of candelabra, a vigorous Judgement img_2954Day, the Good looking down on the Bad including kings and prelates who are being pitch forked by black devils into the maw of the fiery beast – as in churches like St Thomas’s, Salisbury and Fairford Gloucestershire, and in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.  All those medieval scenes of eternal damnation were inspired by John’s Revelation and the gospels.  This is his fury at the Roman Empire, and he’s as incensed as an Old Testament prophet.  How we love to gawp at horror!  American films, chases and murder today.  The phantoms within us.   Silver ex-votos of little arms, eyes, dressed bodies, babies, a little boys – thanks for healing.  When I leave I ask again the number fullsizerender-13of nuns and she replies again ‘it does not matter.’  Because she has not charged for entry I buy a silver img_2962-1ring and img_2975asks what it says round the rim; she brightens and says, ‘Lord Jesus, have mercy on me.’  Oddly, I now wish I had not asked, just kept its silent psychic protection.  I walk and get lost in this winding white village, lost in this piece of sculpture.  Streets narrow, for donkeys not cars.  Three windmills.  Loads of cats.fullsizerender-15


The Ottomans never bothered with Patmos.  Sometimes cruise liners come in, Behemoths towering above the little harbour.  Tenders rush to ferry the passengers to the quay, where they wait for coaches to take them up the hill.  Then, coaches return and passengers like prisoners are herded off and made to queue for returning tenders. 


Food – ah we love it here.  We love breakfast with quince jam on Katie’s balcony overlooking the sea.  We love the food at Pantelis (which also promises sea figs and sea urchin salad – alas unavailable) with salad of sliced spinach and pomegranate seeds and walnuts and sesame seed – I could do that at home.  Cheese pie, a Patmos speciality.  The proprietor is huge, irasible one day to his waiters, and flinging an arm round their necks the next.  Finish with ouzo.  Tomorrow to Samos.

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