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Knights in white satin

Lindos and its clifftop acropolis. Photos: Mike Sweet

Lindos and its clifftop acropolis. Photos: Mike Sweet

Rhodes’ Old Town holds its secrets close – ancient tales of faith, conquest and resistance. Mike Sweet visits the former home of the Knights of Malta to reveal its hidden treasures – and a sublime refuge.

More than two million international visitors are expected to travel to Rhodes in 2017. With its fine beaches, forested mountains, medieval castles and frescoed churches, it’s easy to see why.

At the crossroads of nations and civilisations for millennia, the ancient walled city of Rhodes, which the Knights of St John began constructing in the 15th century, encapsulates the rich turbulent history of the eastern Mediterranean. Overlaid on the site of former bastions – from classical antiquity and the Byzantine period, added to by the Ottomans, re-imagined by Rhodes’ Italian rulers – this is a place where the energies and spirits of those who have gone before is ever present.

Ippoton - Street of the Knights, Rhodes Old Town.Ippoton - Street of the Knights, Rhodes Old Town.

Walking at night under a crescent moon, through the ancient Gate of St Athanasios (one of the eight gates of the Old Town) to my accommodation, is a breathtaking experience; a more dramatic introduction to the story of this remarkable citadel would be hard to find.

Through the same arch, Ottoman emperor Suleiman the Magnificent is said to have come on New Year’s Day 1523, his invading army having breached the Knights of Rhodes’ defensive line: the final victory in a bloody six-month siege. So ended the Knights’ 216-year control of the citadel and island, and so began nearly four centuries of Ottoman rule. In the shadows of this portal, under its limestone eaves, treading cobblestones felt underfoot for more than half a millennium, history here is tactile.

My host is Anastasia Chiotaki-Mastromina, owner of Allegory Boutique Hotel, the bespoke accommodation that opened its doors here in 2015. As we walk, the reason for the hotel’s enigmatic title is soon revealed. “The word allegory means a story that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning,” says Anastasia, a former teacher born on the ruggedly beautiful island of Karpathos, which lies halfway between Rhodes and Crete.

Anastasia’s Karpathian heritage, though she grew up in Rhodes, underpins her creative spirit.

Narcissus suite. Allegory Boutique Hotel.Narcissus suite. Allegory Boutique Hotel.

“I wanted to create something that allowed me to share stories,” she adds. “It was and is a journey for me and my husband, and our children and our guests are part of that journey.”

As a member of the Yades Greek Historic Hotels Group, whose mission is to celebrate and promote Greece’s cultural heritage by uniting hotels of exceptional historical significance, Allegory is a remarkable example of that vision. Like the 17 other hotels in the Yades Collection to be found across Greece, Allegory’s owners are guardians of the past, as well as sensitive hosts of the present, with their own passions and personalities deeply embedded in the property.

The morning after, as the sun warms the stones of the medieval city, I walk with Anastasia through the Old Town, alongside one of Rhodes’ most respected historical guides – Dimitris Salahouris.

The Archaeological Museum of Rhodes, housed in the former Knights’ Hospital, built in the 15th century, is our first stop. Here, room upon room holds magnificently preserved ancient artefacts ranging over 7,000 years. Dimitri’s insights provide a deep understanding of the exhibits, which include tomb slabs from the ancient city of Kamiros, one of the three Doric cities of Rhodes built in the 12th century BC.

...this is a place where the energies and spirits of those who have gone before is ever present

One of the many treasures – the tombstone of Krito and Timarista – is a landmark in the history of Greek art; the sculptor dared – for the first time – to present the anatomy of a woman in three dimensions, glimpsed through fabric worn by the two female forms.

On the first floor, used as a hospital ward during the Knights’ reign, some of their funerary headstones are on display. Recovered from an Ottoman cemetery, their carved effigies give a tantalising glimpse of the noblemen who were Rhodes’ masters between 1310 and 1522.

Heading east from the museum, we take the Street of the Knights (Ippoton), one of the most important sites for anyone wishing to follow in the Knights’ footsteps.

We pass the 1519 Inn of the Order of the Tongue of Italy, the Palace of Villiers de L’Isle Adam and the most ornate Inn of all, that of France. Further up, is the Inn of Provence, with its four coats of arms forming the shape of a cross. On the right is the entrance to the vast Palace of the Grand Master. Constructed by the Knights on the foundations of a temple to the sun god Helios (where archaeologists are adamant the real Colossus of Rhodes once stood), today the palace houses a rich juxtaposition of ancient Dodecanese art and Italianate antique furnishings.

Murano chandeliers produced in Venice in the 1920s hang above exquisite mosaics created in Kos in the second century BC. Damaged by the Ottomans during their attacks on Rhodes, from the outside, the Palace appears much as it did when it was erected by the Knights during the 14th century. Largely destroyed by fire in 1856, what is visible today is its complete 1930s reconstruction by the Italians, to create a lavish summer residence for Mussolini and the Italian king Victor Emmanuel III.

Italian, Ottoman, Medieval, Byzantine and before, layer upon historic layer, a journey through this medieval city is an unforgettable exercise in time travel. For anyone wishing to explore the extraordinary odyssey undertaken by the Knights of St John, a visit to Rhodes is a revelation.

KoykosKoykos

Must-see sites

Lindos

Fifty-five kilometres from Rhodes Town, perched high on the 6th century BC Acropolis of Lindos, the Governor’s Palace of the Castle of the Knights was built in the early 14th century. At 116 metres it’s a steep climb but spectacular views are a just reward. With 600,000 visitors annually, Líndos competes with Delphi as the second most visited archeological site in Greece.

Haraki

Thirty-eight kilometres along the road to Lindos, Haraki is a small town with a pebble beach and some great waterside fish tavernas. Towering above the village is the fortress of Feraklos, where the Knights Hospitaller first established their presence in Rhodes in 1309, after their 19-year stay in Cyprus.

Archaeological Museum of Rhodes (Hospital of the Knights)

The Archaeological Museum is a treasure trove of archaeological findings from the post-Classical, Hellenistic, Roman and Knights’ periods. Construction of the Knights’ Hospital, which houses the museum, began in 1440 and was completed in the time of Grand Master Pierre d’Aubusson (1476-1503).

Knight’s funeraray slab -16th century.Knight’s funeraray slab -16th century.

Grand Master’s Palace

Also called the Kastello, this vast palace was built at the highest point of the medieval city and dominates its surroundings. From the first quarter of the 14th century the Knights began to repair the original Byzantine citadel on the site and convert it into the residence of the Grand Master. Rectangular in plan and divided into three levels, on the first floor visitors can tour the Hall of the Council, the Knights’ dining hall and the private chambers of the Grand Master.

Restaurant pick – Koykos

Just outside the Old Town, with its cosy antique-filled dining rooms, bougainvillea-draped courtyards and floral roof terrace, Koykos is a much-loved institution. Famous for its wood-fired delicacies, homemade pies and its own bakery, for a fun feast go no further than Koykos for some of the best Greek food in the Dodecanese.

Getting there

Diagoras airport is 15km from Rhodes Town. Aegean Airlines operates four services weekly from Malta to Athens, and four flights daily from Athens to Rhodes.

Mike Sweet was a guest of Allegory Boutique Hotel and travelled to Rhodes with the assistance of Aegean Airlines – Skytrax ‘Best Regional Airline 2016’.

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